The European Court of Justice (“ECJ”) issued its ruling in the case of Coleman v Attridge Law & Steve Law (ECT C-303/06), in which Ms. Coleman sought to bring a claim that she had been discriminated against by her employer contrary to the U.K.’s Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (“DDA”) because of her responsibilities relating to the care of her disabled son. The problem for Ms. Coleman was that the DDA is drafted so as to provide protection only to individuals who are themselves disabled and does not on its face authorize claims brought by nondisabled employees, even where, as in the present case, those claims relate to treatment received by that employee on the grounds of another’s disability.

Ms. Coleman argued that this restrictive approach was inconsistent with the requirements of the EC Equal Treatment Framework Directive (the “Directive”), and the ECJ agreed. The Directive protects against discrimination “on the grounds of” disability, and the “ground” that serves as the basis of the discrimination that an employee such as Ms. Coleman suffered continues to be disability.

Although this concept of associational discrimination is far from new (it has for many years been accepted that it is unlawful to discriminate against one person on the grounds of another person’s race, for example, by refusing to serve a white customer in a bar because he or she is accompanied by a black friend), it has never before been applied in disability  discrimination cases.

This decision is likely to have a substantial impact on the way in which employers will be required to manage employees who fall into this category