Your Sick Daughter or Your Job? Associational Discrimination Claims Survive Summary Judgment

Many employment discrimination cases involve allegations by an employee (or former employee) that they have endured discriminatory treatment based on one or more of that person’s protected characteristics.

But what you may not know is that there is another type of claim – referred to in the case law as “associational discrimination” – based on the allegation that a person has suffered discrimination not because of their own protected characteristic(s), but rather due to their known association with someone else who is a member of a protected class.

In Manon v. 878 Educ., LLC, No. 13-CV-3476 RJS, 2015 WL 997725 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 4, 2015), the Southern District of New York denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s associational discrimination claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL).

In sum, plaintiff (a receptionist in the defendant 878’s admissions department) alleged that she was fired, at least in part, due to time she took off to tend to her infant daughter who had been diagnosed with a medical condition called Reactive Airway Disease.

“In order to establish a claim for ‘associational discrimination’ under the ADA, Plaintiff must demonstrate that she was discriminated against by her employer because of her association with a disabled person.”

The court held that plaintiff presented direct evidence of discrimination sufficient to overcome summary judgment. Judge Sullivan wrote:

Here, Garcia [plaintiff’s supervisor] told Plaintiff at the November 16, 2012 meeting—the day of her return to work following an absence to care for her daughter—that he was “letting her go” because he needed someone without children to work at the front desk. When Plaintiff began crying and stated, “This is unfair. Please let me fix this. Give me an opportunity. What can I do to fix this?,” Garcia responded, “I need someone who does not have kids who can be at the front desk at all times.” He further asked, “How can you guarantee me that [ ] two weeks from now your daughter is not going to be sick again? … So, what is it, your job or your daughter?” Garcia, Plaintiff’s direct supervisor, made these remarks to Plaintiff during the formal meeting terminating her employment. … Garcia’s remarks could easily be viewed as a “smoking gun” admission that Garcia believed Plaintiff’s daughter was disabled and would be frequently ill and, further, that Plaintiff’s termination was directly motivated by Garcia’s hostility towards Plaintiff’s association with her daughter. At the very least, Plaintiff’s assertions create a “thick cloud of smoke” sufficient to require 878 to “‘convince the factfinder that, despite the smoke, there is no fire.'”

The court also determined that plaintiff presented sufficient evidence – including text messages about her daughter’s condition – to show that Garcia “knew that [her] daughter was disabled to render his comments actionable under the ADA.”

Judge Sullivan did not make a determination as to whether the “mixed motives” or “but for” causation standard is to be applied under the ADA, in light of his holding that plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to satisfy even the more stringent “but for” standard.

Finally, the court held that plaintiff raised a triable issue of fact on her NYCHRL associational discrimination claim:

With respect to Plaintiff’s claim of discrimination under NYCHRL based on her status as the caregiver for a disabled person, the law is clear that a plaintiff need only point to a medical impairment and establish that discrimination was a motivating factor in her termination in order to prevail under the statute. See N.Y.C. Admin. Code §§ 8–102(16), 8–107(1)(a). In this regard, the NYCHRL standard for associational disability discrimination is far less onerous than the “but for” standard under the ADA discussed above.