Week Ending 9/9/16: EEOC v. New Mexico Orthopaedics Associates

Schorr & Associates’ Employment Case of The Week ending September 9, 2016

EEOC v. New Mexico Orthopaedics Associates, P.C., 1:15-cv-557 (D.N.M. 2015) (settlement announced September 1, 2016)

This week’s Case of the Week highlights the interesting issue of associational discrimination.  In the case of EEOC v. New Mexico Orthopaedics Associates, P.C., which was settled this week, the legal question was whether an employer can fire an employee solely because the employee has a disabled child.  Luckily for the employee, the employer’s management made this a very clear cut case.

Melissa Yalch Valencia was a temporary staffing agency employee placed at New Mexico Orthopaedics Associates, P.C.  Ms. Valencia had a three year old child with several serious disabilities.  The medical practice was in the process of hiring Ms. Valencia as a full-time employee, and had actually offered her the job.  Ms. Valencia advised the practice that her daughter would be needing surgery and that she would be needing some time off for the daughter’s surgery and afterward to care for her.  A day after being told that the hiring process was going forward, she needed to miss a day because both her children were sick.

The very same day, Ms. Valencia was told she was fired.  When Ms. Valencia asked why she was being fired, the supervisor, apparently lacking both heart and brain texted, “[l]ook Melissa you have a child whom is medically disabled you do not belong in the workplace or in my clinic at NMO! Go home and stay with your daughter that’s where you belong not here.”  When Ms. Valencia texted back that she was counting on the job being permanent, the supervisor texted, “[s]orry Melissa but life isn’t fair sometimes we have no room here for a disability and I will not accommodate to one nor will NMO have a good day.”

With the facts hardly in dispute due to the text messages, the only legal issue was whether the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) protects employees who are associated with a disabled person.  The ADA prohibits covered 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." 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(4).  This associational discrimination provision has been held to protect qualified individuals from adverse job actions based on unfounded stereotypes and assumptions arising from the employees' relationships with particular disabled persons.

According to the press release from the EEOC, The terms of the settlement included a payment of $165,000 and a requirement for the employer to conduct training and implement programs in compliance with anti-discrimination laws.

New Jersey law also protects employees from discrimination based upon association with a disabled person.  Although the New Jersey Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the issue, the New Jersey Appellate Division and the District Court of New Jersey have both held that the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination protects employees from discrimination based on association with a person in a protected class, including a disabled person.

EEOC attorney: Loretta Medina.

Defendant’s attorneys: Agnes F. Padilla, S. Charles Archuleta, Cassandra R. Malone.

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