What is a “Disability” under California Law

Under California law, a “disability” is broadly construed. In the employment law context, an individual qualifies as having a “disability” under California law if the individual:

1. Has a physical disability, mental disability, special education disability, or medical condition that limits one of the major life activities of the individual; and

2. Has a record or history of the disability or condition that is “known to the employer.”

Once a court finds that an individual has a qualifying disability under the first prong, it will then consider whether that disability “limits” one of their “major life activities.” This is a significant difference from the Americans with Disabilities Act under federal law, which requires a disability to “substantially limit” a major life activity.

Under California’s “limits” standard, the disability must make a major life activity “difficult” for the employee. California law identifies various “major life activities,” including physical, mental, and social activities, as well as working.

As to the second prong, having a record or history of the disability or condition “includes previously having, or being misclassified as having, a record or history of a mental or physical disability or special education health impairment of which the employer or other covered entity is aware.” However, generally speaking, all that is required for notice is that that the plaintiff show that the individual who took the adverse action knew about the plaintiff’s disability. See Soria v. Univision Radio L. A., Inc., 5 Cal.App.5th 570, 592 (2016) (citing Avila v. Continental AirlinesInc., 165 Cal.App.4th 1237, 1247 (2008)). For example, an employer can know about a disability if the employee tells the employer, if the employer observes the condition, or is told about it by a third party. On the other hand, simply calling in to work sick without more is not sufficient to prove an employer’s knowledge of a disability. See Avila v. Continental Airlines, Inc., 165 Cal.App.4th 1237, 1249 (2008).

California law also protects individuals from discrimination due to perceived or potential disabilities. This includes when an individual is erroneously or mistakenly believed to have a physical or mental condition that limits a major life activity. A “perceived potential disability” means the condition has no present disabling effect but may, at some point, become a mental or physical disability or special education disability. Perceived or potential disabilities are discussed in more detail here. In some circumstances, California law also protects individuals who are associated with a person who has or is perceived to have a disability. Associational disability claims are discussed in more detail here.