Court Closes Door to Associational Claims

A recent federal court decision has serious implications for people who would like to pursue claims that they were discriminated against on the basis of their relationship with a person with a disability. The name of the case is Ayanna v. Dechert, and on January 6, 2012, a judge in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts dismissed an important part of the plaintiff’s complaint.

The plaintiff did not claim that he had a disability himself, but rather that the defendants (his former employers) had discriminated against him because of his “association with a disabled individual,” namely his wife.  One count of his complaint alleged that this violated the Massachusetts anti-discrimination law, M.G.L. c. 151B.

There is an important distinction between federal and state law. It is clear that plaintiffs can bring claims of this type under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because the statute contains an express provision to that effect.  But the equivalent state law, Chapter 151B, does not. The scope of Chapter 151B does not expressly extend to somebody who has a relationship or association with a disabled person. Even though the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) had previously ruled in favor of associational claims, this statutory difference was fatal to the plaintiff in Ayanna v. Dechert, and the judge allowed the defendant’s motion to dismiss the associational-discrimination count. The federal court stated that the MCAD’s interpretation was not “binding” and lacked the “force of law.”

By holding that Chapter 151B, unlike the ADA, does not give rise to associational claims, the court followed the reasoning of the only state court to issue a ruling on the issue, the Superior Court for Essex County in Brelin-Penney v. Encore Images, Inc., 27 Mass. L. Rep. 254 (Mass. Super. Ct. 2010). In that case, the court held that in the absence of legislation, the non-disabled plaintiff could not qualify as a member of a protected class on the basis of a relationship with a disabled person.

Clearly this is a question of state law not federal law, so the plaintiff in Ayanna v. Dechert asked the federal district court to send the question to the highest state court, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). But the judge declined, so there is still no conclusive decision on the matter of associational claims in Massachusetts. Legislative action would clarify the matter, and one state representative, John Scibak of South Hadley, has filed a bill to bring 151B into line with the ADA. You can read Representative Scibak’s bill, H. 501, by clicking here.

Unless and until the SJC rules on the issue, or the Legislature amends Chapter 151B, Ayanna v. Dechert and Brelin-Penney v. Encore Images are the only authorities that provide guidance for potential litigants. As things stand, it seems highly unlikely that a claim for associational discrimination on the basis of disability would survive a motion to dismiss.

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