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Federal Court Dismisses Associational Discrimination Claim

By February 23, 2012No Comments

Recently, the Federal District Court (Massachusetts) dismissed a claim filed by an employee claiming that he was discriminated against and ultimately wrongfully terminated because of his wife’s disability, highlights a growing divergence between federal and state law on the subject.

In a strongly-worded decision issued last month, the Federal District Court, Gertner, J., dismissed a disability discrimination claim based on the doctrine of “associational standing.”  The plaintiff in this case, Mr. Ayanna, was an attorney who alleged that he was terminated because of his association with his disabled wife.   Mr. Ayanna claimed that after taking time off from work to care for his wife, who suffered from a mental illness, his employer retaliated against him by withholding assignments, giving unfairly harsh performance reviews, and ultimately terminating him.  See Ayanna v Dechert, LLP.

While the Massachusetts anti-discrimination laws indisputably prohibit discrimination against employees on the basis of their own disabilities, recently, there  seems to have been a rise in claims based upon adverse treatment due to a non-disabled employee’s association with a disabled individual.  The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”), a state agency that enforces the anti-discrimination laws and adjudicates many discrimination claims, has repeatedly decided that employees can indeed make claims based upon their associational standing with individuals who are within the classes of people protected by the anti-discrimination laws.

The United States Supreme Court has recognized that biases due to caretaker responsibilities also give rise to liability for gender discrimination.  “The faultline between work and family [is] precisely where sex-based overgeneralization has been and remains strongest.” Nevada Dept of Human Res. v. Hibbs, 538 U.S. 721, 738 (2003) (holding that the family-leave provision of the Family and Medical Leave Act is a valid exercise of congressional power to combat sex discrimination by the states); see also Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp., 400 U.S. 542, 545 (1971) (Marshall, J., concurring) (Title VII does not permit “ancient canards about the proper role of women to be a basis for discrimination”).

Previous cases have held  that employment decisions based on stereotypes of the traditional role of women and the role of caretakers in the workplace violate the federal antidiscrimination statutes, even when an employer acts upon such stereotypes unconsciously or reflexively. See Thomas v. Eastman Kodak Co., 183 F.3d 38, 61 (1st Cir. 1999) (“concept of ‘stereotyping’ includes not only simple beliefs such as ‘women are not aggressive’ but also a host of more subtle cognitive phenomena which can skew perceptions and judgments”).  As the Supreme Court has expressly held “[W]e are beyond the day when an employer could evaluate employees by assuming or insisting that they match the stereotype associated with their group.” Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, 251 (1989) (plurality opinion).

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been used in the past to prevent  discrimination against caretakers of individuals with disabilities.  For example, it was held that an employer may not treat a worker less favorably based on stereotypical assumptions about the worker’s ability to perform job duties satisfactorily while also providing care to a relative or other individual with a disability. Abdel-Khalke v. Ernst & Young, LLP, No. 97 CIV 4514 JGK, 1999 WL 190790 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 7, 1999) (issues of fact regarding whether employer refused to hire applicant because of concern that she would take time off to care for her child with a disability).

However, the judge in the Ayanna case was persuaded by a state court decision that dismissed an associational standing discrimination claim based upon the wording of the statute.  In Ayanna, the Court held that “the statute is…intended to regulate employers’ actions with respect to their handicapped employees and does not afford standing to non-handicapped employees.”  The Court went on to criticize the MCAD, stating that the state agency’s interpretation of the law “aggrandizes the statute’s plain language and creates a new class of protected persons not contemplated by the statute.”  Finally, the Court stated that only the Legislature could expand the scope of the anti-discrimination laws to cover associational standing claims.

These claims continue to be filed, and given the inconsistent interpretation of the law, the Ayanna case is certainly not going to be the last word on the viability of associational discrimination claims.  Continue to follow the B&B Blog for developments in this area.