- A chemist was not subjected to discrimination by association under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when he was fired while out on leave and his employer twice modified his work schedule so he could take care of his ailing grandfather, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled (Pierri v. Medline Industries, Inc., No. 19-3356 (7th Cir. Aug. 6, 2020)).
- Medline Industries terminated Frank Pierri's employment after he took leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and failed to return to work. Pierri had asked for accommodations that would allow him to take care of his grandfather who had been diagnosed with liver cancer. "Medline was receptive," the court said, and offered a number of accommodations, including granting Pierri FMLA leave one day per week. When he began this schedule, his supervisor "began harassing him" and, citing stress and anxiety, Pierri asked for full-time leave. When his leave began, Pierri sued, claiming discrimination by association under the ADA.
- A district court granted summary judgment to the employer, and the 7th Circuit affirmed the trial court's decision. Pierri failed to establish a prima facie case of associational discrimination under the ADA, the appeals court said. The employer made "ample efforts" to accommodate Pierri's need to care for his grandfather, the court said. The court also noted that even if Pierri could make a claim for associational discrimination, he failed to show that he suffered an adverse employment action.
The ADA protects qualified individuals with a disability from workplace discrimination. The federal law also protects workers against bias with a "known relationship or association" with someone who has a disability. Employers are prohibited from making "adverse employment decisions based on unfounded concerns about the known disability of a family member, or anyone else with whom the applicant or employee has a relationship or association," according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
For instance, an employer may not refuse to hire the applicant best qualified for the job because it learned the applicant has a child with a disability during the interview process. "The employer violates the ADA if it refuses to hire [the applicant] based on its belief that his need to care for his child will have a negative impact on his work attendance or performance," EEOC says in guidance.
Additionally, it's worth noting that while an adverse employment action that occurs soon after, or during, a protected leave can appear suspicious, employers that act for legitimate reasons and have good documentation are often able to successfully defend their actions.