Discrimination Claim—Based on Association to Disabled Relative—Survives Dismissal Request

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In Rope v. Auto-Chlor System of Washington, Inc., plaintiff Scott Rope, a former branch manager for Auto-Chlor, sued his employer for violation of the newly-enacted Michelle Maykin Memorial Donation Protection Act, discrimination for his association with a disabled person, and wrongful termination in violation of the public policy, among other claims. When hired in September 2010, Rope informed Auto-Chlor that he planned to take time off in February 2011 to donate a kidney to his physically disabled sister. He requested, and was granted, unpaid leave for this purpose. When California passed a new donation protection law that provided for paid leave to employees, Rope requested the leave be extended and paid.

Auto-Chlor granted Rope unspecified unpaid leave but, notwithstanding multiple follow-up inquiries, did not respond to his request for paid leave. After receiving satisfactory performance reviews from September to December 2010, Auto-Chlor fired Rope on December 30, 2010—two days before the new donation protection law took effect. As planned, Rope donated a kidney to his sister in February 2011. Rope alleged that Auto-Chlor fired him to avoid providing him paid leave or accommodating his anticipated work restrictions, but the trial court dismissed Rope’s action. Rope appealed.

The appellate court found in part for Rope and in part for Auto-Chlor. With regard to the donation protection law, the court agreed that the law applied prospectively only. Since the law was not yet effective on Rope’s separation date, it did not apply and his claim failed. However, the court recognized that Rope could pursue a claim for associational discrimination, wrongful termination in violation of public policy, and failure to maintain an environment free from discrimination. “The reasonable inference is that Auto-Chlor acted preemptively to avoid an expense stemming from Rope’s association with his physically-disabled sister,” and such conduct was actionable under these alternative theories.

This decision provides a good example of a rare associational discrimination claim and the potential breadth of protections under federal and state anti-discrimination law.