The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) has held an employer is prohibited from discriminating against its non-disabled employee based on that employee’s association with an immediate family member with a disability or handicap under Chapter 151B, the state’s antidiscrimination law.  This decision expands the scope of employer liability.

In Flagg v. Alimed, Inc (July 19, 2013),  Mark Flagg alleged that he was terminated from his employment because of his wife’s disability.  In 2007, Flagg’s wife underwent surgery for a brain tumor.  Flagg became responsible for caring for the couple’s children, which included his periodically leaving work for a short period of time to pick up his daughter and then returning to work to finish the day.  During those times he left, Flagg did not punch out, which he claims his manager knew.  Shortly after his wife’s recurrence of the brain tumor, Flagg was terminated for failure to punch out.  Flagg alleged the company really terminated him because it did not want to pay for his wife’s costly medical treatment.

Chapter 151B prohibits employment discrimination in Massachusetts and section 4(16) specifically prohibits discrimination based on handicap.   G.L. c. 151B, sec. 4(16).  At issue before the SJC was whether the statute extended to include “associational discrimination,” which does not specifically appear in its text.  The SJC explained that the term “associational discrimination” refers to a plaintiff who, “although not a member of a protected class himself or herself, is the victim of discriminatory animus directed toward a third person who is a member of the protected class and with whom the plaintiff associates.”

Answering in the affirmative, the SJC determined that a broad reading of the statutory language to include associational discrimination furthered the state’s general purpose to eliminate workplace barriers based on discrimination.  It noted that the definition of “handicap” includes (1) persons with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities or (2) persons with a record of impairment, as well as covers those (3) persons “being regarded as having such impairment.”  G.L. c. 151B, sec. 1(17).  It reasoned that this third prong protects those who are not actually impaired but who may be the victim of “stereotypic assumptions, myths, and fears regarding such limitations.”  For this reason, “[w]hen an employer takes adverse action against its employee because of his spouse’s impairment, it is targeting the employee as the direct victim of its animus, inflicting punishment for exactly the same reason and in exactly the same way as if the employee were handicapped himself.”

In its holding, the SJC afforded substantial deference to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), which has adopted associational discrimination under c. 151B.   It also looked to analogous federal law under Title VII and the Rehabilitation Act to support the ruling.  In a footnote, the SJC noted that it was limiting claims for associational discrimination to immediate family members only.  It should also be noted that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits “excluding or otherwise denying equal jobs or benefits” because of the known disability of an individual with whom the employee is “known to have a relationship or association.”

Employers should  train all managers, supervisors, and employees on this protected status and other anti-discrimination laws.  Companies should also review and update their policies.