Kentucky Court Holds That State Law Does Not Permit Associational Discrimination Claims

Nearly two weeks ago, in a post on associational discrimination claims, I pointed out that while these claims may be relatively uncommon, they are still possible under the ADA and Maryland law.

By contrast, last week, a Kentucky state court held that the Kentucky Civil Rights Act (KCRA) does not encompass associational discrimination claims.  The case is Barnett v. Central Kentucky Hauling, LLC, No. 2017-CA-001746-MR (Ky. Ct. App. Dec. 21, 2018).

The plaintiff/appellant, Michael Barnett, alleged that he worked for Central Kentucky Hauling (CKH) as a driver.  CKH was aware that Barnett’s wife suffered from cystic fibrosis.  CKH was also aware that Barnett took a leave of absence from work in December 2013 to care for his wife because of her illness.  Roughly one year later, when Barnett’s wife’s condition worsened, CKH allegedly “wanted Barnett gone” and terminated him for “lack of work.”

The case appears to contain the makings of an associational discrimination claim:

  • an employee’s disabled spouse;
  • the need for the employee to care for the spouse;
  • the employer’s awareness of both of these things; and
  • an adverse action taken against the employee.

But then there is the important detail that the KCRA, the law under which Barnett pursued this claim, does not prohibit discrimination in employment based on an employee’s association with a disabled individual.  According to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, unlike the ADA, there is no explicit language or implicit intent in the KCRA to prohibit associational discrimination based on disability.  As a result, Barnett’s claim was properly dismissed.

As a brief reminder, the ADA prohibits discrimination against employees on the basis of the employees’ association to disabled individuals.  Though Maryland’s Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA) — like the KCRA — also does not explicitly prohibit such discrimination, courts in Maryland have found such claims viable under Maryland law.  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)).  Employers in Maryland should be wary not to treat their employees differently simply because of their employees’ relationships or associations with disabled individuals.

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