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FIRED BECAUSE OF YOUR ASSOCIATION WITH A DISABLED PERSON: YOU NOW MAY HAVE A CAUSE OF ACTION FOR DISCRIMINATION

Massachusetts' antidiscrimination statute, G.L. c. 151B, §4(16), bars employment discrimination on the basis of handicap. Flagg v. AliMed, Inc., a recent Supreme Judicial Court case presented the question whether the antidiscrimination statute bars an employer from discriminating against its employee based on the handicap of a person with whom the employee associates. The SJC held that it does in certain circumstances. 

The allegations in Plaintiff Flagg's Complaint against AliMed are the following: 2008 marked the Plaintiff Flagg's eighteenth year of employment with the Defendant AliMed. During his employment, Flagg always received good job performance reviews. As an employee, Flagg received a salary and benefits, including family medical insurance. On December 7, 2007, Flagg's wife underwent surgery for removal of a brain tumor, and thereafter was receiving rehabilitative care. As a result, Flagg became responsible for caring for the couple's children, including the obligation to pick up his daughter from school. Flagg's manager at AliMed told him to take the time necessary to do what he had to do to care for his family. When Flagg left work to pick up his daughter on various days between December 27, 2007, and January 15, 2008, he did not "punch out" when he went to pick up his daughter or after he had returned to work and when he was leaving at the end of the day. Flagg's manager knew he was not punching out, and did not say anything to him about this practice.

On February 4, 2008, AliMed terminated Flagg. AliMed offered for its reason for termination the fact that Flagg had failed to punch out on certain days when he left to pick up his daughter and therefore was being paid for hours that he had not actually worked. AliMed's proffered reason for the termination was false: the real reason Flagg was terminated was that his wife had a very serious and expensive medical condition that rendered her totally disabled, and for which AliMed, through its health plan, was financially responsible. As a consequence of his termination, Flagg had to deplete his retirement plan funds and all his savings and suffered mental anguish.

Flagg filed a civil action for discrimination against AliMed claiming associational discrimination that he was terminated based on the AliMed's bias against his disabled spouse. AliMed immediately moved to dismiss the civil action arguing that Flagg failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted as there was no such claim for association discrimination. The Superior Court Judge agreed with AliMed and dismissed the case. Flagg appealed.

The Supreme Judicial Court reversed the Superior Court ruling by holding:

We hold that associational discrimination based on handicap is prohibited under §4(16). In the present case, the plaintiff's complaint alleges that he was a qualified, adequately performing employee who was terminated by AliMed because his wife's total disability resulted in substantial medical expenses that AliMed was obliged to cover as part of the family health benefits provided as a term of the plaintiff's employment - that is, he was fired because of his association with his handicapped wife. The plaintiff has alleged a plausible set of facts for relief, and the dismissal of this claim must be reversed.

In this ruling, the SJC recognized associational discrimination as a proper wrongful termination claim in Massachusetts in certain limited circumstances. The circumstances where such a cause of action arises appears limited to those types that are outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act, such as the facts of the Flagg case or where an employer fears that a presently nondisabled employee will become disabled because of his association with a disabled person, such as through contact with a person carrying the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), or because of common genetic components, such as where a relative suffers from a genetically caused disease.

The Flagg case sets a precedent for Massachusetts' employers that associational discrimination in the workplace is illegal and can be grounds for a civil suit. Additionally, it provides a cause of action for former employees to assert claims against their employers for discrimination based on association with a disabled individual.

It is important to remember that there are limited circumstances that allow civil lawsuits alleging associational discrimination to move forward. Contact Attorney Mucci, an experienced employment discrimination attorney, if you are an employer or employee and have questions about associational discrimination.

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