July 13, 2017

Associational Disability: A Cautionary Tale (article)

A recent matter winding its way through U. S. District Court of Eastern Texas offers an essential reminder to employers about the importance of associational discrimination. 


In the matter of Whitley v. Dr Pepper Snapple Group, Inc., [Civil Action No. 4: 16-CV-00362 (E.D. Tex. May 4, 2017)], an employee sought clarification from her employer’s HR department about whether her group health plan covered applied behavioral analysis for her son diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.  Coverage for this type of benefit was initially denied under the premise of the plan’s vocational rehabilitation-related exclusion.  Thereafter, the plan was amended to explicitly exclude coverage for applied behavioral analysis.  The employee then sought assistance to question the denial of benefits owed to her and her son, together with a potential discrimination claim against her employer in violation of the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the American Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA).  After undergoing procedural process through the District Court, the matter will now be considered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.


As a reminder, to be protected by the American Disabilities Act (ADA), the individual must be qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, and meet one of three following criteria:

  • The individual has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  • The individual has a record of a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity; or
  • The individual is regarded as having an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment.

Further, discrimination against individuals because of association with a disabled person is prohibited under the ADA.  Employers should be aware that discrimination against an employee due to his/her association with an individual with a disability can rise to a level of a violation of the ADA.  For additional background information relating to the association provision of the ADA, the EEOC provides a fact sheet containing Questions and Answers about the association provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act.



The information contained in this article is provided as general guidance and may be affected by changes in law or regulation. This article is not intended to replace or substitute for accounting or other professional advice. Please consult a CBIZ professional. This information is provided as-is with no warranties of any kind. CBIZ shall not be liable for any damages whatsoever in connection with its use and assumes no obligation to inform the reader of any changes in laws or other factors that could affect the information contained herein.   

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