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Associational Discrimination Claim Goes Forward

Brian Gaughan, receptionist for Generations Health Care Network, was in relationship with his co-worker, Judy Aliferis. When Ms. Aliferis was diagnosed with breast cancer, Mr. Gaughan took her to her doctor’s appointments. He always filled out a request first, which was submitted to and approved by his supervisor. About six months into Ms. Aliferis’ treatment, new owners bought the company and a new manager was brought in. This new facilities manager wanted to fire Ms. Aliferis and about the same time he made that decision, the manager learned about the relationship with Mr. Gaughan.

On September 11, Ms. Aliferis had a doctor’s appointment. Mr. Gaughan filled out the usual request and received approval. Right before her appointment, Ms. Aliferis was fired. The facilities manager admitted to firing her because of her health and admitted seeing the couple leave for a doctor’s appointment. When no one was sitting at the receptionist’s desk, the facilities manager looked for but could not find a schedule change form. So, he fired Mr. Gaughan. Mr. Gaughan explained that his absence had been approved and offered to show him the form. The facilities manager would not allow him to go get it. Mr. Gaughan and Ms. Aliferis sued Generations Health Care.

The company sought to dismiss the associational discrimination claim. Mr. Gaughan contended that he had been fired because of his relationship with an employee who had breast cancer. For the federal trial court, the issue was whether Ms. Aliferis “disability” or cancer was the determining factor in the decision to fire Mr. Gaughan. In reviewing the totality of the circumstances, such as the same day firing of both employees, the manager’s refusal to investigate, Mr. Gaughan’s unblemished work history, and the manager’s admitted observations of the two employees leaving together, the court concluded that a jury could find that the company had engaged in associational discrimination.