Supreme Judicial Court Holds That Associational Disability Discrimination Claim is Valid Under Chapter 151B

What you need to know:

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently held that a former employee who claimed that he was fired because his employer did not want to pay for his disabled wife’s healthcare coverage could sue the employer for “associational discrimination” in a cause of action based on Massachusetts state law.

What you need to do:

Employers should exercise care when considering whether to terminate an employee with a disabled family member.  This is particularly true when the employee’s family member is insured under the employer’s health insurance plan.  

Background:  Flagg v. AliMed

Marc Flagg worked for AliMed, a medical supply company and received family medical insurance through AliMed’s healthcare plan.  Late in 2007, his wife underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor.  While she received rehabilitative care, Flagg would sometimes leave work early in order to pick his daughter up from school. 

AliMed fired Flagg after concluding that he had failed to “punch out” on certain days when picking up his daughter, and was therefore being paid for hours he did not actually work.  Flagg filed suit, claiming that he was really terminated because his wife had a serious and expensive medical condition for which the company was financially responsible through its health insurance plan.  He contended that the company had therefore violated Massachusetts’ statute prohibiting discrimination against an employee on the basis of a disability.

A Massachusetts Superior Court dismissed Flagg’s claim, holding that Massachusetts law does not recognize claims for employment discrimination based solely on an employee’s relationship with a disabled person.  This decision was then appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

The Decision

The Supreme Judicial Court reversed the Superior Court’s dismissal of Flagg’s claim, holding that the Massachusetts employment discrimination law can support a claim for “associational discrimination” when an employee, while not a member of a protected class, is nonetheless the victim of discrimination because of the employee’s relationship with a protected individual. 

The majority decision centered on a broad reading of Chapter 151B, the Massachusetts law regulating employment discrimination.  The majority held that a liberal interpretation of the statute was warranted by the law’s “expansive, categorical prohibition against discrimination based on handicap in the workplace generally.”  The Court therefore held that Flagg had properly stated a claim by alleging that he experienced an adverse employment action based on his wife’s disability.

What This Decision Means for Employers

The full reach of the Court’s decision is not entirely clear.  The Court did emphasize that its decision was based on the specific facts before it—which involved an immediate family member of an employee—and expressly declined to examine what it described as “more attenuated associations.”  Importantly, a concurring opinion also sought to emphasize that the Court was not stating that an employer must provide an employee with reasonable accommodations in order to care for a disabled family member.  Until the Court has the opportunity to clarify the breadth of its decision, however, these issues will remain unsettled. 

Conclusion

Flagg v. AliMed represents an expansion of rights for employees under Massachusetts law, though the parameters of that expansion have yet to be fully defined.  It is likely that subsequent case law will resolve the ambiguities inherent in Flagg in the coming years.  In the meantime, employers should work closely with their employment counsel to formulate policies and make employment decisions that fully comply with current Massachusetts law.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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