In Flagg v. AliMed, Inc., 466 Mass. 23 (2013), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court allowed a plaintiff’s associational discrimination claim against his former employer after he was terminated because of costs associated with his wife’s medical treatment. Interpreting M.G.L. c. 151B § 4(16), the Court found that the statute’s text and purpose mandated a broad interpretation of its prohibition on employment discrimination to include discrimination based on association with a qualified handicapped person.

The plaintiff had worked for defendant for approximately eighteen years and had positive performance reviews during his employment. He and his wife were covered by the employer’s medical insurance plan. In December 2007, she underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor and incurred substantial medical expenses for her treatment and rehabilitation. The employer initially accommodated the employee’s schedule as a result of his wife’s disability, allowing him to leave during working hours to pick up his children from school.

On these occasions – less than one hour on each time – the plaintiff did not “punch out,” a practice of which the court found plaintiff’s manager was aware. The practice continued through mid-January 2008. In early February 2008, the plaintiff was terminated, allegedly for remaining on the clock while away from work. His wife was a hospital inpatient, and the plaintiff’s family incurred significant expenses, as her treatment was no longer covered by the plaintiff’s employer-sponsored health benefits plan.

The SJC rejected the employer’s proffered reason for termination as pretextual, instead finding the employer terminated the plaintiff because it did not want to pay for his wife’s medical treatment. Focusing on Chapter 151B’s broad remedial purpose “seek[ing] removal of artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary barriers to full participation in the workplace’ that are based on discrimination,” the SJC found this form of associational discrimination fell within Chapter 151B.

To reconcile its ruling with the more problematic statutory language prohibiting employment discrimination against an individual “because of his handicap” (emphasis added), the SJC looked to the portion of the definition of “handicap” that includes “being regarded as having such impairment.” M.G.L. c. 151B § 1 (17)(c). The Court held, in taking an adverse action against the plaintiff for his wife’s qualified handicap, the employer had “regarded” the plaintiff as having the handicap himself. Its ruling was bolstered by support from the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination’s (MCAD) statutory interpretation in its decisions, as well as federal decisions interpreting Title VII and The Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA) predecessor.

The case is significant in the context of employer-sponsored health insurance. While most employers in Massachusetts are required to contribute to their own employees’ health benefits, the law does not require employers to sponsor family medical plans. Employers who provide health benefits for employees’ family members, however, should note that actions taken against employees who care for disabled family members, even short of termination, may violate Chapter 151B.