In Flagg v. Alimed, Inc., the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (“SJC”) recently addressed an issue of first impression regarding the state’s antidiscrimination statute, recognizing a limited cause of action for associational discrimination based on handicap under Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 151B, § 4(16). Associational discrimination occurs when an employee is discriminated against based on his or her relationship with an individual in a protected class.
In Flagg, the plaintiff’s wife had a disabling and expensive health condition for which the employer was financially responsible through its health plan. On a few occasions, Flagg had to leave work early to pick up his daughter from school while his wife received rehabilitative care. Alimed fired Flagg, allegedly because he had failed to punch out when he went to pick up his daughter. Flagg sued, claiming that the company fired him because his wife’s condition was extremely expensive for Alimed’s health insurance plan.
The Superior Court dismissed Flagg’s lawsuit on a motion to dismiss, holding that under Massachusetts law there is no cause of action for associational discrimination. The SJC reversed, based on a broad reading of Chapter 151B. In the circumstances of Flagg, where the employer allegedly subjected an otherwise satisfactory employee to an adverse employment action because of hostility toward the handicapped condition of the employee’s spouse, the SJC held that the employee had stated a plausible set of facts to permit the case to survive a motion to dismiss.
It is important to note that the majority in Flagg did not consider whether an employee with a handicapped spouse himself is entitled to reasonable accommodation on account of his spouse’s condition. In a concurring opinion, Justice Gants noted that the court’s opinion does not suggest that an employer is required to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee who is not himself handicapped. That position would be consistent with the holdings of several federal courts that no accommodations are required for non-disabled employees under the associational discrimination provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In expanding the universe of employees who may allege handicap discrimination under Chapter 151B, Flagg provides an important reminder for Massachusetts employers not to consider any individual’s handicap condition when making employment decisions.