Employment Law Daily No association disability bias claim where employer knew only that employee’s wife collapsed, stopped breathing
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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

No association disability bias claim where employer knew only that employee’s wife collapsed, stopped breathing

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

Because of a “dearth” of case law interpreting the ADA’s association provision, a federal district court in Pennsylvania examined cases in which employers were unaware of the plaintiffs’ disabilities before concluding that Chipotle was entitled to summary judgment against the association discrimination claim of an employee fired days after his wife was rushed to the hospital when she collapsed and stopped breathing at a work-related function. The record at best demonstrated Chipotle knew she had suffered some health problem, the court explained, finding no genuine issue of material fact that it did not have knowledge of her disability at the time the employee was fired (Von Bialy v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, March 21, 2018, Fischer, N.).

In June 2014, eight months after he was hired, the employee began working as a general manager at a Chipotle restaurant. In December, the area manager who supervised him submitted a “Restaurateur Plan” that cited 26 managerial deficiencies and issues with the restaurant and the employee’s performance. Another area manager concluded that the employee was running the restaurant “very poorly” and was not doing what his supervisors needed him to do.

Stopped breathing. In January 2015, the employee and his wife were attending a work function when his wife collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. Upon her admission to the emergency room and intensive care unit, she had a blood alcohol level of.213. The employee texted his supervisor stating “My wife just got rushed to the hospital.” Later that evening, he told his supervisor she had collapsed and stopped breathing and he would need a few days to take care of things.

Fired. The next day, the employee’s wife, who had been diagnosed as being intoxicated, was discharged. Believing she should not have been discharged, she went to another hospital’s emergency room a day later and the employee told his supervisor they still did not know what was going on but they would be running more tests on an outpatient basis. Five days later, he was fired. His wife was later diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS).

Association discrimination. As issue in his association discrimination claim was whether he was known by Chipotle at the time of his termination to have a relative or an associate with a disability. Because she was not actually diagnosed with POTS until at least five months after the employee was terminated, the court found it undisputed Chipotle did not have actual knowledge of her disability at the time of the employee’s termination. Nor did it have notice of her alleged disability, the court explained, noting that on the night she collapsed, the employee told his supervisor only that she had collapsed and stopped breathing and had been taken to the hospital. The following day, he told his supervisor that she was in intensive care, that tests would be run, and that he would need to take time off work. On the day he was fired, he told his supervisor she was not doing well, but did not discuss any other specifics as to her condition.

Some health problem. While the employee argued that Chipotle had knowledge of her disability because it knew she was “found unresponsive and was unable to be awoken,” this established only that it knew she suffered some health problem that evening. However, the court explained, quoting another decision “simply informing an employer of a particular condition is not tantamount to providing the employer with knowledge that the employee is substantially limited in some major life activity.”

Dearth of case law. Noting that the Third Circuit has recognized “[t]here is a dearth of case law interpreting… the association provision, and Third Circuit case law on the subject is particularly limited,” the court nonetheless found its decision supported by law within the Third Circuit as well as law interpreting the association provision outside the jurisdiction. It further found its decision supported by cases wherein employers were unaware of the plaintiffs’ disabilities. Specifically, the court cited to the Third Circuit’s decision in Rinehimer v. Cemcolift holding that a plaintiff’s discrimination claim failed where an employer “knew that he had some sort of respiratory disorder prior to his termination” but “did not know about his disability.”

Because the record here unequivocally demonstrated there was no genuine issue of material fact that Chipotle did not have knowledge of his wife’s alleged disability at the time the employee was terminated, he failed to establish a prima facie case of association discrimination.

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