An Illinois church secretary sought to have her weekends free to care for a disabled daughter. But clerical help was badly needed on weekends, and no other employee wanted to work every weekend. Furthermore, her work was poor. So the church’s personnel committee moved to fire her. Could they do that?
What happened. When “Mason” first joined the staff of St. Mark United Methodist Church in 2006, she was a part-time employee. Her daughter normally lived in assisted living, but Mason wanted her at home on weekends. Whenever she had to work evenings or weekends, her son would take care of his sister.
In 2008, Mason was changed to full time on all weekdays. But that left the only other secretary, who was also Mason’s boss, to work every weekend. She objected several months later and asked to alternate weekends with Mason. By that time, though, Mason’s son wasn’t available to care for his sister, and Mason refused all weekend work. One personnel committee member suggested firing her then, but others disagreed.
By November, the other secretary fell ill and was out for several weeks. Mason was covering both jobs, as well as worrying about her daughter, and she began making mistakes and leaving some tasks undone. The senior minister spoke to her about these performance problems, and she was given a raise in January. But the mistakes continued, and the personnel committee decided to fire her at the end of the month.
The day before the committee’s decision, Mason was an hour late for work and was again rebuked by the minister. She felt she’d been fired for being late and sued the church for wrongful termination. A federal district court judge ruled in the church’s favor, and Mason appealed to the 7th Circuit, which covers Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.
What the court said. Mason argued that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) bars discrimination against an employee “because of the known disability of an individual with whom [the employee] is known to have a relationship or association.” But that bias is prohibited only on the basis of unfounded assumptions about the employee’s need to care for the disabled relative. Here, the employer acted on the basis of facts, not assumptions. So appellate judges ruled that the termination did not violate the ADA. Magnus v. St. Mark United Methodist Church, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, No. 11-3767 (8/8/12).
Point to remember: Employers need not accommodate nondisabled employees.