As states begin to lift restrictions designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, some employers have begun to require that their employees return to some form of in-person work, whether full-time or hybrid. Yet even for the fully vaccinated, the risk of infection is not eliminated. And for employees with disabilities, the possibility of contracting COVID-19 may present a grave risk.
Recently, in Yiyu Lin v. GGIT Systems Inc., a Massachusetts federal court endorsed disability discrimination claims based on an employer’s refusal to accommodate persons whose health conditions render them more susceptible to severe COVID-19 infection. The Court held that even where a preexisting condition would not normally qualify as a disability protected under Massachusetts antidiscrimination laws, employers refusing to accommodate immunocompromised workers during the COVID-19 pandemic may be liable for disability discrimination. The Court stopped short, however, of permitting an associational discrimination claim for employees cohabitating with immunocompromised family members.
Yiyu Lin was a senior project engineer at CGIT Systems, a Medway-based welding and electrical engineering systems company. In March 2020, as COVID-19 cases soared across the state, Lin and several of his coworkers began working from home. Without explanation, the company then demanded that all its employees return to the office on March 27, 2020. Lin, a 55-year-old with long-term high blood pressure who lives with his elderly immunocompromised mother, was understandably hesitant to return to work. Lin requested to continue working from home. His request was denied. To avoid returning to the office, Lin used his accrued vacation and sick days; in the interim, several additional CGIT employees tested positive for the coronavirus, and the requests to work from home from two other engineers in his department were approved. In support of his request for accommodation, Lin reiterated his and his mother’s health conditions, and reminded his employer that his work could be performed at home, as it had been without issues in the previous weeks. Citing “job abandonment,” CGIT Systems terminated Lin.
Lin then sued CGIT Systems in federal court, claiming that his employers’ denial of his request to work from home constituted discrimination because of his disability and his association with his disabled mother. Associational discrimination refers to a claim that a plaintiff, although not themselves a member of a protected class, is the victim of discriminatory animus directed toward a third person who is a member of the protected class and with whom the plaintiff associates. Lin also alleged that CGIT Systems failed to “engage in the interactive process […] when [p]laintiff requested an accommodation.”
CGIT Systems moved to dismiss the disability discrimination claim on the grounds that high blood pressure is not a disability under Massachusetts law. Explaining that “the determination of whether plaintiff has a disability cannot be determined in a vacuum,” the Court held that that heightened risk of impairment resulting from a COVID-19 infection may constitute a disability in the context of the pandemic. The Court also held that CGIT Systems was required to engage in the interactive process for disability accommodation under Massachusetts law: Lin’s requested accommodation—working from home—was already proven to be both feasible and consistent with his full performance of his duties, and CGIT systems was on notice that he required accommodation.
CGIT Systems also moved to dismiss Lin’s associational discrimination claim on the grounds that Massachusetts does not recognize a duty to accommodate employees due to their association with a disabled person. To support its motion to dismiss, CGIT relied on Flagg v. Alimed, Inc., the first Massachusetts case to recognize associational discrimination claims.
To avoid paying the increased treatment costs under a family medical insurance benefit when the plaintiff’s wife developed a costly medical condition, the Flagg defendant terminated an otherwise qualified, adequately performing plaintiff. The majority held that an employer taking adverse action against an employee due to the disability of his spouse constitutes disability discrimination, since it amounts to “targeting the employee as the direct victim […] inflicting punishment for exactly the same reason and in exactly the same way as if the employee were handicapped himself.” In concurrence, Justice Gants expressed the view that the Court’s opinion was limited to the facts of the case, and interpreted the Massachusetts anti-discrimination statute as not requiring employers to offer accommodations for employees based on their association with disabled people.
The Lin court treats Lin’s associational discrimination claim as solely alleging failure to accommodate, ignoring his claim that the employer terminated him because of his association with his disabled mother. Relying on the Flagg concurrence, rather than any language from the binding majority opinion, the federal court dismissed Lin’s associational discrimination claim. Had the court considered Lin’s termination claim, Flagg might have been decisive in his favor: termination based on associational disability discrimination is unlawful in Massachusetts.
Because Lin is a federal court decision interpreting a state law, state courts facing the same legal questions are not bound by its decision. Massachusetts employers would be prudent not to rely on Lin to deny accommodations to an employee who requires accommodations due to an association with a disabled person. The majority opinion in Flagg was limited to its facts, and left open whether Massachusetts law might require employers to accommodate employees who have an association with someone with a disability. It is possible that a Massachusetts court, faced with a set of facts like Mr. Lin’s, would find a viable claim of associational discrimination where the federal court did not.
If you have experienced employment discrimination or require accommodations, please contact our attorneys at (617) 742-6020.