The Supreme Judicial Court today slapped a Dedham company that fired a worker because it didn't want to bear the insurance costs of his wife's brain-tumor treatment.
Marc Flagg sued AliMed under the state's anti-discrimination law, arguing that firing him for taking care of his wife and their daughter amounted to workplace discrimination. A lower-court judge dismissed his claim, but the court's ruling today reinstates it.
AliMed said it fired Flagg because he didn't punch out early some days when he left to pick up his daughter and that he did so to try to get paid for that time. A majority of the court, however, said that was a pretty flimsy excuse and noted Flagg's supervisor knew he was leaving early and didn't say anything:
AliMed's proffered reason for the termination was false: the real reason the plaintiff was terminated was that his wife had a very serious and expensive medical condition that rendered her totally disabled, and for which AliMed, through its health plan, was financially responsible. The February 4 employment termination took place at a time when the plaintiff's wife was again a hospital inpatient because of a recurrence of the brain tumor, and the termination resulted in the immediate cancellation of the plaintiff's health insurance and an initial denial of unemployment benefits. [FN5] As a consequence, the plaintiff had to deplete his retirement plan funds and all his savings and suffered mental anguish. In addition, AliMed's false reasons, and allegation that the plaintiff fraudulently was claiming that he had worked certain hours when he had not and thereby obtained money to which he was not entitled, "became known amongst fellow workers and the community at large," likely leading people who learned of this allegation and who did not know him to conclude that the plaintiff "had engaged in serious deliberate misconduct" when in fact he had not done so.
AliMed said Flagg had no right to sue it under the state's anti-discrimination law because of a section that refers specifically to an invidiual's ability to do a particular job, not to their spouses or other people with whom they associate. Again, the court begged to differ. and noted the origins of the anti-discrimination law dated to a 1946 effort to deal with a major problem with workplace discrimination:
When an employer subjects an otherwise satisfactory employee to adverse employment decisions premised on hostility toward the handicapped condition of the employee's spouse, it is treating the employee as if he were handicapped himself--that is, predicated on discriminatory animus, the employer treats the spouse's handicap as a characteristic bearing on the employee's fitness for his job.
Two justices said they agreed with the majority, but wrote their own opinion because they worry it could open the door to even more widespread claims under the state law. They noted the federal Americans with Disabilities Act specifically excludes "associational" handicaps such as Flagg's.