By: Beth Gobeille Foley

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court altered the state’s disability law landscape today with a narrowly tailored decision allowing some — but not all — claims of associational disability discrimination to proceed under the state’s anti-discrimination law, M.G.L. ch. 151B, § 4(16) (“Chapter 151B”).

In Flagg v. AliMed, a plaintiff brought suit against his former employer, alleging that the Company fabricated reasons for terminating him because it did not want to pay for health plan costs related to his wife’s disability. The Superior Court granted the Company’s motion to dismiss, finding that the relevant section of Chapter 151B only covers individuals with disabilities and provides no protections for employees who are associated with disabled individuals. Plaintiff appealed to the SJC, arguing that Chapter 151B, which does not expressly cover instances of associational discrimination, should still encompass claims like his.

The SJC agreed to a limited extent. Looking to the general purpose of Chapter 151B and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination’s more expansive reading of the statute, the Court found that Chapter 151B encompasses some associational discrimination claims. However, the Court was careful to limit its holding to the facts of this particular case, holding that associational discrimination can be actionable in cases where the employer seeks to avoid health insurance costs related to the care of an employee’s disabled family member. The decision does not reach other types of associational discrimination, and Justice Gants’ concurring opinion highlights the narrowness of the holding, noting that “[t]he court does not decide in this case whether associational discrimination . . . will be interpreted to extend beyond the type of case at issue here.”

Flagg v. AliMed expands the scope of disability discrimination law in Massachusetts, bringing it in line with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits associational disability discrimination. However, a careful reading of this decision reveals that its holding only applies to a narrow set of situations. Nevertheless, employers who offer subsidized health insurance to employees should exercise caution in the aftermath of Flagg in the event that they learn that a covered family member suffers from a disability.