SW Legal studies in Business

Fired Employee May Have Suit for Disability Association Discrimination

Appeals court held that a disability discrimination claim may proceed in a case where an employee claimed she was fired because of high medical costs incurred by her husband under her health benefits plan. Such “association discrimination,” in an effort to avoid such expenses, is a violation of the ADA.

Topic Employment Discrimination
Key Words

Disability; Association Discrimination; Family Medical Expenses; ERISA

C A S E   S U M M A R Y

Phillis Dewitt, a registered nurse, received good evaluations for her work at Proctor Hospital before she was fired. She contended the reason she was fired was because of medical expenses incurred by her husband via her health insurance policy provided by Proctor. His claims, related to prostate cancer, ran $300,000 from 2003 until she was fired in 2005 (her husband died in 2006). Dewitt had been challenged by Proctor managers about the expenses. Dewitt sued Proctor for age, sex and disability discrimination. The district court dismissed the suit; Dewitt appealed.


Reversed in part. The sex and age discrimination claims are not supported by the evidence, however the disability discrimination claim may proceed. The claim is known as “association discrimination.” The ADA prohibits discrimination against an employee as a result of a disability suffered by a person associated with the employee, in this case Dewitt’s husband. If an employee is dismissed because of the insurance expense incurred by a disabled family member, there may be grounds for a disability suit. Furthermore, ERISA has a retaliation provision that is intended to discourage employers from discharging or harassing their employees in an attempt to prevent them from using their medical benefits. Dewitt may have a claim both for ERISA retaliation and for disability discrimination, as she presented evidence that she was confronted by managers about the costs of her husband’s care under her medical insurance benefits.

Citation Dewitt v. Proctor Hospital, 517 F.3d 944 (7th Cir., 2008)

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