Parents Discharged for Son’s Medical Costs Have Disability Discrimination Claim

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) contains a rarely used provision that protects employees who are not disabled but who are discriminated against because they are associated with an individual, such as a spouse or other family member, who is disabled. A recent case from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, Trujillo v. PacifiCorp, although not controlling in the state of Georgia, has set a very strong employee-friendly precedent that should be favorable to employees throughout the country.

William and Debra Trujillo were long-term employees of PacifiCorp and they participated in the company’s health insurance plan. Their son Charlie was also covered by the plan. Charlie had cancer (which the company was aware of), and in the spring of 2003 he had a relapse, necessitating an aggressive course of medical treatments which, as the company was self-insured, eventually cost the company more than $60,000.

Just 11 days after Charlie’s relapse, the company launched an investigation of the Trujillos on suspicion of time theft. After a brief investigation, in which key witnesses were not interviewed, and suspect evidence was relied on, the Trujillos were discharged.

In response, the Trujillos filed an association discrimination lawsuit under the ADA, contending that they were terminated not because of their alleged time theft but because of the healthcare costs the company incurred as a result of Charlie’s illness. The lower court ruled in favor of the company, concluding that the Trujillos failed to show that the circumstances raised a reasonable inference that Charlie’s disability was a determining factor in the company’s decision to fire them.

However, on appeal to the Tenth Circuit, the court reversed the lower court’s dismissal, concluding that the Trujillos brought forward sufficient evidence to raise an inference that the company’s decision to fire them was based on Charlie’s disability. The court found the following facts significant: that the company repeatedly expressed general concerns about rising healthcare costs; that the company had made numerous attempts to cut those costs; that the company admitted that it closely monitored the progress of Charlie’s disease and his health care costs; and that there was a very short time period between Charlie’s relapse and the Trujillos’ discharge. The court concluded that these facts created a prima facie case that the company terminated the plaintiffs because they were “expensive employees.”

The court then concluded that the company’s stated basis for discharging the Trujillo’s was pretextual. Because other similarly situated employees received progressive discipline for similar or worse misconduct, and because the company’s investigation into the alleged time theft was shoddy and incomplete, the court found that this called into question the honesty of the company’s claim that they discharged the Trujillos for time theft.

Trujillo is an important decision for several reasons. First, an employer’s desire to reduce costs is typically seen as a legitimate non-pretextual basis for a decision to discharge an employee. For example, in the age discrimination context, the courts repeatedly uphold discharges of older, higher paid employees who are replaced by younger, lower paid employees on the basis that reducing wage costs is not discriminatory as long as such decisions are not simply a proxy for age discrimination. Despite this well-established principle, the Trujillo court noted, following the other courts that have interpreted the ADA’s association discrimination provision, that one of the theories that can support an ADA association discrimination claim is the “expensive employee” theory-that it is unlawful to take an adverse action against an employee because his or her spouse or other family member “has a disability that is costly to the employer because the spouse is covered by the employer’s health plan.”

The case is also significant because the Tenth Circuit was willing to rely on a chain of inferences in support of its decision, even though each inference in itself did not necessarily support a claim of discrimination. Although the company criticized this method, characterizing it as one which required the court “to build inference upon inference,” the court rejected this argument, apparently being satisfied that the collective weight of the inferences established a prima facie case of discrimination. Obviously, in most employment cases, employers do not admit to discrimination, and employees are forced to painstakingly build a case of discrimination from the bits and pieces of circumstantial evidence available to them. Trujillo thus sends a strong message that employees are not required to “prove” their case in order to survive a dismissal, but instead are entitled to the weight of reasonable inferences of discrimination.