To establish a claim of “associational discrimination” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a plaintiff must demonstrate that she was discriminated against by her employer because of her relationship with a disabled person.
To substantiate a claim of associational discrimination under the ADA, an employee must establish each of the following key elements of a “prima facie” case: (1) the plaintiff was qualified for the position; (2) the plaintiff was subjected to an adverse employment action; (3) the plaintiff was known by his or her employer to have a relative or associate with a disability; and (4) the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances that raise a reasonable inference that the disability of the relative was a determining factor in the employer’s decision.
However, if a plaintiff can produce direct evidence of discrimination, he or she may prevail on the claim without having to separately establish each of the elements of the prima facie case.
Recently, one federal district court used “direct evidence” to preclude dismissal of a plaintiff’s associational disability claim, pointing to an alleged remark from the woman’s supervisor that would have forced the employee to choose between “your job or your daughter.” Manon v. 878 Education, LLC, SDNY, No. 1;13-cv-03476, March 4, 2015.
Elizabeth Manon, the mother of an infant ultimately diagnosed with Reactive Airway Disease, worked as a receptionist with 878 Education, LLC (“the School”) in New York City. Manon asserts that she was a “dedicated and conscientious employee” who was never informed of performance deficiencies.
In the six months during which she worked for the School, Manon took frequent time off for the purpose of caring for her infant daughter, who was hospitalized several times, and taken to the hospital emergency room on multiple others. In fact, during her 132 day tenure at the School, Manon arrived late 27 times, left work early 54 times, and was absent 17 days.
There was, however, no documentation of any actual problems related to Manon’s work performance, other than one verbal warning for arriving at work 6 minutes late, and one verbal reprimand for wearing jogging attire at work.
According to Manon, she informed her supervisor, Alfonso Garcia, who was the Director of Admissions for the School, that her absences were based on the fact that her daughter frequently had breathing problems and, at one point, was suffering from pneumonia. Manon allegedly informed Garcia that had her daughter been an adult, the problems would have been diagnosed as asthma; in children, however, the condition is referred to as Reactive Airway Disease, which was the ultimate diagnosis made regarding the child’s condition.
On November 14, 2012, Manon took time off to care for her daughter, with whom she had gone to the emergency room the night before. She also missed work on November 15, informing Garcia that her child required “asthma treatment every 4 hours” and remained “extremely ill.”
When Manon returned to work on November 16, Garcia terminated her employment. According to Manon, at that meeting, Garcia told her that he was “letting her go” because he wanted to hire a receptionist who had no children. (“I need someone who does not have kids who can be at the front desk at all times.”) Manon alleges that Garcia went on to ask “How can you guarantee me that  two weeks from now your daughter is not going to be sick again?. . . . So, what is it, your job or your daughter?”
That final statement is the hook on which the court ultimately hung its “direct evidence” analysis, calling it “a ‘smoking gun’ admission that Garcia believed [Manon’s] daughter was disabled and would be frequently ill.” The statement provided evidence that linked Garcia’s hostility toward Manon’s association with her sick child to his decision to fire Manon.
Manon filed a lawsuit alleging ADA associational disability, as well as both caregiver discrimination and gender discrimination under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). The School filed a motion for summary judgment, asking that the claims be dismissed. Although the court dismissed the NYCHRL gender claim – finding that there was no evidence in the record to suggest that the School’s decision would have been different had Manon been a man or a father – it refused to dismiss the caregiver discrimination claim or the ADA associational disability claim. Those claims will go forward to a jury unless otherwise resolved.
While there has not been a recent upsurge of associational discrimination claims, those claims are not infrequently filed. Employers should be aware of associational claims, and supervisors and managers should be regularly informed and trained on those issues. A lack of information and training could easily lead to remarks like the one alleged here, which can subject an employer to substantial legal risk.