Full text of the Court's opinion

In a case of first impression, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee), in Stansberry v. Air Wisconsin Airlines, recently affirmed the dismissal of a former employee’s claim that he was unlawfully terminated due to his wife’s disability. While a victory for employers, the case serves as a reminder that employees may bring claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) alleging discrimination on the basis of their association with a disabled person. Thus, it is prudent to consult with counsel prior to taking any adverse employment action against employees with such known associations.

Theories to Support an Associational Disability Claim

The ADA prohibits an employer from denying “equal jobs or benefits” to an employee on the basis of the disability of a person with whom the employee has a known association or relationship (e.g., the spouse or child of the employee). An employee seeking to establish a claim of associational discrimination under the ADA must prove one of three theories: (1) that the employer believes the association was too expensive (such as increased insurance premiums); (2) that the employer fears the employee may contract the disability (such as HIV) or believes the employee is genetically predisposed to develop the disability of the relative; or (3) that the employer believes the employee will be distracted at work because of the disability of someone with whom the employee is associated.

Facts in Stansberry

Stansberry’s wife has a rare and debilitating autoimmune disorder. He managed Air Wisconsin’s operations at an airport from 1999 until his termination. In June 2007, Air Wisconsin’s headquarters learned that some of Stansberry’s subordinates had received security violations from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) between February and May 2007. Stansberry was aware of the violations but failed to report them to headquarters, as it required.

Stansberry also sent several emails to his supervisor expressing his displeasure with his supervisory style, telling him that he was considering quitting, and that he knew he was failing in his job. In July 2007, Air Wisconsin terminated Stansberry for poor performance, including failing to stay within budget, failing to report TSA security violations, and improperly supervising employees which led to the security violations.

During this period, Stansberry’s wife’s condition also worsened and Air Wisconsin’s health plan administrator had notified Stansberry that it would no longer cover a prescription that had improved her condition.

Sixth Circuit’s Decision

Stansberry relied solely on the aforementioned distraction theory to support his claim. The Court of Appeals, however, found that the facts did not support a reasonable inference that his wife’s disability was a determining factor in his termination and upheld the summary judgment granted by the district court. The Court also noted that (a) Air Wisconsin knew about his wife’s disability for years; (b) Stansberry was not performing his job; and (c) there was no evidence in the record to suggest Air Wisconsin had fears about his level of attentiveness.

Employer Takeaways

Even though the employer prevailed in Stansberry’s lawsuit, employers would be well-served to make certain they have a legitimate, non-discriminatory rationale supported by contemporaneous documentation prior to terminating an employee whom it knows to have an association or relationship with a disabled person.

Moreover, an employer should not change the responsibilities of an employee associated with a disabled individual simply because the employer believes the employee will not be attentive to his job assignment due to the association. Further, simply because such an employee may not be entitled to a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, other laws, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), may be applicable and the employee may be entitled to leave. Given these complexities, we recommend that you seek legal counsel prior to taking adverse action against an employee whom the employer knows associates with a disabled individual.