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Woman Fired for Taking Time Off to Care for Son Who Had Cancer; Jury Awards Her $233K

February 9, 2015 Workplace Discrimination

No matter how dedicated you are to your job, your perspective can change when a family member is struck down with a terminal illness.

But could your job be at risk if you need to take time off to care for a sick family member or another person you’re closely associated with?

The law generally says no. In fact, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) includes an “association” provision that states that people who have a known relationship to a disabled person are protected from job discrimination.

But that doesn’t mean some employers won’t find other reasons to terminate staffers who appear to have conflicting priorities between on- and off-the-job responsibilities.

Let’s take a look at how this can play out.

A Lifetime of Sickness

Theresa Buffington was a manager at a Burger King in Western Pennsylvania. She frequently needed time off to care for her son, D.J., who’d had cancer since he was two. However, she still rated average or above-average in her employment reviews and had no history of reprimands during her seven years of employment at the company.

During one of her son’s relapses, Buffington missed more work than usual. D.J. had required surgery to remove a tumor. He then had an extended recovery time, during which he needed follow-up radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

Buffington came to work when she could, but her supervisors were unhappy with her uneven attendance. They began to write memos back and forth, discussing the possibility of demoting her if she “couldn’t handle the job.”

While supervising a shift one day, Buffington saw that her crew was out of a certain product. She asked a staffer to go borrow some of the product from another nearby Burger King. There was a company rule that only supervisors were allowed to run errands during work hours, but the policy was rarely enforced and Buffington was the only manager on duty that day.

Unfortunately, the staffer got in an accident while completing the assignment. Buffington was immediately fired for violating the company rule.

During the termination meeting, Buffington’s manager stated that they needed someone “whose head is there 100%” and that getting fired would allow Buffington to spend all her time with her son.

D.J. died eight months later.

The Real Reason for Termination

Buffington sued, alleging that she was fired due to her association with a disabled person in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The company tried to get the case thrown out, arguing that Buffington’s performance had been declining for some time.

But the court refused to dismiss the case and allowed it to proceed to jury trial. The jury found that the company had violated the law. Buffington was awarded $115,000 in front pay, $70,000 in compensatory damages, and over $48,000 in back pay.

(The case discussed here is Buffington v. PEC Management.)

Contact the Murphy Law Group Now for a Free Consultation

As this EEOC fact sheet shows, the association provision of the ADA can be complicated. If you believe that you’ve suffered an adverse employment action due to your association with a disabled person, it’s a good idea to speak to an attorney.

Email us at, or call (267) 273-1054 for a free consultation.