Associational Discrimination under the ADA–Um…Don’t Do That.

Associational Discrimination under the ADA–Um…Don’t Do That.

Okay, I will admit, it has taken me a while to get caught up on recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission activities. But back in September, the EEOC sued the Chesapeake Montessori Foundation, Inc., the operator of the Chesapeake Montessori School in Annapolis, MD. The EEOC alleged the school violated federal law when it discriminated against a long-term teacher because of her daughter’s disability in what is referred to as Associational Discrimination.

The lawsuit, according to the EEOC news release, alleged “Chesapeake Montessori was aware the teacher’s daughter had a disability and it decided not to renew the teacher’s contract because it assumed her daughter’s disability, coupled with the COVID pandemic, would undermine the teacher’s focus and commitment to her job. The school elected to instead renew other teachers with less experience and tenure.” Such actions violate the Americans with Disabilities Act which bars discrimination of a person based on their relationship or association with a person with disabilities, even if the employee or individual does not, themselves, have a disability.

Although the EEOC attempted to resolve the matter before filing the lawsuit in the Maryland Federal District Court, the parties did ultimately reach a settlement in which the school agreed to pay $85,286 in back pay, interest, and other damages.

Admittedly, associational discrimination is not a common claim by the EEOC or employees against employers. The ADA is a broad, remedial statute designed to allow people with disabilities to fully participate in society. The law also protects those people who are related to those with disabilities, since caregivers and other individuals are impacted by the disabled person’s situation and should not be penalized because of their relationship. But there are key lessons to be learned here:

  1. Although this case involved a mother and daughter, the EEOC stressed that a family relationship is NOT required to find associational discrimination, rather the EEOC will look at whether the employer is “motivated by the individual’s relationship or association with” a disabled person. How was motivation proven? My guess is that there were documents and communications, such as emails, that discussed the teacher’s employment renewal and her daughter’s condition. In other words, the employer probably talked about it in documents that the EEOC obtained in discovery.
  2. While an employer is NOT required to accommodate an individual without a disability because of their association with a person having a disability, you can’t treat people different because of the relationship. So, under the ADA, a person without a disability can’t get an accommodation, such as a changed work schedule or other accommodation, there may be other laws that might fill in the gap, such as the Maryland Sick and Safe Leave Act, FMLA, or other laws.

So what should employers take from this case? First, remember, everyone–and I mean everyone–belongs to a protected class, so any type of negative job action, such as termination, non-renewal of contracts, demotion, reduction in pay, or anything similar, can result in a discrimination claim. So that is the “lawyer scary” part. Even if you have never heard of a claim like associational discrimination, they do exist and so do other types of discrimination claims beyond the usual “big five” under federal law (race, color, religion, sex, and national origin).

Second, if you are going to take a negative job action, then make sure you have a good business reason for that negative job action and make sure that the business reason is not a pretext for discrimination. So, things like tardiness, poor job performance, violation of company policies, and similar matters can be reasons for a negative job action, but make sure you have documented these reasons.

Third, don’t be dumb and put your actual discriminatory reasons in writing. All that stuff is subject to discovery requests and usually spells doom for the employer.