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Second Circuit Offers Guidance on Associational Discrimination

How should an employer react when its employee reports needing time off to care for a sick or disabled relative or friend?  The Second Circuit recently weighed in on an ADA associational discrimination claim arising in part from an employer’s denial of a former employee’s schedule modification request to care for his disabled daughter.   Kelleher v. Fred A. Cook, Inc., No. 18-2385 (2d Cir. 9/24/19).

John Kelleher began working for Fred A. Cook, Inc. as a Laborer and Operator in 2014.  His daughter had been born earlier that year with Rett Syndrome.  In 2015, Kelleher informed his supervisor, Cook, of his daughter’s severe medical problems that might require him, on occasion, to rush home to care for her.  After that, Kelleher was made to work in a different capacity for which he received lower pay than his coworkers.  He was prohibited from leaving work immediately after his shifts to take care of his daughter because he was expected to remain on site in case of an emergency.  His request to reduce his shifts from 10-12 hours to eight hours in order to care for his daughter was denied.  He was told that “his problems at home were not the company’s problems” and that he would not receive a raise.

After his daughter had a near-fatal seizure, Kelleher told Cook he would be unable to work his next shift.  Kelleher was then demoted to a “less prestigious position.”  His request to alter his work schedule was, again, denied.  After arriving 10-15 minutes late for a subsequent shift, he was terminated.

Kelleher sued, alleging associational discrimination in violation of the ADA.  The district court dismissed the lawsuit after finding that, rather than alleging his termination was the result of his employer’s assumption that his daughter’s disability would distract him from work, Kelleher was merely alleging he was unable to be at work for an entire work day, including after his shift, as the employer required.

Kelleher appealed, and the Second Circuit reversed the dismissal.  The employer argued that Kelleher was terminated because his requests for an accommodation (i.e., working an eight-hour workday so he could care for his daughter) in addition to his attendance issues (i.e., missing one day of work, arriving late one day, and failing to stay on site after his shifts) demonstrated he could not perform his job to the employer’s satisfaction.

As a quick reminder, and as I mentioned in a previous blog, the association provision of the ADA does not require employers to reasonably accommodate nondisabled employees (for instance, by modifying their work schedules) so that they may care for disabled relatives or others with whom they associate.  The court of appeals reiterated this principle in Kelleher, clarifying, however, that “an employer’s reaction to such a request for accommodation can support an inference that a subsequent adverse employment action was motivated by associational discrimination.”  In other words, Kelleher was not entitled to a schedule modification to enable him to care for his daughter, and his employer was not required to accept his request.  Rather, Kelleher’s lawsuit alleged enough — including his supervisor’s comment to “leave his personal problems at home” following his request to work shorter days — to support his claim that his termination was unlawfully motivated by his daughter’s disability.

The court also found sufficient allegations that the employer thought Kelleher’s daughter’s disability was a distraction and terminated him as a result because Kelleher was told “his problems at home were not the company’s problems” and was demoted after missing a shift to care for his daughter.

Employers should be aware of the potential for associational discrimination claims when employees have relatives or other associates who are disabled.  Although such employees may not be entitled to their own accommodations, employers would be well-served to react appropriately if and when such accommodation requests arise in the workplace.

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