Defining the Three-Headed Associational Disability Claim

By Jon Hyman

Jun. 8, 2015

You likely know that the ADA protects employees from discrimination “because of the known disability of an individual with whom the qualified individual is known to have a relationship or association.” But did you know that the ADA has three different theories to define this associational disability?

  1. Expense (the cost of insuring the associated disabled person under the employer’s health plan);
  2. Disability by association (a fear by the employer that the employee may contract the disability, or the employee is genetically predisposed to develop a disability that his or her relatives have); and 
  3. Distraction (the employee is inattentive at work because of the disability of the associated person).
In Williams v. Union Underwear Co., (6th Cir. 6/5/15) [pdf], the court rejected the plaintiff’s attempt to use each of these theories to challenge his termination after his wife was diagnosed with Wagner’s Vascular Disease, which weakened her immune system. Other than the coincidental timing between the the wife’s diagnosis and the alleged beginning of Williams’s adverse treatment at work, the court could not find any other evidence of disability discrimination. Absent something in addition to timing, the court could not conclude that Williams had presented sufficient evidence to get his discrimination claim to a jury.
We, as employers, often treat employees with family medical issues with kid gloves. We not only worry about potential liability under the ADA, but also the FMLA. Yet, these employees are not bulletproof. In Williams, the plaintiff had suffered years of marginal performance, and the employer had enough. Without something in addition to the mere fact that his wife suffered from a rare disease, this court was unsympathetic to his claim, which should provide hope to employers that want to hold all employees accountable to reasonable performance standards.
Jon Hyman is a partner in the Employment & Labor practice at Wickens Herzer Panza. Contact Hyman at

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