Can a healthy employee sue if his employer fires him because it believes he will have to take substantial time away from work in the future to care for his disabled spouse?
The employee believed that the true reason for his termination was the employer’s belief that he was distracted and somewhat inattentive at work because his spouse’s disability required his attention.
After filing a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Florida Commission on Human Relations (FCHR) he filed a lawsuit in federal court for the middle District of Florida (Tampa Division). Boyce v. City of New Port Richey, No. 8:18-cv-2661-T-33TGW, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4713 (M.D. Fla. Jan. 10, 2019).
According to the lawsuit, the employer was aware that the employee’s spouse had a need for his presence at home on occasion and had an unfounded perception that the employee would have to take substantial time away from work in the future to care for his spouse.
The employee’s lawsuit asserted claims for Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) “interference” and under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) or associational disability discrimination. The employer filed a Motion to Dismiss the ADA claim, on the basis that the claim for “associational disability” discrimination was improper to move forward in the lawsuit.
Can a business be sued for firing a healthy worker who has a disabled spouse?
The Florida court provided further guidance for Florida employers. The fourth element potentially encompasses three categories of claims:
(1) expense-avoidance, e.g. where an employee suffers an adverse action because a spouse or child is covered by the company’s health plan and has a disability that is costly to the employer;
(2) disability by association, e.g. where the employer fears that the employee is likely to develop the disability due to exposure to or a genetic component of the ailment; and
(3) distraction, e.g., where the employee is somewhat inattentive at work because his spouse or child has a disability that requires his attention, yet is not so inattentive that he would need an accommodation to perform to his employer’s satisfaction.
In a fourth category of claim, an employer may also be liable for associational disability discrimination where it terminates an employee based on an unfounded assumption regarding the employee’s need for future leave in order to care for a disabled person.
In this case the employer recognized the employee’s allegations that the employer fired him because it believed he was distracted at work or would take future leave from work because of his wife’s disability.
During seven years his employment and employee had no disciplinary issues and performed his job satisfactorily. His wife suffered from a disability as a result of surgery on her shoulder and the employee was her primary caretaker. He asked his supervisor if he could be excused for a few days of work so he could go home and care for his wife, who was out of work on approved Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave. The supervisor gave the employee permission to leave.
Despite having been given permission, when the employee returned to work a few days later the supervisor directed him to return home. A few days later, his employment was terminated for failing to report for duty.
In analyzing the employer’s Motion, the Court noted that in the lawsuit the employee alleged that the employer violated the ADA because it discriminated against him because of “his association with his wife’s disability” and terminated his employment.”
Although most ADA claims involve an employee who themselves claim to be disabled, the Court explained that the ADA also creates a cause of action for “associational” disability discrimination (making it unlawful to exclude or otherwise deny equal jobs or benefits to a qualified individual because of the known disability of an individual with whom the qualified individual is known to have a relationship or association). The Court explained that in order to state a claim for “associational” disability discrimination, an employee must allege:
(1) he was qualified for the job;
(2) he was subjected to an adverse employment action;
(3) he was known by his employer to have an association with a disability; and
(4) there were circumstances raising a reasonable inference that his association with a disability was a determining factor in the employer’s adverse employment action.
The Court disagreed with the employer that the employee has not pled sufficient factual allegations to support that he was fired because of his association with his disabled wife. The Court ruled against the employer and described that the lawsuit made it clear that the employee was basing his associational disability claim on the “distraction” and “future leave” theories. In this particular case the employee was not arguing he was entitled to a reasonable accommodation for his wife’s disability. His lawsuit asserted that his association with his wife was the motivation for the employer’s decision to terminate the employee because the employer believed the employee was distracted and might miss work in the future.
The judge ruled that the employee’s claims were sufficient to state an ADA associational disability claim and therefore survive the employer’s Motion to Dismiss. While the employee acknowledged that most employees were required to work, he alleged that he was given permission by supervisors to take the day off to care for his disabled wife. Yet, despite that permission, the employer fired him on the alleged ground that he failed to report for duty.The Court noted that the fact that the employee was supposedly fired for taking leave he was permitted to take, combined with the allegations that the employer was concerned the employee was distracted at work and would take more leave in the future, created a reasonable inference that the employee was actually fired because of his association with his wife.
Florida employers are reminded that one of the six national priorities identified by the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP) is for the EEOC to address emerging and developing issues in equal employment law, including issues involving the ADA.
It is important that you provide your employees, especially managers and supervisors with training to identify potential discrimination issues.
If you need any assistance in determining in addressing a disability issue or other discrimination situation concerning your Florida business or if you need guidance in any employment policies, please email the Law Office of David Miklas, P.A. or call us at 1-772-465-5111.
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