In August, 2005, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) found that a long-term disability benefit plan, which offered disparate coverage for physical and mental disabilities, violated Massachusetts anti-discrimination law.
In the case under review, an employee suffering from a “mental illness or nervous disorder” went on disability leave. Under the company’s disability policy, the employee received short-term disability from the company for the first six months of leave and, thereafter, the company’s long-term disability benefits plan went into effect. Under the LTD plan, employees unable to work after the six-month period could receive benefits until the age of 65, unless the recipient suffered from a “mental illness or nervous disorder.” If the employee did in fact suffer from a mental impairment, the recipient could only receive benefits for 24 months.
The issue before the MCAD was whether discrimination can be rooted in disparate treatment among members of the same protected class; i.e. individuals with disabilities. Ultimately, it determined that the LTD plan in question was discriminatory and in violation of MA statutes. The MCAD stated that equal access to unequal benefits is not the foundation on which the statute is based. It further noted that the statute does not require that one class be favored over another - it simply requires that the conduct at issue be motivated by one’s protected status.
The overall lesson to be taken from this MCAD decision by employers is that employers are not at liberty to discriminate between subgroups within a protected class. If such issues arise in implementing an anti-discrimination policy, an employer should always contact an attorney to ensure that its policy is in compliance with state and federal anti-discrimination laws.