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Can someone sue their spouse's employer?

When an employee is treated unfairly by an employer, it is not only the employee who suffers. The employee's spouse and family also may be harmed by the workplace discrimination. But do family members have the ability to pursue a claim against the employer for the harm they suffered as a result of the unlawful discrimination? Some Missouri residents may be surprised by the answer.

In one recent case, a disabled school custodian and his wife met with the school district's human resources department to discuss possible reasonable accommodations for the man's medical condition, severe and chronic hiccups. The couple asked that the man be allowed to wear a mask while working and avoid exposure to cleaning products. The school district failed to provide an accommodation. The man then suffered a stroke and was unable to return to work.

The wife filed a lawsuit alleging she was harmed because of the school district's failure to make accommodations for her husband's disability. The court dismissed the case, saying that while the employee could sue the school district for disability discrimination, the wife could not. The court said that although the wife suffered indirect financial harm as a result of the employer's failure to make accommodation, she was not directly affected. However, the court said the disabled employee could refile the lawsuit in his own name.

Under certain circumstances, the wife may have a claim against her own employer. If, for example, she is denied leave to care for her disabled spouse, she may bring a claim for violation of the Family Medical Leave Act. Additionally, if her employer discriminates against her based on her husband's disability, she may pursue a claim for association discrimination. Such a claim may arise if her employer terminates her because of concerns that the spouse's disability will drive up the company's health insurance costs or require the wife to take leave.

Sources: Business Management Daily, "Only employee-not his spouse-can sue for disability discrimination," The HR Specialist, April 19, 2013

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