The ADA and ‘Associational Discrimination’ Claims Under Federal Law

The Americans With Disabilities Act makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against employees or job candidates who have qualifying disabilities. The law also, however, protects workers from employment discrimination arising as a result of their association with someone who has a disability, even if the worker is not disabled in any way. If you think you’ve been the target of associational discrimination — or you’re an employer facing this kind of assertion — you should speak to a knowledgeable Atlanta disability discrimination lawyer, who can help you better understand your rights and options.

An associational discrimination case under the ADA proceeds much like other federal discrimination claims. The worker must first establish that she has a prima facie case of discrimination and, if she does so, the employer must present a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the negative action it took against the worker. If both of those things happen, the law shifts the burden back to the worker to demonstrate that the employer’s stated reason was really just a pretext for its discriminatory motive.

As a recent ADA case from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals demonstrates, it’s important to understand that simply because an adverse employment action follows closely after the employer discovers a worker’s association with a person with disabilities, that alone won’t establish a winning associational discrimination case.

The worker was a writer and producer for a production company in South Florida. She also was a daughter with a terminally ill father living in Pennsylvania. In early May 2018, the producer took several days off from work to travel to Pennsylvania after her father required emergency brain surgery. In late May, the employer offered to transition the producer to a freelancer role that “might better suit her schedule.” When the producer declined, the employer fired her.

In support of its decision, the employer presented to the court an array of workplace shortcomings it claimed the producer possessed. For one thing, the producer’s work attendance purportedly was haphazard. (She allegedly “had a history of ‘coming and going’ — a practice that rankled her supervisors,” and “often missed editing sessions for her projects without notice.”) The employer also asserted that the producer displayed poor communication skills and demeanor, including an attitude at the office that “made it difficult to collaborate.” The producer furthermore allegedly failed to complete many of her projects.

The Role of Temporal Proximity Evidence

These assertions were enough to meet the employer’s “legitimate reasons” requirement. The burden shifted back to the producer to show pretext, but the only evidence of pretext she had was something the law calls “temporal proximity.” (Temporal proximity means that the employer’s adverse action occurred shortly after the worker’s protected activity.)

Unfortunately for the producer (but fortunately for the employer,) temporal proximity alone isn’t enough to establish pretext in the 11th Circuit. The court pointed to a 2020 decision that said that, although “close temporal proximity between the protected conduct and the adverse employment action can establish pretext,” the worker must couple that temporal proximity with other proof.

The producer didn’t have any other evidence, so her claim failed.

The producer’s case is a reminder that, whether you’re a worker or an employer, it is important to understand the evidentiary requirements of your discrimination case (or the case brought against you.) In-depth knowledge can help you to maximize your chances of success. So can retaining the experienced Atlanta disability discrimination attorneys at the law firm of Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Our knowledgeable team can help outline for you the strengths and potential weaknesses of your case, and offer solutions to help you achieve the best possible outcome. Contact us through this website or at 404-873-8048 to schedule a consultation today.

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