My colleague, Jarad Lucan, returns today with a post discussing a new Connecticut Supreme Court case that has expanded the state’s anti-discrimination laws when it comes to disability claims. 

When Congress enacted the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), it recognized that fears, misperceptions, and stereotypes about disabled individuals are so pervasive that employment discrimination reaches beyond those who are burdened by the requisite substantially limiting impairments.

As a result, the definition of a disability under the ADA expressly includes being regarded as having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one of more major life activity.

In other words, the ADA clearly prohibits disability discrimination based on an employer’s mistaken belief.

Unlike the ADA, the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (CFEPA) does not expressly protect an employee whose employer mistakenly regards him or her as being physically disabled (the CFEPA does expressly make it illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee because the employer regards the employee as being mentally disabled).

In fact, under the CFEPA, physically disabled is defined to include only any individual who has any chronic physical handicap, infirmity or impairment.

Nevertheless, the Connecticut Supreme Court determined last week that the CFEPA does protect individuals from being discriminated against because of an employer’s mistaken belief about his or her physical disability.

In Desrosiers v. Diageo North America, Inc., the Supreme Court recognized that the language of the CFEPA is plain and unambiguous (which normally ends a court’s inquiry into the meaning of a statute) in that nowhere does it establish protection for an individual who is regarded as having a physical disability.

However, the Supreme Court determined that applying the CFEPA in such a manner would bring about bizarre results.

“Namely, under the plain language of [the CFEPA], if an employee has a chronic disease, the employer may not discharge the employee on that basis. If, however, the employer is undergoing testing that leads his employer to believe that he has a chronic disease, the literal terms of the [the CFEPA] do not protect the employee from discharge on that basis, despite the fact that the employer’s actions, in both cases, were premised on the same discriminatory purpose.”

In arriving at its decision, the Supreme Court relied, in large part, on the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities’ long standing interpretation of the CFEPA to include protection for employees who are regarded as having a physical disability.

In addition, the Supreme Court looked to the legislative history of the CFEPA, which made clear that the definition of physically disabled was to “cover as many people as possible under the definition and leave it open and broad.”

In the Court’s opinion, it would be inconsistent with the legislative efforts to protect as many individuals as possible and “thwart” the purpose of the CFEPA to exclude protection for employees who are merely regarded as being physically disabled.

Not surprisingly, Justice Zarella issued a forceful dissent saying that the interpretation would not lead to a “bizarre” result:

Although the majority’s interpretation of the relevant statutory language may be the better public policy, and although the legislature might adopt that policy if the matter is brought to its attention, that is not sufficient reason for abandoning the plain and unambiguous directive in the statute itself. The fact that a better public policy exists does not mean that the expressed public policy ‘‘yields absurd or unworkable results . . . .’’

Nevertheless, the outcome is probably not terribly surprising. The Supreme Court has long looked to federal antidiscrimination laws, including the ADA, when interpreting the CFEPA and taken a fairly expansive view.

Way back in 2008, for example, the Supreme Court determined in Curry v. Allan S. Goodman, Inc. that the CFEPA requires an employer to engage in the interactive process with employees and provide reasonable accommodations if necessary even though no such requirements are expressly included in the CFEPA.

For employers in Connecticut, the case shouldn’t result in dramatic changes to policy because most employers simply follow the ADA procedure — whether or not it applies to them. After this decision, it’s pretty clear that those procedures will apply in a similar fashion under state law tool.

(Disclosure: Dan Schwartz represented an individual defendant in this matter at the lower courts and will refrain from direct comment on this matter.