Trucker Loses Crap Job After Request to Care For Disabled Daughter (Rett Syndrome)
The law is pretty clear about discriminating against workers who have a disability. But what about a worker who has a disabled child? Should a company be allowed to discriminate against a worker who is “distracted” because of the concern for a disabled family member?
This week’s case introduces us to Fred A. Cook Jr. Inc., a septic system service company in Montrose, a hamlet in the Town of Cortlandt, Westchester County, New York – a 1½ hour drive north along the Hudson River from Manhattan; and, just under 4 hours southeast from Syracuse. The Cook company fired a worker because they felt that he was not able to handle his job and a young daughter who was disabled at the same time. John sued Cook for disability discrimination.
Enter: John Kelleher, worker at the septic tank company; Tina, John’s 5-year-old daughter; Brian Cook, John’s supervisor.
Q: When did you start with Cook?
A: I began working for the Cook company in 2014 as a Laborer.
Q: Did you receive any reviews?
A: Yes, sir. I received favorable performance reviews and, in February 2015, I was promoted to the position of Truck Operator. So, basically, no more shoveling human waste out of clogged pipes and drainage systems.
Q: When was your daughter born?
A: May of 2014. About 6 months after I started working for Cook. Tina had some problems from day one but we thought it was epilepsy.
Q: And did you eventually find out what the problem was with Tina?
A: Yeah. In 2016, my girl was diagnosed with Rett Syndrome, which severely affects the ability to speak, walk, breathe, and eat, among other things.
Q: Did you at any time inform Cook that Tina had medical issues?
A: I did. Before Tina was diagnosed with Rett, I told Brian Cook, that my little girl had a serious medical condition and that I may have to occasionally rush home to aid in her care.
Q: When was that?
A: March 2015.
Q: Did the company respond to what you told them about Tina?
A: Well, after that conversation with Brian, my relationship with the Company deteriorated, and I was directed to work in the shop while my coworkers handled other work at a higher wage.
Q: What happened after that?
A: On Friday, March 27, 2015, Brian told me that I could not leave work immediately after my shifts to care for my girl because I was expected to remain on site in case of emergency. At Cook, although the company expected the workers to remain onsite after punching out, doing so did not affect my job responsibilities.
Q: Did you respond to Brian?
A: I asked to work 8-hour shifts for one week instead of 10-12 hour shifts in order to attend to my daughter.
Q: And what was the company’s response?
A: Brian said that my problems at home were not the company’s problems, and that I would not receive a raise.
Q: And what happened after that?
A: The next day (a Saturday), Tina suffered a near-fatal seizure and was taken to Albany Medical Center. I told Brian that I could not work the following Monday. When I got to work on the following Tuesday, Brian told me that I was demoted from my position as an Operator, where my responsibilities included running controls on trucks, to Laborer, where my chief responsibility involved shoveling sewer systems, a way-less prestigious position.
Q: Did you challenge the demotion?
A: No. I needed the money. So I did my job.
Q: Were there any other incidents after that?
A: Yes, sir. Two and a half weeks after the day I missed work for the hospital visit, I arrived at work 10-15 minutes late. I was told to go home and that I would be called if my services were required.
Q: Did they call you?
A: No. A month later, I got a letter -- dated a month earlier -- informing me that I had been terminated.
Q: Why was John fired?
A: He missed one day of work, one 15‐minute late arrival, and he usually left immediately after his shifts. Cook employees are required to remain after their shifts in case of an emergency.
Q: A septic tank emergency?
A: Yeah. And because he was distracted because of his daughter’s condition. He could not properly focus on his job.
ATTORNEY: Your Honor, John’s family situation is lamentable; but the Americans with Disabilities Act does not require an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation to a non-disabled worker associated with a disabled person. This case must be dismissed.
Court’s Ruling on Appeal:
Cook is correct that the ADA does not require an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation to the non-disabled associate of a disabled person. However, an employer’s reaction to such a request for accommodation can support an inference that a subsequent adverse employment action was motivated by associational discrimination.
Thus, in this case, Cook’s demand that John “leave his personal problems at home” after John requested one week of shortened workdays supports John’s claim.
John wins his case.
The Associational Discrimination Doctrine is that an employer can be held liable under the ADA if the disability of a relative was a determining factor in an adverse employment decision.
The court found that John had alleged sufficient facts to reflect that Cook fired him because the company considered the daughter’s disability a “distraction” that would impact his work.
This week’s case is a warning to employers who do not want to deal with workers who have disabled children or family members to be careful what they say during the termination process. Also it is a lesson to workers who are not disabled but who have people they must take care of who are: you have protection.
See you next week.