Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals
614 Fed. Appx. 24
June 5, 2015
Keywords: association, discrimination
Williams worked in management for Fruit of the Loom (“FOL”) for several years before performance issues began. His wife has Wegener’s Vascular Disease, and he was unable to visit some foreign countries because of the danger of passing a contagious disease to her. FOL stated he was being terminated for poor performance. He sued based on the ADA and the ADEA, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. The ADEA issue is not discussed in this brief.
The issue in the case is what Williams, the plaintiff, needed to prove in a case against his employer for discrimination based on his association with someone with a disability.
Facts of the Case
Williams worked for Fruit of the Loom’s (“FOL”) Office of Foreign Asset Control. This office ensures that FOL does not trade with any prohibited foreign entities. William worked in this capacity without concerns from 1983-1998 and from 2007-2009. In January 2008, FOL’s parent company, Berkshire Hathaway, hired Ernst and Young to audit the Office of Foreign Asset Control. Ernst and Young noticed problems with the department, and they came up during Williams’ 2009 yearly performance review. On that review, William met minimum standards and was marked as “Meets Objectives” but it was noted that he would need to improve management skills. In November 2009 FOL hired Jimmy Woodall, a former Ernst and Young audit manager, to “upgrade professionalism.” Williams’ direct supervisor mentioned that he spent a lot of time redoing Williams’ work, and Woodall subsequently made changes to office policy.
In January of 2011 his supervisor gave him a performance report saying, “needs improvement.” He was given a list of performance deficiencies and given 60 days to address those issues. In February 2011, Williams informed Woodall that his wife was diagnosed with Wegener’s Vascular Disease which weakened her immune system. Williams explained he could not travel to Central America because he was concerned he could contract an illness and pass it to his wife. This 2011 trip was the only the trip he missed due to his wife’s condition.
Sixty days later he was given another 90 days to correct performance deficiencies and another, more detailed, plan. In November of 2011, he was terminated. He was offered a severance package which he rejected and filed a complaint with the EEOC.
Issues of the Case
- Under what standard can an employee sue his former employer for termination based on discrimination by association?
Arguments & Analysis
Williams claimed he was terminated due to his wife’s Wegener’s Vascular Disease, and his association with her. Here, Williams was not able to offer any direct evidence of discrimination. In circumstances where the plaintiff is unable to provide direct evidence, the plaintiff must rely on a “burden shifting framework” that has been established by the Supreme Court under McDonnell Douglas Corp v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). In order to succeed in his discrimination claim, Williams must establish a prima facie case (explained further below). Once he shows this, then in order to prove the termination was not based on discriminatory reasons, FOL must show that there was a nondiscriminatory reason to terminate Williams. If FOL is able to prove that there was a nondiscriminatory reason to terminate Williams, then in order to succeed, Williams must then prove that the reason was pretext and that ultimately he was terminated for discriminatory reasons. The district court in this case determined that Williams had not produced enough evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that FOL’s reason for Williams’ termination was a pretext for discrimination. Therefore the district court held that Williams did not have a valid associational discrimination claim under the ADA. Williams appealed to the Sixth Circuit.
1. Prima Facie Case for Discrimination
As indicated above, in order to succeed, Williams must establish a “prima facie case,” which means that he must show evidence that is sufficiently strong enough so that his employer in this case must have to respond or answer it. Here, to establish a prima facie case, the court required that Williams show there was evidence of discrimination based on his association with someone with a disability. The ADA prohibits employers from “excluding or otherwise denying equal jobs or benefits to a qualified individual because of the known disability of an individual with whom the qualified individual is known to have a relationship or association[.] ” There are typically three theories of ADA associational discrimination: “(1) expense; (2) disability by association; and (3) distraction.” Under the ADA, to establish a prima facie case of associational discrimination, Williams must produce evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude (1) that he was qualified for the position; (2) that FOL subjected him to an adverse employment action; (3) that FOL knew that his wife had a disability; and (4) that the adverse employment action “raises a reasonable inference that the disability of [his wife] was a determining factor in the decision [to terminate Williams].” The court concluded that Williams was not able to produce evidence to support that FOL terminated his employment because of his wife’s disability, and therefore Williams was not able to establish a prima facie case for discrimination.
Even though Williams could not prove there a prima facie case for discrimination, the court still looked at whether the legitimate reason FOL gave to fire him was simply “pretext” and that the real reason was discrimination based on his wife’s disability. Williams “may demonstrate that [FOL’s] explanation is not credible by demonstrating that the proffered reason (1) had no basis in fact, (2) did not actually motivate [FOL’s] action, or (3) [was] insufficient to motivate [FOL’s] action.” Again the court found there was no basis for William’s allegation that the reasons provided by the defendant were “mere pretext.”
The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision that Williams was unable to establish a prima facie case of associational discrimination. The Sixth Circuit also found that, even if he had been able to establish a claim based on Williams association with a person with a disability, that there was not enough evidence to establish a question of fact as to whether FOL’s reasons for terminating Williams were “mere pretext.”
Policy & Practice
While this case does not carve out new implications for discrimination claims under Title I, it serves as a good example of the elements required to proceed in an associational discrimination claim. In order to get to a jury trial, the plaintiff who brings an associational discrimination claim under Title I must have enough evidence to establish a prima facie case that includes that:
- the employee was qualified for the position;
- the employer subjected the employee to an adverse employment action (such as termination, decrease in pay, demotion, etc);
- the employer knew the employee was associated with someone who had a disability; and
- the adverse employment action raised a reasonable inference that the disability of the person the employee had a relationship with was a determining factor in the decision to take the adverse employment action.
- Williams v. Union Underwear (full text)
- McDonnell Douglas Corp v. Green (full text)
These materials do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in any individual case. Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for legal advice and/or representation. These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time. In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance, and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.