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Employer Law Report

Sixth Circuit Rules for Employer in First Published Decision on “Associational” Disability Discrimination Claim

Posted in EEO

In a decision issued in July, the Sixth Circuit addressed the standard for a claim under the "associational" provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act and affirmed summary judgment on plaintiff’s claim that his employment was terminated due to his wife’s disability.

The plaintiff was the highest ranking manager for Air Wisconsin at the Kalamazoo Airport. His wife suffered from various conditions, including a rare and debilitating auto immune disorder that required expensive treatment.

Plaintiff was terminated for poor performance based on failure to report security violations, supervise employees properly and stay within budget. In filing suit, he claimed that the termination was due to consideration of his wife’s disability, which he alleged impacted his work performance and caused him to be inattentive at work.

Noting that plaintiff’s claim arises "under an infrequently litigated section of the Act, which this court has never addressed in a published opinion," the court quoted the Act, which prohibits "excluding or otherwise denying equal jobs or benefits to a qualified individual because of the known disability of an individual with whom the qualified individual is known to have a relationship or association." The court then noted the legislative history, which included the statement that not hiring somebody who the employer assumed would have to miss work or leave work early to care for a disabled spouse is a violation, but that if the employee is hired and "violates a neutral employer policy concerning attendance or tardiness, he or she may be dismissed even if the reason or the absence or tardiness is to care for the spouse."

In determining how the "association discrimination" claim would likely arise, the court reviewed other decisions outlining three principal areas:

  1. "expense" theory related to the cost of a disabled spouse covered under the employer’s health plan; 
  2. a "disability by association" theory where the employer fears the employee may contract the disability of a spouse; and 
  3. the "distraction" theory based on employees being inattentive due to association with a disabled person. In this case, the plaintiff had abandoned an "expense" theory and pursued a "distraction" theory.

Addressing the standard for a prima facie case of associational discrimination, the court adopted the formula that plaintiff must demonstrate that: "(1) the employee was qualified for the position; (2) the employee was subject to an adverse employment action; (3) the employee was known to be associated with the disabled individual; and (4) the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances that raise a reasonable inference that the disability of the relative was a determining factor in the decision." Then addressing the facts, the court found that plaintiff could not demonstrate the fourth prong since "the record is replete with evidence that [plaintiff] was not performing his job to Air Wisconsin’s satisfaction and devoid of evidence to suggest that his discharge was based on any unfounded fears that his wife’s illness might cause him to be inattentive or distracted in the future." Further, the court noted that the Company had been aware of his wife’s illness for many years and had never taken any adverse action, undercutting the inference that plaintiff’s termination was based on unfounded fears that his wife’s disability might cause him to be inattentive at work.

Alternatively, the court also found that plaintiff’s poor performance was a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for Air Wisconsin to terminate him in any event. In response to an argument that his supervisor had "lied about the reason for terminating" him, that still "does not show that Air Wisconsin terminated [him] on account of his wife’s disability." And finally also, the court stated that "while Stansberry’s poor performance at work was likely due to his wife’s illness, that is irrelevant under this provision of the Act. Stansberry was not entitled to a reasonable accommodation on account of his wife’s disability [since there is no such requirement under the Act]."

While such claims are comparatively rare, it is clear from the activities of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over recent years that increasing attention is being placed on discrimination against caregivers and others associated with persons with disabilities. (See Questions and Answers About the Association Provision of the Americans With Disabilities Act.) In addition, earlier this year the United States Supreme Court addressed relational discrimination in the Thompson v. North American Stainless case where the plaintiff’s fiancé was terminated in alleged retaliation for plaintiff having complained of sex discrimination, resulting in a holding that such discrimination is indeed actionable (and reversing the Sixth Circuit’s decision to the contrary). Accordingly, all employers will want and need to remain alert to the possibility of such claims and to handle appropriately personnel situations involving employees who have caregiving responsibilities for spouses or other close relatives who may have disabilities (as now defined under the more expansive provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act as amended effective January 1, 2009).