Handicap Discrimination Based on Association Decision Handed Down by Seventh Circuit

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is one of the youngest anti-workplace discrimination statutes on the books. The ADA became effective on July 26, 1992 and prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified employees and job applicants with disabilities. In order to meet the definition of “handicap” under the ADA, the employee or job applicant must: (1) have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) have a record of such an impairment; or (3) be regarded as having such an impairment.

Recently, in Dewitt v. Proctor Hospital, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals issued an interesting decision, which confirms that employees who prove the they were discriminated against because of the disability of a family member or another associate state a viable claim for handicap discrimination under the ADA. This is known as association discrimination.

In Dewitt v. Proctor Hospital, a nursing supervisor at a hospital alleged she was fired because of, among other things, the expense associated with treating her husband’s prostate cancer. In the three years preceding the nurse’s termination, her husband’s medical expenses totaled more than $300,000. The hospital, which was was self-insured, took issue with cost of medical care, going so far as to suggest a less-expensive hospice option. In discharging the plaintiff-employee, the hospital conceded that performance was not an issue without saying much more. In concluding that the plaintiff-employee states a viable claim for handicap association discrimination, the 7th Circuit reasoned:

That the powers-that-be at Proctor were interested specifically in the high cost of Anthony’s medical treatment is obvious. Davis, Dewitt’s supervisor (and the person who ultimately fired her), pulled Dewitt aside twice in five months to inquire about Anthony’s condition. … She also asked Dewitt whether Anthony’s doctor had considered hospice placement—a far cheaper “alternative” to the costly chemotherapy and radiation Anthony was receiving. Finally, the timing of Dewitt’s termination suggests that the financial albatross of Anthony’s continued cancer treatment was an important factor in Proctor’s decision. Dewitt was fired in August 2005—five months after her last chat with Davis and three months after Proctor warned employees about impending “creative” cost-cutting measures. … A reasonable juror could conclude that Proctor, which faced a financial struggle of indeterminate length, was concerned that Anthony—a multi-year cancer veteran—might linger on indefinitely.

This is an important win for employees who must care for family members with serious medical conditions.