Associational discrimination occurs when an employer discriminates against an employee, not because of the employee’s status as a member of a protected class, but based on that employee’s association with a person of a protected class. For example, consider the case of a husband employee whose spouse is a member of a protected class. Recent case law indicates that Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 151B, bar employers from partaking in such discrimination.
In Flagg v. AliMed, Inc, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court interpreted G.L. c. 151B, § 4(16) to bar an employer from discriminating against its employee based on the handicap of a person with whom the employee associates. In the case, the plaintiff worked for AliMed for over 18 years. As a result of the employment, the plaintiff received family medical benefits. In December of 2007, the plaintiff’s wife underwent expensive surgery to remove a brain tumor, and the plaintiff became responsible for his wife’s care. His obligations required him to miss up to an hour of work on certain weekdays.
In February 2008 the plaintiff was terminated from AliMed due to failure to punch out when leaving work. The plaintiff argued that he had implied permission to leave without punching-out.
The termination of the plaintiff from AliMed resulted in the immediate termination of the family’s medical insurance. The plaintiff brought action for associational discrimination, arguing he was really terminated because of his wife’s illness and the accompanying expenses to AliMed.
In analyzing the case, the court noted that while a claim for associational discrimination cannot expressly be found in the language of c. 151B, it is impliedly encompassed in the statute. However, the court drew only narrow conclusions and held that associational discrimination can be brought in cases where an employer seeks to avoid health insurance costs related to the care of an employee’s disabled family member. Associational discrimination claims beyond this situation will likely be analyzed on a case-by-case basis.
Ramifications for Employers?
The Flag case undoubtedly expands the scope of discrimination law in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. While this case only applies to the narrow situation described above, employers should analyze all circumstances when terminating an employee.
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