Most employers are probably well-aware that the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) prohibits discrimination against qualified applicants and employees on the basis of disability.  In Stansberry v. Air Wisconsin Airlines Corporation, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit – the jurisdiction in which Ohio and Kentucky sit – recently addressed for the first time a much less frequently litigated provision of the ADA which prohibits “association discrimination,” i.e., discrimination against an applicant or employee on the basis of his or her relationship or association with a disabled individual.

After being fired from his position as operations manager at Kalamazoo Airport, Eugene Stansberry sued his former employer, Air Wisconsin Airlines, alleging “association discrimination” under the ADA.  While Stansberry was not disabled, his wife suffered from a rare and debilitating autoimmune disorder which required treatment by an expensive prescription drug regimen.

Air Wisconsin was aware of that medical condition, and both Stansberry and his wife were covered by the company’s group medical plan.  Stansberry’s wife’s condition began to worsen in March 2007.  Several months later, on July 26, Stansberry was terminated.  Stansberry asserted that Air Wisconsin terminated him because of unfounded fears that he would be distracted at work on account of his wife’s disability.  In contrast, Air Wisconsin maintained that Stansberry was terminated for poor performance based on his failure to properly supervise employees and report the occurrence of security violations as required by company policy.  Air Wisconsin prevailed in District Court, but Stansberry appealed.

In clarifying the standards for an associational discrimination case in the circuit, the Sixth Circuit Court first described three theories under which an employee will usually seek to prove his or her associational discrimination case: (1) “expense” – i.e., that the employer believes the employee’s association with a disabled individual is too costly to the employer (such as increased health plan premiums); (2) “disability by association” – i.e., 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; and (3) “distraction” – i.e., that the employer believes the employee will be inattentive at work because of the disability of someone with whom the employee is associated.

Second, the Sixth Circuit set forth the elements that an employee must prove to establish a prima facie case, which include a showing that: (1) he or she was qualified for the position; (2) he or she was subject to an adverse employment action; (3) he or she was known to have a relative with a disability; and (4) the adverse action occurred under circumstances that raise a reasonable inference that the disability of the relative was a determining factor in the decision.  Applying this framework to Stansberry’s case, the Court determined that his claim fell short on the fourth prong because he offered no evidence to create an inference that he was fired on account of his wife’s disability, and the record contained extensive evidence that Stansberry’s performance was less than satisfactory according to Air Wisconsin’s standards.

Perhaps the most important part of the Sixth Circuit’s holding can be found in the last paragraph of the decision.  Here, the Court instructed that while Stansberry’s poor performance at work was likely due to his wife’s illness, this fact is irrelevant under the association discrimination provision of the ADA.  The Court explained that because Stansberry’s discharge was based on actual unsatisfactory performance, and not merely fears that his wife’s disability might prevent him from performing adequately, Air Wisconsin’s conduct was not prohibited by the ADA!

This is an extremely relevant and useful takeaway for employers.  As long the performance of an employee justifies discipline – even if because of a disability a person associated with the employee has – an employer in Ohio and Kentucky need not be concerned about the associational relationship or the real impact of it.  The benefits of this decision for employers aside, it’s still advisable for employers to be sure that they have a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason supported by documentation prior to taking adverse action against an employee.

Julie Moore is a Member in the firm’s Morgantown office. Julie focuses her practice primarily in labor and employment law. She regularly advises and counsels employers – both private and public – on various aspects of employment law, ranging from wage and hour compliance, to employee discipline and termination issues, to disability accommodation requests.
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