William and Debra Trujillo worked for PacifiCorp in Sweetwater County, Wyoming. During their employment, their terminally ill son, Charlie, participated in PacifiCorp’s health insurance plan, in which benefits were paid directly by the company.
On June 10, 2003, 11 days after Charlie began expensive treatments, PacifiCorp began an investigation of suspected theft by the Trujillos for false recording of hours worked. On June 19, PacifiCorp fired William Trujillo, a 25-year employee of the company, for "time theft," and later fired Debra Trujillo for falsification of her work hours.
The Trujillos filed suit under the Americans With Disabilities Act in U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming. Their lawsuit alleged a violation of the ADA’s "association" provisions, which prohibit employers from discriminating against an employee because of the employee’s relationship or association with an individual with a known disability.
The court granted summary judgment in favor of PacifiCorp, holding that the Trujillos failed to raise a "reasonable inference" that Charlie’s disability was a determining factor in the decision to fire. The Trujillos appealed.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver reversed, holding that the Trujillos raised a reasonable inference of PacifiCorp’s discriminatory motive to establish a prima facie case of association discrimination. The time proximity between Charlie’s expensive treatment and PacifiCorp’s investigation and termination of the Trujillos supported an inference of discrimination. The Trujillos also presented evidence that other employees accused of similar workplace misconduct were not fired. Trujillo v. PacifiCorp., 10th Cir., No. 06-8074 (5/7/08).
Impact: Even if there is a legitimate business reason for terminating an employee, disparate treatment of similarly situated employees by a company suggests a reasonable inference of pretext. Employers are advised that when considering taking action against workplace misconduct, they should take action that is consistent and is in line with company policy.
Workforce Management, June 23, 2008, p. 8 -- Subscribe Now!