Under The State’s Fair Employment And Housing Act, (As Contrasted With The Federal Americans With Disabilities Act), An Employee Need Only Show That The Disability “Limits” A Major Life Activity


The California Supreme Court recently addressed the issue of whether such an employee must show that his disability “substantially limits” a major life activity, or whether it is enough just to show that the disability “limits” a major life activity to state a cause of action under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). (Colmenares v. Braemar Country Club, Inc., (2003 WL 359739)).


Employee, Francisco Colmenares, injured his back while working for the Braemar Country Club. He was terminated in 1997 for deficient work performance after a supervisor assigned him duties that involved heavy labor. Colmenares filed a lawsuit claiming his termination violated the FEHA because it was based on his physical disability. The trial court and the California Court of Appeal both determined that Employee could not succeed in his lawsuit, because he had conceded his back condition did not substantially limit his ability to work.

Supreme Court Decision

In 1992, the California Legislature significantly amended the FEHA, modeling the definition of “physical disability” on the definition in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, there was a notable difference between the FEHA and ADA definitions – the ADA defined a disabled person as one whose disability “substantially limits” one or more major life activities, while the FEHA defined physical disability as an impairment that “[l]imits an individual’s ability to participate in major life activities.” Effective January 1, 2001, the Legislature enacted the Prudence Kay Poppink Act, which partially amended the FEHA’s definition of physical disability. Nevertheless, again, the FEHA used the term “limits,” not the ADA’s “substantially limits” language. The Legislature also specifically stated that, unlike the ADA’ requirement of a “substantial limitation,” the FEHA only requires a “limitation” of a major life activity. The Legislature expressly intended this distinction “to result in broader coverage under the law of [California] than under [the ADA].”

Braemar unsuccessfully argued the ADA’s narrower definition of disability should apply because Colmenares’ termination occurred before the Poppink Act became effective. The Supreme Court concluded that the Poppink Act left unchanged the “limits” test in the FEHA; rather the Poppink Act only clarified that “before and after the passage of the Poppink Act the FEHA’s test was ‘limits,’ not substantially limits.”

Thus, an employee who claims disability discrimination in violation of the FEHA, whether termination occurred before or after the Poppink Act, must show: “(1) a physiological disease or condition affecting a body system; and (2) the disease or condition limited (as opposed to substantially limited, as required under federal law) the [employee’s] ability to participate in major life activities.”

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