Company can’t fire worker whose spouse is sick

Marc Flagg worked for a Boston-area medical supplier for 18 years, apparently receiving positive performance reviews the whole time.

But in late 2007, his wife underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor, requiring expensive rehabilitative care afterward. As a result, Flagg had to leave work about a half-hour early each day to pick up his daughter from school. His manager apparently had no problem with the arrangement, or the fact that Flagg didn’t “punch out” during this time.

A few months later, Flagg’s wife was back in the hospital due to a recurrence of her tumor. The company then fired Flagg, claiming his failure to punch out resulted in his being paid for time he didn’t work. The termination meant that Flagg’s health insurance was cancelled and his unemployment benefits were denied.

Flagg sued, claiming the real reason he was fired was his employer’s fear of additional health-care costs, and that this was disability discrimination.

The company argued that Flagg couldn’t sue for disability discrimination because he wasn’t the person who was disabled.

But the Massachusetts Supreme Court sided with Flagg, and said a person can sue for discrimination even if they were discriminated against solely because of their “association” with another person.

“Discrimination by association” is actually not new – there have been a number of cases in the past where employees claimed they were discriminated against because, for instance, they married a Muslim or adopted a child of another race.

But with employers being increasingly sensitive to soaring health-care costs, it’s certainly possible that there will be many more lawsuits like Flagg’s, claiming that a firing was motivated by a seriously ill spouse or child.