Employer’s Overreaction May Reflect Wrongful Motive

  • Oct 16, 2019
  • ADA
  • Dennis J. Merley

Employers sometime encounter problems not for what they do but how they do it.  Making ill-advised statements along the way really doesn’t help.

John Kelleher worked as a CCTV Truck Operator For Fred A. Cook, Inc.  His baby daughter suffered from a variety of medical symptoms that would eventually be diagnosed as Rett Syndrome, a severe neurological disease.

Kelleher told his supervisor about his daughter’s condition and that he might need to leave work suddenly on occasion to help care for her.  Right after this discussion, Kelleher was assigned to work exclusively in “the shop” which paid a lower wage than the work he had been performing.

It’s Not Hard To Live With Someone Else’s Troubles

A few weeks later, Kelleher was told that he could no longer leave work immediately after his shift ended because the company required employees to remain on the premises for a period of time in case of emergency.  Kelleher asked if he could work an 8-hour shift for just one week so that he could care for his daughter.  The request was denied, and Kelleher was told that “his problems at home were not the company’s problems.”

Over the weekend, Kelleher’s daughter suffered a seizure requiring emergency hospitalization.  Kelleher told the company that he would not be in on Monday.  When he arrived for work on Tuesday morning, he learned that he had been demoted to a Laborer position that required “shoveling sewer systems.”

Subsequently, Kelleher arrived to work 10‐15 minutes late on one occasion.  He was promptly sent home and told he would be contacted if he was needed.  A month later, he received a letter terminating his employment.

Kelleher filed a disability discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and then sued in federal district court under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The District Court dismissed the claim without a trial on the grounds that Kelleher was unable to meet the requirements of his job.  He appealed the decision to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

No Guilt By Association

Kelleher’s lawsuit pressed a claim commonly referred to as “associational discrimination.”  It is based on the ADA provision making it unlawful to discriminate against “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 Company argued that Kelleher’s claim failed because he was not a qualified individual.  They said he essentially admitted this by asking for relief from his regular schedule, which they had no obligation to provide since the ADA only mandates accommodation when the employee is disabled.  Factoring in his other attendance deficiencies, the employer insisted that Kelleher was not a qualified person and therefore was not protected under the ADA.

The Circuit Court disagreed, calling the company’s argument confused.  They explained:

Though the ADA does not require an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation to the nondisabled associate of a disabled person, 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 concluded that in this instance, a fact-finder could determine that the Company was simply enforcing strict but legitimate performance standards.  On the other hand, it would also be reasonable to find that the Company overreacted to minimal performance miscues (a single missed day and one 15‐minute late arrival) and mischaracterized the reason for his request for a one-week schedule change.  When combined with the ill-advised warning to “leave his personal problems at home,” Kelleher’s adverse treatment could be seen as a manifestation of the Company’s  animosity toward perceived inconveniences arising from Kelleher’s association with his disabled daughter.  Kelleher should have the chance to prove this in court.

The Second Circuit therefore reversed the dismissal and remanded the case back for a full trial of Kelleher’s associational discrimination claim.

Bottom Line

It is sometimes difficult to glean from a written court decision why a relationship between an employer and employee has gone so far off the rails. The employer in this case seems to have responded rather strongly to the issues posed by their employee but perhaps there is more to that story.

What we do know is that even where an employer might seem to have the right to take certain actions, the manner in which those actions are taken or the words used in taking them could be sufficient to prove that the actions were unlawfully motivated.  Careful decisions and thoughtful words almost always carry the day.