Do some of your employees’ spouses or children have serious (and expensive) health troubles? It may be tempting to offer suggestions about less costly treatments—or even to send that employee packing. But don’t do it. As this new ruling shows, it’s illegal to discriminate against employees based on their relationship with a disabled person.
Case in Point: Phillis Dewitt, a nurse manager at a hospital in Peoria, Ill., was a rising star and received excellent evaluations. The hospital, which was struggling financially, had a partially self-insured health care plan. Over a three-year period, the hospital was regularly notified about the escalating medical costs related to Phillis’ husband, Anthony, who suffered from prostate cancer.
At one point, a supervisor confronted Phillis about those high costs and suggested she consider “less expensive” hospice care over the current chemotherapy treatments. On a separate occasion, the supervisor held a meeting to explain that the hospital would require “creative” cost cuts to ease its financial crisis.
A few months later, the hospital fired Phillis. Her husband died the following year. She sued, alleging that her firing was caused by “association discrimination,” which is unlawful under the ADA.
The court sent the case to a jury, saying that “a reasonable juror could conclude that the hospital … was concerned that Anthony—a multiyear cancer veteran—might linger indefinitely.” (Dewitt v. Proctor Hospital, 7th. Cir.)
3 Lessons Learned
1. Train about all types of disability discrimination. The ADA’s broad “association” provision prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on “the known disability of an individual with whom (the employee) is known to have a relationship or association.”
2. Remind supervisors: Don’t play doctor. The supervisor in this case was pretty much practicing medicine when she recommended that Phillis’ husband discontinue chemo and sign up for hospice. Don’t go there.
3. Remember: Timing is everything. Courts aren’t stupid—they can put the pieces together. In this case, the court said “the timing of Dewitt’s termination suggests that the financial albatross of Anthony’s continued cancer treatment was an important factor.”
Mindy Chapman is an attorney and president of Mindy Chapman & Associates LLC. She is a master trainer, keynote speaker and co-author of the ABA book, Case Dismissed! Taking Your Harassment Prevention Training to Trial.
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