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Associational Discrimination In The Workplace: Can Claims Extend To Those Who Advocate For The Disabled?

Can a special education coordinator pursue an associational discrimination suit against her employer school district that allegedly fired her in retaliation for her advocacy of disabled students? This is exactly the question a Judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts confronted in Perez v. Greater New Bedford Vocational Technical School District.

The Plaintiff Perez was hired as the Director of Special Education for Greater New Bedford Vocational Technical School District. Upon starting, Perez discovered the school was misappropriating funds intended for use for special education and that the school was not in compliance with state and federal laws concerning special needs students. As Director, Perez applied and received a federal grant in the amount of $300,000. After receiving a negative performance evaluation in 2009, the district brought in an outside consultant to evaluate the special education department. The consultant completed a review and concluded that the department was on the right track and that Perez had done an outstanding job. In December 2009, the district requested Perez amend a grant proposal that would allow the school to hire an information technology technician to assist school-wide computer needs, rather than a technician to support disabled students with adaptive technology. Perez refused and the district amended the grant application on its own.

In February 2010, Perez was notified that the school principal did not intend to renew her contract for the next school year. Three months later, Perez was informed she was going to be dismissed and was placed on administrative leave through the end of the school year. Perez filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination alleging discrimination based on age and association with people with disabilities. Perez then filed suit in U.S. District Court.

The Defendant school filed a motion to dismiss the anti-discrimination claim for relationship with persons in a protected class. Perez contends that she was not rehired by the Defendant because of her association with and advocacy on behalf of disabled students at the school. Defendant school contends that Mass. Gen. Laws does not cover discrimination for relationships with disabled persons.

After a hearing, the Court ruled that the Mass. Gen. Laws does not cover the claimed associational discrimination alleged by Perez. The Court held:

Plaintiff alleges she was fired because she advocated for the interests of disabled children in her role as special-education coordinator. There are no allegations, however, that she was subject to the same prejudice, stereotypes, or unfounded fear that accompanies discrimination against the handicapped...there are no allegations that plaintiff was not rehired because she was regarded as having a mental or physical impairment by proxy. And plaintiff has not alleged that her association with any specific disabled child resulted in adverse employment actions.... Put simply, such advocacy on behalf of disabled students is not enough to sustain a violation of ยง 4(16).

Therefore, the Court dismissed so much of the Complaint alleging associational discrimination.

The Court's decision in the Perez case is consistent with the Supreme Judicial Court's recent decision extending an employee's right to file a lawsuit against an employer for discriminating against its employee based on the handicap of a family member with whom the employee associated and decisions by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination to only allow claims of associational discrimination involving family members to proceed. So for now, there appears to be a clear limit to claims for associational discrimination.

If you believe that your employer has discriminated against you in the workplace contact Attorney Mucci, an experienced discrimination attorney, today.

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