Association Discrimination: Another Consideration When You Cut One (an employee that is)

October 9, 2015

By James B. Shrimp, Esq.

This past weekend, I was thinking about blogging, while standing in my kitchen cutting the cheese (I was cutting the cheese for a party I was having). I concluded that there are some blogs that you need to hold in because you aren’t quite sure the audience can handle it. Then, there are other blogs that you have to let loose, because if you hold it in your stomach just won’t feel right. Well, this is one of those blogs that I had to let rip, because staying silent on this issue could be deadly for employers (well, not really deadly).

Discrimination

Last month, a Trenton, New Jersey business was sued for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”). The Plaintiff in the lawsuit was a part-time employee of the business, who assisted and was the wife of the business’ comptroller.

According to the Complaint, Plaintiff’s husband was obese, weighing 420 pounds and in October of 2010, Plaintiff’s husband underwent gastric bypass surgery. Also, according to the Complaint after the surgery, Plaintiff’s husband suffered the side effects of extreme flatulence and uncontrollable diarrhea. These symptoms allegedly worsened over time and caused the Plaintiff significant disruption in the workplace.

Plaintiff’s employer aired its concerns about the side effects and asked that Plaintiff’s husband work from home. Plaintiff’s employer also allegedly made statements to Plaintiff about her husband’s side effects and whether there was anything that could be done to alleviate the issue.

About three and a half years after the surgery, Plaintiff’s husband was terminated. Instead of just letting one go, the business also terminated Plaintiff. Plaintiff brought the lawsuit alleging that she was terminated for associating with her husband, who allegedly has a disability.

In reading this, many employers might think it stinks, thinking how can an employee bring a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act when they don’t have a disability. Well, the fact is that in some instances an employee without a disability can bring a claim under the ADA, as the Plaintiff has done, for association discrimination.

The ADA’s anti-discrimination by association provision 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.

In order to establish a case of association discrimination in the case of a termination, a plaintiff must prove that:

  1. she was qualified for her job at the time of the termination;
  2. she was terminated;
  3. at the time of the termination, plaintiff was known by her employer to have a relative or an associate with a disability; and
  4. the termination occurred under circumstances raising a reasonable inference that the disability of the relative or associate was a determining factor in the termination decision.

Notably, the ADA refers to terminations (or other adverse actions) motivated by ‘the known disability of an individual’ with whom an employee associates, as opposed to actions occasioned by the association. For instance, being terminated for missing work related to someone else’s disability is not actionable under the ADA (although it may be under the Family and Medical Leave Act). The termination must be because of the relationship or association itself.

In passing, just because an employee is not disabled, does not mean that the ADA might not provide protection for an employee, should that employee have associated with a disabled individual. Employers, be alert, because the last thing you want is to get a whiff of an association claim after its already been let loose.

For more information about employment law, feel free to contact James B. Shrimp at (610) 275-0700 or by email at jshrimp@highswartz.com. Visit his attorney profile here.

Visit the firm’s Employment Law page here.

The information above is general: we recommend that you consult an attorney regarding your specific circumstances.  The content of this information is not meant to be considered as legal advice or a substitute for legal representation.

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