Everyone knows the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers from discriminating against employees because of their mental or physical disabilities. But did you know the ADA also prohibits discrimination against an employee based on the employee’s relationships or associations with a disabled person? This broad reach of the ADA provides yet an additional basis for disability discrimination lawsuits.
In Stansberry v. Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp., a case of first impression, the federal appellate court covering Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, addressed the infrequently litigated section of the ADA that prohibits associational discrimination. The court recognized that the law prohibits employers 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.” This section was intended to prohibit, for example, an employer from hiring a qualified applicant who the employer believes, without foundation, will have to miss work or frequently leave early to care for a family member who has a disability.
In the case, the employee, Eugene Stansberry, a former operations manager for a regional airline, was not disabled, but his wife had a rare and debilitating autoimmune disorder. The disease caused her tumors, lesions, swelling, a stroke, severe pain, dizziness, and vision problems. The employer, Air Wisconsin, was aware of Mrs. Stansberry’s condition because of its involvement with insurance coverage issues under the employer’s health plan in which the Stansberrys participated.
Stansberry was employed by Air Wisconsin for eight years until his discharge in 2007. Air Wisconsin claimed that the discharge resulted from poor performance, in particular Stansberry’s failure to report violations of new employees he supervised to his manager, with whom he had strained relations. Air Wisconsin also claimed that Stansberry failed to stay within his budget and improperly supervised employees. The termination letter only cited the violations as the grounds for the termination. In contrast, Stansberry alleged that he was discharged because of his wife’s disability and that he was terminated shortly after he complained about his wife’s medical treatment not being covered.
The court affirmed the dismissal of Stansberry’s lawsuit, finding that Stansberry could not establish a case of discrimination. To do so, Stansberry would have had to establish that the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances that raise a reasonable inference that the relative’s disability was a determining factor in the decision. The court held that Stansberry failed to make such a showing, finding significant the evidence that Stansberry’s performance was sub-par. Notably, the court recognized that even if Stansberry’s poor performance at work was due to his wife’s illness, the ADA would provide no protection. The associational discrimination section of the ADA does not entitle the employee to a reasonable accommodation on account of the relative’s disability.
Stansberry demonstrates that employers must be very thoughtful and thorough in making discharge and other employment decisions involving employees with disabled relatives. When stating reasons for the termination, employers should be clear as to the basis for the terminations, and these should be well-documented. To avoid and defend associational disability discrimination claims, employers who are aware of an employee’s relative’s disability must ensure that the actions they are taking are not based on unfounded fears that the relative’s condition will have a negative impact on the employee’s performance. Rather, focusing on performance is the key to prevailing in associational disability discrimination claims.