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Stansberry v. Air Wisconsin Airlines Corporation

Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals 651 F.3d 482 June 1, 2011 Keywords: association, discrimination, employment

Facts of the Case

Eugene Stansberry managed Air Wisconsin’s operations at Kalamazoo Airport from 1999 until he was fired on July 26, 2007.  In the mid-1990s, Stansberry’s wife developed Polyarteritis, a rare autoimmune disorder. Stanberry’s wife was covered under Eugene’s Air Wisconsin health Plan. In March of 2007, Stansberry’s wife’s condition began to worsen.  Her doctor recommended a treatment regime that was not approved by her health plan.  Because it was not approved, the health group notified Stansberry that it would only cover this treatment until July of 2007. As Air Wisconsin’s highest ranking manager at the Kalamazoo Airport, Eugene Stansberry was responsible for ensuring that new employees properly carried out their jobs.  Between February and May of 2007, six different employees received security violation letters from the Kalamazoo airport director. Stansberry did not notify Air Wisconsin’s corporate headquarters about the violations, and in June the Transportation Security Administration sent a letter of investigation to Air Wisconsin’s headquarters. Stansberry’s supervisor notified the Transportation Security Administration that he would take “severe disciplinary action” against Stansberry. On July 26, 2007, Stansberry went to Kalamazoo to meet with his supervisor.  During this meeting, the supervisor fired Stansberry.  The two disputed what was discussed at this meeting.  Air Wisconsin claims that it fired Stansberry for his poor performance, which included his failure to stay within budget, failure to report security violations, and improper supervision of employees, which led to security violations. Stansberry then filed suit against Air Wisconsin, alleging it fired him because of his wife’s disability in violation of the associational discrimination provision of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(4).  The district court granted summary judgment for Air Wisconsin on Stansberry’s ADA claim, finding that Stansberry did not establish a case of associational discrimination. Alternatively, the district court also found that Stansberry’s poor performance was a legitimate reason for his termination and he had not shown that it was pretextual. Stansberry appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Issues of the Case

  1. Whether Stansberry can establish an associational discrimination claim under Section 12112(b)(4) of the ADA?

Arguments & Analysis

1. The term ‘discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability.’

Section 12112(b)(4) of the ADA states that the term ‘discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability’ includes “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.”

2. Three theories of associational discrimination that a plaintiff can fall under.

The court identified three theories of associational discrimination that a plaintiff can fall under: (1) “expense”, (2) “disability by association”, and (3) “distraction.”  The “expense” theory is where an employer fires an employee because of the expense of the employee’s associate on the employer’s health plan. The “disability by association” theory means either the employer fears the employee may contract the disability of his associate or that the employee is genetically predisposed to develop that disability.  The “distraction” theory is where the employee performs poorly at work because he is distracted by the disability of his associate. Stansberry abandoned his argument under the “expense” theory and acknowledged that his claim did not fit into the “disability by association” theory.  He instead argued under the “distraction” theory that Air Wisconsin fired him because of poor performance caused by his wife’s disability.  To resolve the issue on appeal, the Court assumed that Stansberry’s wife was a qualified individual with a disability.

3. Four part test of the influential case Den Hartog v. Wasatch Acad., 129 F.3d 1076 (10th Cir. 1997) to determine associational discrimination.

The court then adopted the four part test of the influential case Den Hartog v. Wasatch Acad., 129 F.3d 1076 (10th Cir. 1997) to determine whether Stansberry could establish associational discrimination: (1) the employee was qualified for the position; (2) the employee was subject to an adverse employment action; (3) the employee was known to be associated with a disabled individual; and (4) the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances that raise a reasonable inference that the disability of the relative was a determining factor in the decision. The Court found that Stansberry did not meet the fourth element. There was ample evidence that Stansberry was not performing his job to Air Wisconsin’s satisfaction but little evidence to suggest his discharge was based on any unfounded fears that his wife’s illness might cause him to be inattentive or distracted in the future. Stansberry argued that the court could infer Air Wisconsin fired him on account of his wife’s condition worsening based on the timing of the termination.  But the court noted that it cannot draw this inference because Air Wisconsin had knowledge of his wife’s disability for many years and never acted on unfounded fears that Stansberry might be inattentive at work. Lastly, the court noted that employers are not required to provide reasonable accommodations to workers on account of their spouses’ disabilities.  Even if Stansberry’s wife’s illness caused his performance to slip, the court stated that the ADA would not prohibit Air Wisconsin from firing him due to poor performance.


The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for Air Wisconsin because Stansberry did not offer any evidence that Air Wisconsin terminated him because of his wife’s disability.  It stated that Air Wisconsin’s decision to terminate Stansberry appeared to have been based on his poor performance.  Furthermore, while Stansberry’s wife’s disability may have caused his poor performance, the ADA does not require Air Wisconsin to provide reasonable accommodations to associates of individuals with disabilities.

Policy & Practice

Associational discrimination cannot be found unless the employer knows of the association and knows of the associate’s disability.

The court had no problem finding that element #3 of the Den Hartog test was met—that Air Wisconsin knew Stansberry was married and that his wife had disability.  While the court did not spend much time discussing this element, it is still important to note that the language of Section 12112(b)(4) makes it clear that a case of associational discrimination cannot be found unless the employer knows of the association and knows of the associate’s disability. The Court also noted that associational claims are very uncommon.  In fact, this was the first time the Sixth Circuit published an opinion that discussed such a claim. With so little experience with such claims, the court turned to the legislative history of the ADA that included the following illustration: “…assume that the employer hires the applicant. If he or she violates a neutral employer policy concerning attendance or tardiness, he or she may be dismissed even if the reason for the absence or tardiness is to care for the spouse.”  H.R.Rep. No. 101-485, pt. 2, at 61-62 (1990).

Dependents with disabilities and health care.

Although Stansberry did not argue that Air Wisconsin fired him because of the cost of his wife’s care, note that the ADA does prohibit such a practice. The EEOC’s Title I Technical Assistance Manual states that an employer may not “refuse to hire or fire an individual because s/he has a spouse, child or other dependent who has a disability that is either not covered by the employer’s current health insurance plan or that may cause future increased health care costs.  An employer however does not have to provide health insurance coverage to employees who have dependents with disabilities beyond that provided to other employees.”

Termination is not the only situation where associational discrimination in health care arises.

The ADA specifically provides that an employer may not deny an employment opportunity or benefit to an individual because that individual has a known relationship or association with an individual who has a disability. Health care coverage is considered one of these benefits.  An example of associational discrimination in the denial of health care is Sanford v. Slade’s Country Stores, LLC. There the plaintiff was a manager of a Slade store in Alabama and claimed that her employer fired her because her son had a disability.  There, the court held that her poor performance justified her termination, even if the reason for her poor performance was her duty to care for her son.  However, the court held that there were genuine issues of material fact whether the employer failed to disclose the existence of its health insurance plan because her son had a disability.



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.