The issue in this case was whether an able-bodied individual has standing under Mass. G.L. c. 151B, § 4(16) to sue on her own behalf for discrimination that she alleges took place because of her association with a handicapped person.
The plaintiffs—a husband and wife—both asserted discrimination claims under the statute against their common employer, but it was undisputed that only the husband qualified as disabled (and that only temporarily). His wife’s discrimination claim rested on her assertion that she was terminated from her employment because of her husband’s disability. Her claim was dismissed by the Superior Court and that decision was on appeal before the Massachusetts Appeals Court. The wife’s argument for standing was supported by decisions of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”) that purported to recognize so-called associational standing in this factual context.
In its amicus brief in support of the employer, NELF argued that the MCAD’s decisions were clearly erroneous and that Appeals Court should not make the MCAD’s errant view of the statute part of the decisional law of the Commonwealth. As NELF demonstrated, the express language of G.L. c. 151B, § 4(16) and other sections of c. 151B permit only a handicapped person to have standing to bring a claim for handicap discrimination, unlike the corresponding federal law, which expressly recognizes the type of associational standing claimed in this case.
NELF argued that because the decisions of the MCAD on this issue are contrary to the plain language of statute, they are entitled to no deference from the court. NELF observed that, while it may be desirable for non-statutory reasons to recognize this form of associational standing, the Massachusetts Legislature has not seen fit to allow for it in the controlling statutes. As a result, NELF contended, whether or not the class of persons protected under c. 151B should be expanded to include those associated with a disabled individual is a decision that must be left solely for the Legislature to make, not the MCAD or the courts.
Although the Appeals Court’s decision upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claim, the result that NELF ultimately supported, the Appeals Court did not address the legal question of the class of permissible plaintiffs, finding instead that, as a matter of law, the facts of the case failed to show that the company had acted toward Brelin-Penney in a discriminatory manner. The issue brief by NELF therefore remains unresolved.