In Stansberry v. Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. (July 6, 2011), the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (which covers Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee) recently clarified what a plaintiff must show in order to prove a claim of associational discrimination under the ADA.   

Claims of associational discrimination arise from an infrequently litigated section of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which prohibits an employer from “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.” (42 U.S.C. §12112(b)(4) (2006).) Importantly, employers are not required to provide reasonable accommodations to non-disabled employees under this section of the Act.

Factual Background

Stansberry sued his former employer, Air Wisconsin Airlines, alleging that Air Wisconsin terminated him because of unfounded fears that he would be distracted at work due to his wife’s disability. Stansberry’s wife has a rare and debilitating autoimmune disorder.

Stansberry managed Air Wisconsin’s operations at Kalamazoo Airport from 1999 until his termination in July 2007. He and his wife were both covered by Air Wisconsin’s group medical plan. Initially, that plan covered an expensive course of treatment for Stansberry’s wife which dramatically improved her condition. However, in May 2007, Air Wisconsin’s health plan administrator notified Stansberry that it would not cover such treatments after July.

Around this same time, Stansberry had several performance deficiencies. Over the course of four months, six of Stansberry’s subordinates received security violations from the Kalamazoo airport director. In contravention of company policy, Stansberry did not notify corporate headquarters regarding these violations. Headquarters learned of the violations only upon receiving a letter of investigation from the Transportation Security Administration in June 2007.

Stansberry also had sent several emails to his supervisor criticizing his supervisory style and informing him that he was considering quitting. Stansberry even wrote in one email that he “just can’t do this job knowing that I am failing at my job. I have too much pride.” Air Wisconsin terminated Stansberry’s employment on July 26, 2007 for poor performance.

Standard for the ADA’s Associational Protections

Three types of situations fall within the scope of the association discrimination section: (1) “expense” – where the employee suffers an adverse employment action because of his/her association with a disabled individual covered under the employer’s health plan, which is costly to the employer; (2) “disability by association” – where the employer fears that the employee may contract the disability of the person he/she is associated with (for example, HIV) or that the employee is genetically predisposed to develop a disability; and (3) “distraction” – where the employer fears the employee will be inattentive because of the disability of someone with whom he/she is associated.

Stansberry proceeded under the “distraction” theory, arguing that his former employer terminated him because of unfounded fears that he would be distracted at work due to his wife’s disability.

The Sixth Circuit held for the first time that that an employee must establish the following four elements in order to establish a prima facie case of associational discrimination: (1) the employee was qualified for the position; (2) the employee was subject to an adverse action; (3) the employee was known to be associated with a 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.

Ultimately, the Sixth Circuit concluded that Stansberry failed to establish a prima facie case of associational discrimination. The Court found he could not establish the fourth prong given the strong evidence in the record of his inadequate job performance, and the complete lack of evidence suggesting that his discharge was based on any unfounded fears that his wife’s illness might cause him to be inattentive in the future. Alternatively, the Court held that even if he could establish a prima facie case, his poor job performance was a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for his discharge, and there was no evidence to show that this reason was pretextual. In so holding, the Court explicitly held that it was irrelevant that Stansberry’s poor performance at work may have been due to his wife’s illness because he was not entitled to a reasonable accommodation on account of his wife’s disability. Because Stansberry’s termination was based on his actual poor performance and not fears that his wife’s disability might prevent him from performing, the Court concluded that Air Wisconsin’s conduct did not run afoul of the ADA.

Bottom Line

The Stansberry decision sets forth the parameters of distraction theory claims under the ADA’s association protections. An employee is not insulated from discipline for poor work performance simply because of his or her association with a disabled relative. However, employers should use caution when taking adverse action against an employee it knows is associated with a disabled individual to make sure that the basis of the discipline is actual poor performance rather than anticipation that the employee’s future job performance will become inadequate. Additionally, employers should be aware that, even though an employee is not entitled to a reasonable accommodation under the ADA due to a relative’s disability, other laws like the Family and Medical Leave Act may be applicable and entitle the employee to leave.