When Do Employers Violate the ADA By Discriminating Against Employees With Disabled Relatives?

In two previous articles, I discussed important rulings the Third Circuit Court of Appeals made in Erdman v. Nationwide Insurance Company regarding the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Specifically, that case rules that an employee’s time worked from home counts toward the FMLA’s 1,250 hour eligibility requirement if the employer knew or should have known the employee was working off-site, and that an employee who requests an FMLA leave is legally protected even if he never actually takes a leave. But Erdman also makes an important ruling regarding another, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of a disability. It includes a provision prohibiting employers from discriminating against individuals because they have a relationship or association with someone who has a disability. For example, it prohibits employers from discriminating against an employee who has a disabled child.

As Erdman notes, although the ADA requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to allow employees to perform the essential functions of their jobs, it does not require employers to accommodate employees who have a disabled relative. As a result, employers can refuse to provide an employee time off to care for a disabled relative without violating the ADA. Of course, doing so could violate the FMLA or a state law such as the New Jersey Family Leave Act.

However, the Third Circuit’s decision recognizes that an employer would violate the ADA if it makes an employment decision because an employee has a disabled relative, rather than because the employee needs to take time off from work. As a result, an employee whose employer denies him the right to take time off for a disabled relative can establish a claim under the ADA if he can prove that his employer would not have fired him if he had requested the same time off for another reason.

The Court further recognizes that it is unlawful for an employer to fire an employee based on the belief that the employee might miss work to care for disabled relative at some point in the future. Erdman explains that such a decision would be based on “unfounded stereotypes or assumptions about the need to care for a disabled person.” It is therefore a form of prohibited associational disability discrimination.

The decision notes other circumstances in which an employer would violate the ADA based on an unlawful assumption about an employee’s disabled relative. For example, an employer would violate the ADA if it fires or otherwise discriminates against an employee (1) because of its assumptions regarding the relative’s health care costs to the company; (2) because of its fear that the employee will contract or spread a relative’s disease; or (3) because the employee is somewhat distracted by his relative’s disability, but not so distracted that he cannot satisfactorily perform his job.