What you need to know:

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently held that a former employee who claimed that he was fired because his employer did not want to pay for his disabled wife’s healthcare coverage could sue the employer for “associational discrimination” in a cause of action based on Massachusetts state law.

What you need to do:

Employers should exercise care when considering whether to terminate an employee with a disabled family member.  This is particularly true when the employee’s family member is insured under the employer’s health insurance plan.  

Background:  Flagg v. AliMed

Marc Flagg worked for AliMed, a medical supply company and received family medical insurance through AliMed’s healthcare plan.  Late in 2007, his wife underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor.  While she received rehabilitative care, Flagg would sometimes leave work early in order to pick his daughter up from school. 

AliMed fired Flagg after concluding that he had failed to “punch out” on certain days when picking up his daughter, and was therefore being paid for hours he did not actually work.  Flagg filed suit, claiming that he was really terminated because his wife had a serious and expensive medical condition for which the company was financially responsible through its health insurance plan.  He contended that the company had therefore violated Massachusetts’ statute prohibiting discrimination against an employee on the basis of a disability.

A Massachusetts Superior Court dismissed Flagg’s claim, holding that Massachusetts law does not recognize claims for employment discrimination based solely on an employee’s relationship with a disabled person.  This decision was then appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

The Decision

The Supreme Judicial Court reversed the Superior Court’s dismissal of Flagg’s claim, holding that the Massachusetts employment discrimination law can support a claim for “associational discrimination” when an employee, while not a member of a protected class, is nonetheless the victim of discrimination because of the employee’s relationship with a protected individual. 

The majority decision centered on a broad reading of Chapter 151B, the Massachusetts law regulating employment discrimination.  The majority held that a liberal interpretation of the statute was warranted by the law’s “expansive, categorical prohibition against discrimination based on handicap in the workplace generally.”  The Court therefore held that Flagg had properly stated a claim by alleging that he experienced an adverse employment action based on his wife’s disability.