There’s a little-known form of workplace bias that can cost employers big, as one company recently learned. It’s called associational discrimination.
The concept is this: Employers can’t take an adverse employment action against an individual because he or she may have to care for — or is closely linked to — a disabled individual.
In a recent case, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that New Mexico Orthopaedics Associates, owners/operators of a medical facility in Albuquerque, will pay $165,000 to settle a lawsuit for associational disability discrimination.
The EEOC’s suit alleged that NMOA violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by firing Melissa Yalch Valencia, a temporary staffing agency employee, and failing to hire her for a full-time position because of her relationship with her then three-year-old disabled daughter.
The EEOC claimed NMOA passed Valencia over because there was a strong possibility that she would have to take time off to care for her daughter.
EEOC filed its suit in U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement.
The final settlement, in addition to requiring NMOA to pay monetary damages to Valencia and provide her a letter of reference, requires NMOA to:
- conduct annual anti-discrimination training for its employees, managers, supervisors, and human resources employees
- develop and implement a management evaluation and compensation system which takes into account compliance with equal employment opportunity laws, policies and laws prohibiting retaliation, and
- adopt and distribute its anti-discrimination policies and report to EEOC if there are any complaints of disability discrimination.
The court approved the settlement and will retain jurisdiction for purposes of compliance for two years.
Following Supreme Court precedent
The settlement follows guidance from the Supreme Court in a case from several years ago.
In Thompson v. North American Stainless, Eric Thompson and Miriam Regalado met through their work at the North American facility in Kentucky. They began dating and eventually were engaged to be married, a fact that was common knowledge throughout the company.
Then Regalado filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charging she’d been discriminated against on account of her gender. Three weeks after the company was notified of the complaint, North American Stainless fired Thompson.
Thompson filed suit, saying he’d been fired because his fiance filed a bias complaint.
In court, the company argued he’d been sacked for performance reasons.
In the Supreme Court ruling, Justice Antonin Scalia said it was clear that Regalado was the true target of the company’s actions. “Injuring (Thompson) was the employer’s intended means of harming (her). … In those circumstances, we think Thompson well within the zone of interests protected” under federal laws against discrimination, Scalia wrote.
And exactly who will fall under the new umbrella of protection? In the decision, Justice Scalia wrote that “firing a close family member will almost always meet the … standard, and inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so, but beyond that we are reluctant to generalize.”