Court Grants Summary Judgment to Employer on Former Employee’s Claim of Gender-Based Associational Discrimination and Retaliation

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In Baer v. Montachusett Regional Technical School District (D. Mass. May 17, 2019), the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts granted summary judgment to an employer on a former employee’s claim that he was discriminated and retaliated against because of his association with his wife, who was also a former employee.

The former employees (the “Husband” and “Wife”), were employed at Montachusett Regional Technical School District (the “Employer”).  In March 2015, the Employer placed the Husband and Wife on administrative leave following allegations that the Wife was treating a student unfairly and that both the Wife and Husband behaved inappropriately toward another employee. Following an investigation, the Employer terminated the Husband and Wife at the end of June 2015. At the time of her termination, the Wife had a sexual harassment claim against the Employer pending at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

The Wife brought suit against the Employer for gender discrimination and retaliation pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Mass. Gen. Law. Ch. 151B. The Husband brought suit against the Employer for discrimination and retaliation based on his association with the Wife pursuant to Title VII and Ch. 151B.  Both the Husband and Wife alleged defamation.

The Court granted the Employer summary judgment on the Husband’s claims of discrimination and retaliation based on his association with the Wife. It explained that “associational discrimination” involves an individual, who is not a member of a protected class, who suffers as a result of discrimination against another person who is a member of a protected class and who associates with the individual. Drawing inferences from existing federal and Massachusetts case law, the Court assumed that Title VII and Ch. 151B prohibits gender-based associational discrimination, but determined that, to succeed on those claims, the Husband would have to demonstrate that he was terminated “because he was a male associating with females.” Thus, because the Husband instead alleged that he was terminated because of the Wife’s sexual harassment claim, summary judgment was granted to the Employer.

The Court denied the Employer summary judgment on the Wife’s gender discrimination claims because the Employer did not set forth any argument as to why it was actually entitled to summary judgment. The Court granted the Employer summary judgment on the Wife’s retaliation claims because she could not show that the Employer’s reason for her termination–her inappropriate conduct–was pretextual.

Finally, the Court granted the Employer summary judgment on the defamation claims because the Employer had immunity pursuant to the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act.

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