In Stansberry v. Air Wisconsin Airlines Co., the Sixth Circuit explains the standard for association discrimination claims under Section 12112(b)(4) of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Such claims are comparatively rare – this is the first published decision in the circuit since that section was passed in 1990. The opinion, written by Judge Martin, explains that association discrimination occurs where an employer acts on an assumption that employee will perform poorly because of a relationship with a disabled person. It adopts the Seventh Circuit’s formulation of three different types of association discrimination in Larimer v. IBM Corp., 370 F.3d 698 (7th Cir. 2004), though it accepts there may be other types as well. These are where the employee suffers an adverse action based on (1) the expense of health insurance, (2) the employer’s fear that the employee will develop the disability (as with a communicable disease), or (3) the employer’s fear that the disability will impact the employee’s performance. The plaintiff in Stansberry alleged that he was terminated for unfounded fears about his performance.
Following the Tenth Circuit, the Court applied the familiar McDonnel-Douglas burden shifting test to the grant of summary judgment to the employer. It rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the short time between his termination and the worsening of his wife’s condition, as well as his supervisor’s alleged lies about the meeting where he was fired, constituted direct evidence of discrimination. Instead, the opinion notes that his performance at work actually did suffer, citing to plaintiff’s own admissions that he was “not performing his job adequately” and his employer’s legitimate frustrations with his performance. In the face of this strong evidence, the Court held that he could not establish a prima facie case even if his supervisor had lied about his termination.
The opinion recognizes that the coincidence of an employer’s dissatisfaction and the onset (or worsening) of a disability is not sufficient to create a prima facie case of discrimination. It explains that while the plaintiff’s “poor performance at work was likely due to his wife’s illness, that is irrelevant” – he needed direct evidence of discrimination. Section 12112(b)(4) only protects from actions based on unfounded fears about job performance, not actual failures in job performance. Still, the crucial evidence for the employer was likely the plaintiff’s admissions of his own failures – that eliminated the common argument that the employer’s dissatisfaction with his performance was feigned.