Disability Law

ADA Protection for Relatives of Disabled Tested in Two Cases

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Two cases in which companies fired employees whose relatives were incurring large health care costs could pave the way for more lawsuits under a little-known provision of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The provision protects relatives and caregivers of disabled people from job discrimination, the Wall Street Journal reports (sub. req). Both cases have strong circumstantial evidence that could help the plaintiffs in what is usually a difficult claim to win.

The number of association-discrimination suits increased to 253 last year, compared to 194 the year before, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Despite the jump, these cases are problematic because it’s difficult to establish a link between a relative’s disability and an employee’s job loss, the story reports. Proving the relative suffers from a disability is also difficult.

Judge Richard Posner mentions a possible defense to such suits in a Feb. 27 concurring opinion (PDF) in one of the two cases. While the law bars association discrimination, it does not prevent a company from firing an employee simply as a cost-cutting move if it is unrelated to the relative’s disability, according to Posner. “If the disability plays no role in the employer’s decision—if he would discriminate against any employee whose spouse or dependent ran up a big medical bill—then there is no disability discrimination,” Posner wrote.

Posner wrote in the case of plaintiff Phillis Dewitt, who claims a self-insured Peoria hospital fired her as a nursing manager after the facility incurred large legal bills treating her husband for terminal prostate cancer. The court’s opinion allowed her case to proceed to trial. In a second case, a Wyoming couple claims they were fired because of the high costs of treating their son’s brain tumor.

In the Dewitt case, the hospital claims the plaintiff was fired for performance issues and that it had retained employees with larger medical bills.

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