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Employer Not Required to Accommodate Employee With Disabled Spouse

    Client Alerts
  • July 22, 2011

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against an employee due to his or her association with a disabled person. For example, an employer could not refuse to hire an applicant with a disabled child due to fears that childcare responsibilities would interfere with job duties. However, the ADA does not require employers to accommodate the actual impacts on work cause by the disabled person.

In Stansberry v. Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp., the plaintiff's wife suffered from a severe autoimmune disorder. After being terminated, he claimed (1) that his employer failed to accommodate issues caused by his wife's illness; and (2) that the reasons given for the termination were pretext for firing him due to fears that he would become distracted by his wife's condition. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected both arguments, affirming summary judgment for the employer.

The Sixth Circuit joined the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in concluding that employers are not required to accommodate employees or applicants who are associated with a disabled person. While the ADA protects employees from adverse action based on fear or stereotype about possible effects on their jobs resulting from the association, the law does not require employers to accommodate performance problems, even if they directly result from the disability. The court concluded that in this case, the plaintiff was experiencing real performance problems, undermining his claims of pretext.

Of course, the Family and Medical Leave Act may provide eligible employees with job-protected leave to care for certain sick or disabled relatives. However, these family issues will not serve as the basis for compelling employer accommodations under the ADA.