In Perez v. Greater New Bedford Vocational Technical School District, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts (Court) dismissed a claim of associational disability discrimination under Massachusetts General Laws c. 151(B), § 4(16) (Chapter 151B). The Court held that an alleged adverse employment action occurring after advocacy for disabled students could not ground a claim of associational disability discrimination. Although this case further defines the limited circumstances in which Massachusetts courts will allow associational disability discrimination claims, it serves as a reminder for all Massachusetts employers to be cognizant of associational discrimination claims generally and demonstrates the creative arguments being advanced by plaintiffs and their counsel.
According to the complaint, in July 2008, the Greater New Bedford Vocational School District (School District) hired Perez as the Director of Special Education. Perez claimed that when she started her new job the school was not compliant with special needs laws. According to Perez, the School District did not support her efforts to address the non-compliance and gave her a negative performance review. Perez claimed that she prepared a grant request under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but School District asked her to amend it in a way that would allow the hiring of a technician to assist in school-wide computer needs, rather than one trained specifically to aid disabled students. When Perez refused to amend the grant, the School District faulted her for being uncooperative. In February 2010, the School District notified Perez that the principal did not intend to renew her contract for the next school year. In May 2010, the School District placed Perez on administrative leave for the rest of the 2009-2010 school year and did not rehire her.
Perez filed a lawsuit alleging, among other things, that the School District engaged in associational disability discrimination when it failed to rehire her because of her "association with and advocacy on behalf of disabled students at the school." The School District moved to dismiss this count, arguing that Chapter 151B does not extend so far as to allow associational disability discrimination claims based on an employee's advocacy for disabled students. The Court agreed.
Although the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recognized claims of associational disability discrimination under Chapter 151B in its 2013 Flagg v. AliMed, Inc. decision, the Court noted that the SJC limited its holding to the circumstances of that case, where an employee alleged discrimination based on the disability of his spouse. Further, in a concurring opinion in Flagg one Justice noted that "the court does not decide in this case whether associational discrimination . . . will be interpreted to extend beyond the type of case at issue here."
Interpreting the SJC's reasoning in Flagg, the Court held that Chapter 151B does not cover claims of associational disability discrimination based on advocacy for disabled students. The Court reasoned that, unlike the plaintiff in Flagg, Perez did not claim that the School District regarded her as having a disability by proxy. Additionally, Perez did not claim that the School District acted because of her "association with any specific disabled child." The Court dismissed Perez's claim.
Although this decision limits the reach of associational disability discrimination claims under Chapter 151B, the scope of these claims is developing and remains unclear. In this case, the result could have (but not necessarily) been different had Perez claimed that the School District acted against her because of her association with a specific child. In certain circumstances, a court could extend associational disability discrimination claims to non-familial relationships.