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Associational Discrimination Claims: Are They Viable?

Unlike cases of discrimination based on an employee’s own protected status, there seem to be far fewer claims of discrimination based on an employee’s relationship with a protected individual.  But this did not stop a former county courthouse employee from filing a lawsuit last December claiming that her termination from the Marion Superior Court in Indianapolis violated the association provision of the ADA.  Amber Bridges v. City of Indianapolis, S.D. Ind., Case No. 1:17-cv-04706 (filed Dec. 21, 2017).

Bridges’s Complaint alleges that, during her employment, a certain coworker had an “obnoxious chronic body odor condition” that “interfered with and distracted” Bridges and others from doing their jobs.  So she reported the “condition” to her supervisor and installed air fresheners throughout the work area.  She was then fired and told it was because she created an “uncomfortable and hostile work environment” toward the coworker.  She now claims that the Court fired her as a result of her association with the coworker, whom she says the Court regarded as disabled due to the coworker’s alleged “body odor condition.”

In its Motion for Summary Judgment, filed December 6, the Court argues that Bridges cannot prove her claim because (1) the coworker was not disabled, and (2) Bridges was not sufficiently associated or related to the coworker to implicate the ADA.  In fact, the Court claims, Bridges mistreated the coworker such that the two failed even to have the kind of meaningful relationship that an associational discrimination claim requires.

The association provision of the ADA makes it unlawful for a covered employer to discriminate based on an applicant’s or employee’s association or relationship with a disabled individual, regardless of whether the applicant or employee herself is disabled.  Think of the parent of a disabled child whose need for medical attention, the employer believes, will distract the parent/employee from doing his job.  Or the spouse of a chronically ill dependent to whom the employer refuses the same health coverage offered to other employees because of the perceived costs of treating the dependent’s illness.  The EEOC regards these employment actions as unlawful because they rely on unfounded stereotypes or concerns about the known disabilities of individuals who are associated or related to the employees facing the employment actions.

Additionally:

  • The ADA does not require a familial relationship with a disabled person to establish a claim of associational discrimination. It is possible for an associational discrimination claim to arise out of the relationship an employee has with a coworker – hence, Ms. Bridges’s claim – or any other person with whom the employee is even remotely associated.
  • The ADA also does not require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees based on the employees’ association with disabled individuals. For instance, in Lee v. Safeway, Inc., the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that her son’s disability required the employer to provide her with reasonable accommodations, such as adjusting her work schedule, that would have allowed her more flexibility to care for him.  2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 137764, at *29-30 (D. Md. Sept. 30, 2014).
  • Unlike the ADA, the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA) does not contain a provision that explicitly prohibits associational discrimination in employment. However, courts in Maryland have construed FEPA to encompass associational discrimination claims based on race and disability.  See Barkhorn v. Ports Am. Chesapeake, LLC, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 82385, at *15-17 (D. Md. June 14, 2012) (citing Gutwein v. Easton Publishing Co., 272 Md. 563 (1974)).

Some additional food for thought is how associational discrimination rights may intersect with caregiver rights under Maryland’s medical cannabis law.  Under this law, a caregiver of a qualified medical marijuana user may not be subject to certain penalties or actions, including the “deni[al] of any right or privilege, for the medical use of or possession of medical cannabis[.]”  Md. Health-Gen. Code, § 13-3313(a)(4).  Although it is unclear what individual employee rights (if any) this law protects, it is not difficult to imagine how a caregiver discrimination claim could arise with an associational discrimination claim.  If a caregiver is sufficiently associated with a medical marijuana user whom the caregiver’s employer perceives as disabled, then discrimination against that caregiver could implicate both laws.

As for Ms. Bridges’s claim, it remains up to the court to decide whether the employer will ultimately be entitled to summary judgment, or whether her claim of associational discrimination will proceed.

 

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