Guilty by Association
By Trevor Brice, Esq.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities who are employees or applicants for employment. However, the ADA does not require an employer to assist — or in other words, accommodate — a person without a disability due to that person’s association with someone with a disability.
Still, an employer cannot discriminate against an employee or applicant because of that person’s association with someone with a disability. This is what is called ‘associational discrimination,’ which, in the below case, was due to another’s disability under the ADA.
On Sept. 19, 2023, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), announced that it had sued a private school for associational discrimination under the ADA. According to the EEOC’s announcement, the school allegedly discriminated against one of its teachers by refusing to renew her contract over her daughter’s disability.
“An employer cannot discriminate against an employee or applicant because of that person’s association with someone with a disability. This is what is called ‘associational discrimination.’”
This was “precisely the kind of conduct the ADA’s associational-discrimination provision was intended to prohibit,” said Rosemarie Rhodes, EEOC’s Baltimore Field Office director. On Dec. 15, the EEOC announced that the matter had been settled for just over $85,000 by the private school, with the school to pay $50,858 in back pay, $4,428 in interest on the back pay, and $30,000 in non-wage damages.
This settlement brings associational-discrimination enforcement into the limelight and presents more scenarios for employers to look out for and train their employees on for the new year.
Associational Discrimination and the ADA
Associational discrimination based on another’s disability requires “that (1) the employee was qualified for the job at the time of the adverse employment action, (2) that the employee was subjected to an adverse employment action, (3) that the employer knew at the time of the adverse employment action that the employee had a relative or associate with a disability, and (4) that the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances raising a reasonable inference that the disability of the relative or associate was a determining factor in the employer’s decision” (Carey v. AB Car Rental Servs. Inc.).
The EEOC, in its announcement, stated that the school was aware of the teacher’s daughter’s disability and that it decided to not renew the teacher’s contract because it assumed (without investigation, or even asking the teacher) that her daughter’s disability, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, would undermine the teacher’s focus and commitment to her job. The school instead decided to renew the contracts of other teachers who had less experience and tenure than the teacher whose daughter had a disability.
In its complaint, the EEOC pleaded the requirements of an associational-discrimination claim based on disability through the circumstances described in its announcement. The teacher performed her job satisfactorily, according to the EEOC, making her qualified for the job at the time the private school refused to renew her contract. In order to not be qualified for her job, the school would have had to demonstrate the teacher had performance deficiencies or otherwise could not perform the essential functions of her job.
Further, the private school subjected the teacher to an adverse employment action by not renewing her employment contract. An adverse employment action can be any action by an employer that takes away a benefit of an employee’s employment, e.g. taking away a company car, suspension from employment, termination, etc.
“Without both knowledge and a reasonable inference, associational discrimination will most likely be unactionable. Nevertheless, it is important to stress to employees that discrimination and harassment based on protected class is prohibited, no matter the circumstance.”
Finally, the EEOC pleaded that the private school knew of the teacher’s daughter’s disability and allegedly specifically cited that reason for not renewing the teacher’s contract, making for the reasonable inference that the teacher’s daughter’s disability was a determining factor in its decision. As such, the EEOC met its burden for pleading its case of associational discrimination based on disability, which most likely prompted the private school to settle the claims.
Pitfalls of Associational Discrimination
As shown by the EEOC’s enforcement action, associational-discrimination claims are actionable claims that can cost employers a substantial amount of money. The pitfalls of these claims are that they are not the easiest to catch. For example, it is comparatively easier to catch when there is direct discrimination (e.g. a racial remark, comment against a disability) than to read into the subtext of a conversation that is deprecating to an associate of an employee who is part of a protected class.
However, there are ways to teach this kind of discrimination and harassment to frontline employees and make them aware enough of an associational-discrimination or harassment issue to report it.
First, employees should be aware that discrimination or harassment based on protected class (e.g. race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, etc.) is prohibited. Along these lines, it is equally prohibited to discriminate or harass another employee based on the protected characteristics of someone with whom the employee associates. For example, it is illegal to use the knowledge that an employee has Jewish friends to discriminate against that employee and subject him to adverse employment actions based on that knowledge.
Second, it is important to stress that it is the knowledge of the employee’s associates’ protected classes that makes associational discrimination actionable. An offhand comment by an employee that happens to relate to an employee’s associates’ or relatives’ protected class will not necessarily implicate associational discrimination, but making the same comment and directly referencing the associate or relative and their protected class will make for this implication. In this sense, if it is discriminatory or harassing to the associate or relative, it will most likely be discriminatory or harassing to the employee.
If cornerstones of associational discrimination like these are taught and enforced, it will be less likely that an employer will be subject to the same fate as the above-referenced private school.
Associational discrimination can raise its head in a variety of circumstances, including the contract-renewal scenario above; hiring, termination, and other employment decisions; as well as discriminatory and harassing behaviors from employees.
Though it is more difficult to catch than scenarios in which discrimination or harassment based on protected class is direct, the pivotal elements of associational discrimination are knowledge of the associates’ or relatives’ protected class and the reasonable inference that the knowledge was a determining factor in the adverse employment decision. Without both knowledge and a reasonable inference, associational discrimination will most likely be unactionable. Nevertheless, it is important to stress to employees that discrimination and harassment based on protected class is prohibited, no matter the circumstance.
Further, a related claim to associational discrimination is a retaliation claim for reporting discrimination or harassment perpetrated against another employee. In this scenario, an employee reports that another employee is being discriminated against because of their protected class, and then the reporting employee is subjected to an adverse employment action. This kind of ‘associational’ activity by employees is protected, and an employer can be subjected to legal action if the report is not handled properly.
As associational discrimination and related retaliation can be difficult to detect, it is prudent to contact legal counsel in order to avoid any potential liability and train staff to recognize and report associational-discrimination scenarios.
Trevor Brice is an attorney who specializes in labor and employment-law matters at the Royal Law Firm LLP, a woman-owned, women-managed corporate law firm that is certified as a women’s business enterprise with the Massachusetts Supplier Diversity Office, the National Assoc. of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council.