|February 2, 2012|
Previously published on February 2012
Last month, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts held that a former employee could not successfully bring a claim of discrimination against his law firm employer based on his association with a handicapped family member. The case, Ayanna v. Dechert, helps to clarify a clash between the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination’s (MCAD) interpretation of Chapter 151B and limited case law on the topic.
The plaintiff, Ariel Ayanna, was an associate in the Boston office of Dechert. He had a successful first year as an associate—he met the billable hour requirement, obtained positive reviews, and received a bonus. Everything changed during his second year, however, when his wife, who suffered from a mental illness, tried to commit suicide while pregnant with their second child. Ayanna used Dechert’s four weeks of paternity leave as well as time under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to take time off from work to care for his wife and children. After he returned to work, he continued to tend to his wife and acted as the primary caretaker for his children. He contended that his decision to take leave and prioritize family obligations over his work did not comport with the pervasive “macho” stereotype at Dechert whereby males relegated family obligations to women. He alleged that Dechert retaliated against him by withholding assignments, falsely evaluating his performance, and finally, terminating him.
Ayanna filed a charge of discrimination with the MCAD in September 2009, and ultimately filed a complaint with the court in December 2010 alleging violations of Chapter 151B for gender discrimination and the FMLA. He also alleged violations of Title VII and the ADA, but both of these claims were voluntarily dismissed in February 2011. Later that month, Ayanna amended his complaint to add a new count of handicap discrimination under Chapter 151B based on his association with his mentally ill wife.
Associational Handicap Hogwash
The court first reviewed the language of Chapter 151B and “indisputably” recognized that the relevant provisions “do not expressly include ‘associated persons’ but only a person alleging to be a qualified handicapped person who has been discriminated against because of his handicap.” The court then turned its attention to MCAD decisions that have interpreted the statute. The MCAD has found that individuals associated with handicapped persons have standing to bring their own claim of handicap discrimination based on this association. While the court recognized that the MCAD decisions are entitled to substantial deference, they do not “carry the force of law” and furthermore, the MCAD does not have the authority to promulgate rules that exceed or otherwise conflict with statutory authority. Finally, the court recognized that the only Massachusetts state court opinion to address this issue directly, Brelin-Penny v. Encore Images, found that Chapter 151B does not allow for associational claims and further found that the MCAD overstepped its authority by construing the statute otherwise. The court agreed with Brelin-Penny and dismissed Ayanna’s claim of handicap discrimination.
Nonetheless, Employers Must Beware
The court recognized that Brelin-Penny noted that Chapter 151B was “less generous” than the ADA which expressly allows for associational handicap claims. Thus, although Massachusetts employers are not vulnerable to associational handicap claims via Chapter 151B, they are still open to such claims pursuant to the ADA.