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Associational Disability Discrimination in the Workplace

Workplace discrimination can occur in numerous forms. Federal and state laws not only prohibit an employer from taking adverse action against an employee due to that employee's protected characteristics (such as race, religion, national origin, or disability status), they also forbid employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of the protected characteristics of those with whom they closely associate.

In the disability context, associational discrimination can occur in a few different ways:

          1. "Expense" type associational discrimination. This occurs where an employer takes adverse action against a nondisabled employee because that employee's relationship with a disabled individual creates high costs for the company. An example of this would be if an employer terminated an employee because the employee's disabled spouse received medical insurance under the employer's health plan, and the employer did not want to pay the spouse's high medical costs.

          2. "Disability by Association" type associational discrimination. This occurs when an employer discriminates against an employee because it believes the employee's relationship with a disabled person makes the employee himself likely to become disabled. An example of this would be if a company fired an employee because it knew the employee had a sibling who suffered from Huntington's disease, and it feared that the employee too would begin to exhibit symptoms of this disease.

          3. "Distraction" type associational discrimination. This occurs when a nondisabled employee suffers adverse employment consequences due to the fact that the employee is somewhat inattentive at work because he or she has a close relative whose disability needs the employee's attention. An employee may only bring a claim for "distraction" type associational discrimination if he or she is not so distracted at work as to require special accommodations from the employer, as a disabled person's right to reasonable accommodations in the workplace does not extend to a nondisabled plaintiff suing under an associational discrimination theory.

Associational discrimination is an important concept in the field of employment litigation, as it prevents employers from exploiting the at-will doctrine in order to terminate without consequence people who themselves do not suffer from protected disabilities, but who nevertheless are powerfully affected by the impairments of those close to them.

Sources:

2-41 California Employment Law § 41.32.

Rope v. Auto-Chlor Sys. of Wash., Inc., 163 Cal. Rptr. 3d 392, 410-12 (Ct. App. 2013).

Larimer v. IBM Corp., 370 F.3d 698, 700 (7th Cir. 2004).

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