In an issue of first impression for the court, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the dismissal of an individual’s claim under the “associational discrimination” provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Stansberry v. Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp., 6th Cir., No. 09-2499, July 6, 2011. In that case, an employee claimed that he was fired from his position shortly after his wife’s medical condition – of which the company had been aware for years – worsened, leading him to believe that her condition was the basis of his termination.
Eugene Stansberry managed operations for Air Wisconsin at the Kalamazoo Airport from 1999 until his discharge in 2007. While Stansberry was not a disabled individual, his wife was diagnosed with a rare and disabling auto-immune disorder in the mid-1990s. This medical condition caused severe complications, including a stroke, tumors, lesions, and vision problems. The company was aware of that medical condition, and continually provided medical benefits under the company’s group health care plan.
In 2007, Air Wisconsin dramatically increased the number of employees at the Kalamazoo facility from eleven employees to twenty-five. As the highest ranking manager at the location, Stansberry was responsible for assuring that employees properly carried out their job responsibilities. During the first four months of 2007, six of the location’s employees received a total of nine security violation letters from the airport’s director. However, Stansberry failed to notify Air Wisconsin’s corporate headquarters about the security violations, as required by company policy. Stansberry’s supervisor (Mulder) was particularly troubled that Stansberry had failed to inform him of the violation letters, or the underlying employee problems. Mulder and the company’s vice president of customer relations subsequently informed the Transportation Security Administration that they would take “severe disciplinary action” against Stansberry for that failure. On July 26, Mulder had a meeting with Stansberry during which Stansberry was fired.
In August, Stansberry filed a charge of discrimination and eventually was issued a right to sue. In his lawsuit, Stansberry alleged an “associational disability” claim, stating that the company violated the ADA’s 2006 provision that forbids discrimination against "a qualified individual because of the known disability of an individual with whom the qualified individual is known to have a relationship or association." 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(4). Stansberry argued that the company fired him because of his wife’s deteriorating condition. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the company, finding that Stansberry did not set forth a prima facie case of associational discrimination, and that Stansberry’s poor performance was a legitimate reason for his termination.
In order to support an associational discrimination claim, an employee must first set forth a prima facie case, which includes a showing that (1) he was qualified for the position; (2) he was subject to an adverse employment action; (3) he was known to have a relative with a disability; and (4) the adverse action occurred under circumstances that raise an inference that the disability of the relative was a determining factor in the decision.
Associational discrimination claims, which are relatively infrequently litigated, fall generally into three categories: "expense," "disability by association," and "distraction" cases. The “expense” cases typically involve a situation in which an employee suffers some adverse personnel action because his spouse (or other associated family member) has a disability that is costly to the employer because of health plan coverage; "disability by association" claims typically involve a close personal relationship (for instance when the employee’s homosexual companion is infected with HIV and the employer fears that the employee may also have become infected; or an employer is concerned about the risk that an employee will develop a hereditary ailment currently suffered by an employee’s blood relative; "distraction" claims are based upon an employer’s concern that an employee is inattentive at work because his ailing family member has a disability that requires his attention.
Stansberry’s case falls most logically into the “distraction” category, and his argument seems to be that the company should have accommodated his lack of attention to his job, rather than fire him for it. However, under the federal regulations related to the ADA, the right to an accommodation is limited to disabled employees only, and does not extend to a nondisabled associate of a disabled person. Therefore, while Stansberry’s poor performance may have been caused by his concern for his wife’s illness, that fact (as sad as it may be) is non-compensable under the ADA. Further, according to the Sixth Circuit, Stansberry could not support a prima facie case of associational discrimination – which would have required him to show that he was qualified for his position – because he could not dispute the fact that he had failed to report the violation letters as required by company policy.
The critical issue for employers in this case is while that employee performance issues should be clearly, objectively, and fully documented in all cases, it is especially important in situations like this one, where the employee may have the ability to bring an associational disability claim under the ADA. Such documentation may be the key to show that performance issues, and not a relative’s disability, formed the basis of an adverse employment action.