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Woman loses case alleging associational disability discrimination

A federal judge dealt the final blow against a woman who was claiming associational disability discrimination after she quit her job the same day her husband was fired allegedly because he constantly passed gas at work.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prevents employers from discriminating against employees with a disability. It also prevents them from discriminating against someone based on their relationship to or association with someone who has a disability.

The goal of the provision is to prevent an employer from taking adverse actions against employees based on assumptions and stereotypes. For example, an employer can't fire an employee because they find out that the employee's son has AIDS and they fear contagion. Nor could an employer refuse to hire someone just because the potential employee has a spouse with cancer at home based on the idea that the potential employee would end up missing a lot of work to care for his or her spouse.

It was not meant, however, to protect every employee from the sometimes thoughtless or rude comments of management.

According to the lawsuit, the employee worked for a famous New Jersey pork roll company along with her husband. Her husband, who once weighed 400 pounds, had gastric bypass surgery and developed "extreme gas and uncomfortable diarrhea." He was eventually let go from his position. Although it's unclear what reason management gave for her spouse's dismissal, supervisors had made remarks to her about the odor he was producing.

While the court agreed that the comments were inappropriate, they didn't rise to the level of an abusive work environment that essentially left her with no other option except to quit. In defense of its ruling, the court cited "similarly rejected" claims based on workers' bathroom usage or body odor.

The lesson to be learned from a case like this is that not every insensitive or even insulting comment rises to the level of an adverse employment action. Sometimes, you simply have to endure a bit of rudeness from others in the workplace.

On the other hand, if you are denied a promotion, have your hours cut, are given a less-favorable assignment, denied privileges given to other employees or subjected to actual harassment that affects your ability to do your job based solely on your relationship to someone with a disability, that is workplace discrimination.

Source: New Jersey 101.5, "Pork roll farting lawsuit blows over- Judge says woman has no 'Case'," Adam Hochron, March 14, 2017

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