SJC Recognizes Associational Discrimination Claim

August 8, 2013

In a recent employment discrimination case, the Supreme Judicial Court recognized the plaintiff's claim of "associational discrimination" against an employer. Justice Margot Botsford wrote the opinion of the court, stating "a plaintiff, 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."

The case, Flagg v. AliMed, Inc., involved a plaintiff bringing suit against his former employer, claiming he was terminated based on his spouse's handicap condition and the corresponding medical costs. The plaintiff's wife suffered from a serious medical condition and was covered under the employer's family health benefits. But, the defense argued that the handicap discrimination statute, G.L.c. 151B §4(16), "precludes the plaintiff from raising a claim of associational handicap discrimination because the handicapped person at issue is not the plaintiff--its employee--but the plaintiff's wife." Judge Botsford found this interpretation to be too narrow.

Judge Botsford asserted that the employer "terminated [the plaintiff's] employment premised on discriminatory animus directed toward his handicapped wife, that is, its desire to be free from its obligation to pay for the wife's costly medical treatment." Therefore, the court reasoned that the "hostility toward the handicapped condition of the employee's spouse, ... is treating the employee as if he were handicapped himself."

Consequently, the court found that these facts supported a valid discrimination claim based on the language of G.L.c. 151B §4(16), the handicap discrimination statute. The court stated that, the "plaintiff's complaint alleges that he was a qualified, adequately performing employee who was terminated... because his wife's total disability resulted in substantial medical expenses." Accordingly, the SJC overturned the dismissal of the case that occurred in the lower court and stated that associational discrimination is a valid claim for which relief can be granted in Massachusetts. The court did not limit the statute to only protect employees but, rather, extended the handicap discrimination claim to a family member - the plaintiff's spouse.

Finally, the court's ruling broadens an employee's protection against handicap discrimination as it considered the legislative intent of Massachusetts employment discrimination statutes and various other federal acts and interpretations. The court reasoned that protection from this type of discrimination is engrained in in the language and purpose of the statute.

Although, here, the court was careful to limit the decision to the facts of this case and the finding by the court that the "[plaintiff] was fired because of his association with his handicapped wife." This causal relationship will be an important consideration in future litigation involving associational discrimination.