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“Association Discrimination” Under the Americans with Disabilities Act

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The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. In a nutshell, the ADA makes it unlawful for any employer with 15 or more employees to discriminate against a qualified applicant or employee because of a disability with respect to any term or condition of employment.

Several years ago, I handled an ADA case involving “association” discrimination where my client claimed she was being discriminated against because her husband was disabled. While not well known, this type of protection is explicit under the ADA, which, in addition to protecting qualified applicants and employees with disabilities from employment discrimination, protects applicants and employees from discrimination based on their relationship or association with an individual with a disability, whether or not the applicant or employee has a disability.

The purpose of the “association” provision of the ADA is to prevent employers from taking adverse actions based on unfounded stereotypes and assumptions about individuals who live or associate with people who have disabilities. For example, the ADA prohibits an employer for refusing to hire an individual who has a spouse or child with a disability based on an assumption that the applicant will be away from work excessively or be otherwise unreliable.