Eugene Stansberry, who sued his former employer for disability discrimination, is not disabled. His wife, however, is, suffering from Polyarteritis Nodosa, a rare and debilitating autoimmune disorder. Stansberry sued Air Wisconsin Airlines under the ADA’s “associational discrimination” provision. He claimed that his employer terminated him because of unfounded fears that he would be distracted at work on account of his wife’s disability. The 6th Circuit, in its first reported decision on this seldom-litigated provision of the ADA, affirmed the dismissal of Stansberry’s case.
Section 12112(b)(4) of the ADA prohibits employers from “excluding or otherwise denying equal jobs or benefits to a qualified individual because of the known disability of an individual with whom the qualified individual is known to have a relationship or association.”
More informally, this provision prohibits three types of discrimination against employees associated with, or related to, someone with a disability:
- Discrimination based on expense: where an employee suffers an adverse employment action because of an association with a disabled individual covered under the employer’s health plan, which is costly to the employer.
- Discrimination based on disability by association: where the employer fears that the employee may contract the disability of the person he or she is associated with (e.g., HIV), or the employee is genetically predisposed to develop a disability that his or her relatives have.
- Discrimination based on distraction: where the employee is inattentive at work because of the disability of someone with whom he or she is associated.
Stansberry pursued his claim under the distraction theory. The 6th Circuit, however, concluded that because an employer is not required to provide a reasonable accommodation to nondisabled workers under the ADA’s associational disability provision, the distraction theory does not shield a poor-performing employee from termination.
The court drew an important distinction between an employment decision based on actual poor performance, and one based on a mere fear that the disability of one with whom the employee has a close relation or association might cause poor performance. The ADA protects the latter, but not the former:
Importantly, while Stansberry’s poor performance at work was likely due to his wife’s illness, that is irrelevant under this provision of the Act. Stansberry was not entitled to a reasonable accommodation on account of his wife’s disability. Therefore, because his discharge was based on actually performing his job unsatisfactorily, and not fears that his wife’s disability might prevent him from performing adequately, Air Wisconsin’s conduct is not prohibited by this section of the Act. While Stansberry’s situation is very unfortunate, he has not offered anything to show that his wife’s disability was in any way connected to Air Wisconsin’s decision to discharge him. The only connection is that it possibly caused his performance to slip. Therefore, Air Wisconsin’s decision to terminate Stansberry does not run afoul of the Act.
As this case illustrates, the best defense against a distraction-based associational disability claim is the employee’s actual poor performance. For this reason, careful and consistent documentation is key to an employer’s ability to successfully defend against such a claim.