The Superior Court recently held in Brelin-Penney v. Encore Images, Inc. that a non-handicapped employee could not bring a handicap discrimination claim under Chapter 151B on the basis of her employer’s alleged discrimination of her handicapped spouse. In so doing, the Superior Court rejected earlier findings by the MCAD recognizing such claims based on “associational standing.”

Tina Brelin-Penney and her husband, Chelsea Scott, worked for Encore Images, an employer of fourteen people. Scott, whose position involved moving boxes, suffered an injury in September 2006 that eventually rendered him unable to do any lifting. He took a leave in November 2006. Scott did not return to work nor did he ever provide Encore with an anticipated date of return. Brelin-Penney alleged that while Scott was on leave, Encore harassed her about Scott’s return and eventually terminated her employment.

Both Scott and Brelin-Penney brought handicap discrimination claims against Encore under Chapter 151B. The Superior Court rejected Scott’s claim because after his injury he could no longer lift any weight, and was therefore not a “qualified handicapped person.” Further, the Court found that allowing Scott to continue on an indefinite leave or transferring him to a light-duty position with no lifting were not reasonable accommodations.

Brelin-Penney claimed that Encore discriminated against her in retaliation for Scott’s filing of a workers’ compensation claim. She asserted that even though she was not handicapped, she was entitled to bring an “associational standing” claim under Chapter 151B by virtue of her relationship to a handicapped person. In support of her claim, Brelin-Penney argued that the MCAD had previously recognized discrimination claims brought by individuals based on their association with persons within a protected class.

The Superior Court rejected Brelin-Penney’s claim. It acknowledged that the MCAD had recognized associational standing claims and that the MCAD was entitled to some deference, but added that the MCAD is not authorized to enlarge statutory language. The Court then noted that while the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers from “excluding or otherwise denying equal jobs or benefits to a qualified individual because of the known disability of an individual with whom the qualified individual is known to have a relationship or association,” Chapter 151B includes no such provision. Since Chapter 151B does not provide associational standing and since Brelin-Penny was not herself a handicapped individual, the Court ruled that she could not assert a claim under Chapter 151B.

Since the ADA’s prohibition against association discrimination applies to employers of fifteen or more individuals, this case is primarily significant to employers who, like Encore, have fourteen or fewer employees. This decision provides a good defense for such employers if faced with an associational standing claim under Chapter 151B.