I do not think “associational discrimination” means what you think it means.

Amber Bridges, a former employee of the Magistrate’s Court in the City of Indianapolis, claims she was discharged because of her association with a co-worker who was regarded as having a disability within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

(I’m not going to link to the lawsuit because it gratuitously identifies the co-worker by name.) 

An “associational discrimination” claim does exist under the ADA, of course. The classic scenario (included in guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) is an employer who terminates an employee whose family member has a disability, out of fear that the family member’s condition will cause the employer’s insurance premiums to go up. Another example would be an employer who terminates an employee because he or she is the partner of someone with AIDS or HIV.

But Ms. Bridges doesn’t allege anything like that. Her “association” consists of being the alleged harasser of the co-worker with the disability.  

Chutzpah is “that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.” — Leo Rosten

According to the lawsuit, the co-worker had an “obnoxious body odor” that offended Ms. Bridges and caused other employees to complain. Ms. Bridges told her supervisor, and then went out and purchased air fresheners for everybody to use. Other employees later brought in more air fresheners.

Harassment by air freshener is not a protected activity, AFAIK.

One day, Ms. Bridges was informed that the co-worker had complained about the omnipresent air fresheners and said that Ms. Bridges was creating a hostile work environment. Moreover, other employees had allegedly complained that Ms. Bridges “instigat[ed]” and “perpetuat[ed]” gossip about the co-worker. Ms. Bridges’ employment was terminated that day.

If the “associational” provision of the ADA protects individuals who harass or discriminate against persons with disabilities, I’ll eat my hat. 

Time for a motion to dismiss and a judicial smackdown. Judge William C. Griesbach, don’t fail us!

Robin Shea is a Partner with the law firm of Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP and has more than 20 years’ experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act), the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act, the Equal Pay Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act; and class and collective actions under the Fair Labor Standards Act and state wage-hour laws; defense of audits by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs; and labor relations. She conducts training for human resources professionals, management, and employees on a wide variety of topics.


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