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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.

Trevor Brice

Trevor Brice

“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.

 

Takeaways

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.

Law

A Development of Note

By Alexander J. Cerbo, Esq.

 

As COVID-19 continues to grow, mutate, and spread like a California wildfire, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has released guidance which outlines, in detail, just how COVID-19 may qualify as a ‘disability’ under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Alexander J. Cerbo

Alexander J. Cerbo

In its recent report, the EEOC clarifies that employees who are either asymptomatic or have mild COVID symptoms that resolve in a matter of weeks are not considered disabled under the ADA. These cases are not found to substantially limit a major life activity as they do not restrict an employee’s bodily functions for a prolonged period.

However, ‘long COVID,’ or cases that persist for several weeks or even months after the initial infection, may qualify as an ADA-recognized disability. Symptoms include ongoing fatigue, brain fog, difficulty concentrating, difficulty breathing, or shortness of breath. In addition, other health conditions caused by COVID, or pre-existing health conditions exacerbated by COVID (such as heart inflammation), are considered a disability if they limit a major life activity.

The EEOC cautions that a determination as to whether an employee’s COVID-19 case constitutes a disability should always be made on a case-by-case basis.

While employers should be mindful as to how they handle employees with COVID, the ADA does provide employers with a ‘direct-threat’ defense by which an employer may require an employee with COVID, or its symptoms, to refrain from physically entering the workplace during the CDC-recommended period of isolation. An employer will risk violating the ADA if they exclude an employee from the workplace based upon “myths, fears, or stereotypes,” particularly if the individual is no longer infectious.

EEOC guidance is clear that an employer does not automatically violate the ADA in taking adverse action against an employee if they have COVID-19. Employees must meet the criteria of an ‘actual’ or ‘record of’ disability to be eligible for a reasonable accommodation. An actual disability is a “physical or mental impairment which substantially limits a major life activity.” Record of a disability is when the person has a history of that disability.

Eligible employees are not automatically granted a reasonable accommodation — their disability must require it, and the accommodation requested must not pose an undue hardship on the employer. Employers may also request supporting medical documentation in determining whether to grant an employee’s accommodation request.

With COVID-19 cases on the rise once again, and the inception of the new, highly contagious Omicron variant, employers should continue to remain alert for future guidance from the federal government in this ever-evolving pandemic.

 

Alexander J. Cerbo, Esq. 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; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]

 

Employment

Get the Vaccine or Get Fired?

By John S. Gannon, Esq. and Meaghan E. Murphy, Esq.

 

To mandate the COVID vaccine, or not to mandate?

John S. Gannon, Esq

John S. Gannon, Esq.

Meaghan E. Murphy, Esq

Meaghan E. Murphy, Esq.

That is the question on the minds of employers across the globe. As employment lawyers, we have been asked that question countless times by clients (and friends). Until about a month ago, all we could do was provide our best guess based on guidance and legal decisions related to other vaccines, like the flu shot. However, on May 28, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provided some comprehensive COVID-19 guidance that addresses this topic head-on.

The EEOC is the federal agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws applicable to workplaces. The news is good for Massachusetts employers considering a mandatory vaccine program. Some of the key takeaways for employers are described below.

 

Mandatory Vaccinations

The EEOC guidance declares in no uncertain terms that an employer can lawfully require employees to obtain a COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of returning to the workplace. Such a practice would not run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act (GINA). There is one big catch: an employer mandating vaccines must reasonably accommodate employees who are unable or unwilling to get vaccinated because of a disability or sincerely held religious belief.

These employees might need to be excepted from the vaccine mandate if other safety measures can keep them and others safe. The EEOC provided examples of such accommodations, including requiring an employee to continue to wear a mask and socially distance while in the workplace, limiting contact with other employees and non-employees, providing a modified shift, permitting continued telework if feasible, conducting periodic COVID testing, or reassigning the employee to a vacant position in a different workplace.

Notably, employers should not assume that an employee does not require an accommodation relating to COVID simply because the employee is fully vaccinated. The guidance provides that an employer may need to accommodate an employee who is fully vaccinated for COVID if there is a continuing concern for heightened risk of severe illness from a COVID infection.

For an employee who is unwilling to obtain the vaccination because of a sincerely held religious belief under Title VII, employers should presume that the request is legitimate. The EEOC does make clear, however, that if an employee requests a religious accommodation, and an employer is aware of facts that provide an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance, the employer would be justified in requesting additional supporting information.

Employers presented with this issue should proceed with caution, as the EEOC will take a narrow view of such circumstances. Employers are required to engage in a similar ‘interactive process’ with employees who have sincere religious objections to vaccination and provide an accommodation that allows the employee to return to work where doing so does not present an undue hardship.

 

Vaccination Incentives

An employer may lawfully provide an incentive to its employees to obtain COVID-19 vaccination outside the workplace so long as the incentive is not so substantial as to be coercive. Unfortunately, the EEOC did not give any examples of what incentives would be considered ‘so substantial as to be coercive’ and also failed to clarify whether and to what extent an employer must provide a vaccine incentive to employees who are unable to obtain a vaccination due to a medical or religious-based reason.

 

Confidentiality

An employer’s request for self-disclosure of vaccination status, or for documentation or other confirmation that an employee has received a vaccination from a third party (such as a pharmacy or personal physician), is not a medical examination or a disability-related inquiry. As a result, employers may lawfully request this information without implicating the ADA or GINA.

With that said, employers should restrict access to vaccine-related information, apply safeguards similar to those applied to other types of sensitive personal information, and obtain appropriate consent from employees before disclosing vaccine-related information to third parties.

 

Legal Actions

To date, there has been one reported case dealing with mandatory vaccines in the workplace. Similar to the EEOC guidance, the case supports an employer’s right to mandate COVID vaccines.

In April, the Houston Methodist Hospital System in Texas issued a directive requiring that all employees be fully vaccinated by June 7 or they would be placed on a two-week suspension. Employees who were not vaccinated by the end of the suspension period would be terminated.

In late May 2021, more than 100 employees who were not vaccinated, and apparently did not qualify for a disability or religious exemption, filed a lawsuit against the hospital raising a number of claims, including wrongful termination. The judge dismissed the lawsuit entirely. In his written decision, the judge expressed his dismay with the plaintiffs for equating the threat of termination for refusing to get the COVID vaccination to the forced medical experimentation in concentration camps during the Holocaust, calling the comparison “reprehensible.”

Addressing an argument that the vaccine mandate was contrary to public policy, the judge wrote that the vaccine requirement “is consistent with public policy. The Supreme Court has held that (a) involuntary quarantine for contagious diseases and (b) state-imposed requirements of mandatory vaccination do not violate due process.”

 

Bottom Line

While this EEOC guidance and recent decision may seem like a big victory for mandatory COVID vaccines in the workplace, Massachusetts employers should be cautious in relying on them too heavily. The Commonwealth has its own anti-discrimination and public-policy laws, so it’s difficult to predict how this might play out in a state court or administrative proceeding.

In other words, while the decision is encouraging for Massachusetts employers who want to require vaccines, it is important to check in with experienced labor and employment counsel before implementing a mandatory vaccine program.

 

John Gannon and Meaghan Murphy are attorneys at the firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., in Springfield; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]; [email protected]