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Second Circuit Oks ADA Suit of Associational Discrimination

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an employer may be held liable if the disability of an employee’s relative was a determining factor in an adverse employment decision. This liability arises under the theory of “associational discrimination.”

John Kelleher worked for Fred A. Cook (Cook) as a laborer and truck operator beginning in 2014. In 2016, his daughter was diagnosed with a severe neurological disorder that impacted the child’s ability to speak, walk, breathe, and eat. Kelleher told Cook about his daughter’s issues and let them know that he might have to rush home to help with his daughter’s care. Quickly after this discussion, Kelleher’s employment relationship deteriorated. He was essentially demoted to the “shop” while his co-workers were assigned to other work earning them a higher wage. He was advised that he could not leave work immediately after his shifts to care for his daughter because he had to be at work in case of an emergency. When Kelleher asked to work eight-hour shifts for one week (rather than the usual 10-12) to help his daughter, he was told: “his problems at home were not the company’s problems.” He was also told he would not receive a raise. After Kelleher’s daughter suffered a near-fatal seizure over a weekend, Kelleher said he would need to be out on the following Monday. When he came back to work on Tuesday, Kelleher had been demoted to a less prestigious position. When he again needed to request 8 hours shifts to visit his daughter in the hospital, the request was denied. He was fired after he arrived for work 10-15 minutes late a couple of weeks later.

A federal district court dismissed Kelleher’s case, ruling the ADA did not require Cook to accommodate Kelleher and he had admitted that he could not perform his job duties. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals overruled this decision. Kelleher had alleged sufficient facts to reflect that Cook fired him because the company considered the daughter’s disability a “distraction” that would impact his work. According to the appellate court, “an employer’s reaction to such a request for accommodation can support an inference that a subsequent adverse employment action was motivated by associational discrimination.” The court further found the facts underlying the basis for termination would not as a matter of law make Kelleher unqualified for the position. Kelleher’s case may proceed to trial.