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Accommodation of a disability

“Associational discrimination”: Employer can’t discriminate against an employee because it did not want to cover his disabled wife’s medical expenses

In a recent decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that an employee who claimed his employer fired him in order to avoid paying his disabled wife’s medical expenses could sue the employer for “associational discrimination.” It clears up the question of whether “associational discrimination”, which is prohibited by federal law, is also barred by state law.

The plaintiff had worked for his company for more than 18 years with positive performance reviews. His wife underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor and needed rehabilitative care. The husband became primarily responsible for the care of their children. The employee left work about 30 minutes early on certain days so he could pick up his daughter at school. The employer fired the employee for allegedly failing to punch out on his time clock, even though the employee said his supervisor approved this practice. The employee filed suit, alleging he had to deplete his retirement fund and all his savings as a result of losing his job.

The SJC overturned the lower court’s allowance of the employer’s motion for summary judgment. The SJC ruled that an employer shall not take an adverse action against an employee based on his spouse’s impairment. In light of the law’s broad definition of handicap discrimination, an employer cannot discriminate against an employee based on his or her association with a disabled person. Otherwise, the employer would be free to target an employee as if he were handicapped himself. This decision is relevant to negative stereotyping that caregivers face in the workplace.

This recent decision is Flagg v. AliMed, Inc.

Pamela A. Smith
Law Office of Pamela A. Smith
233 Needham Street, Suite 540
Newton, MA 02464
617-969-2900

pam@pamsmithlaw.com

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