MCAD Decision: Employer Duty to Reasonably Accommodate Handicapped Employees is Extremely Broad

In the usual case, employers that receive reasonable accommodation requests from their employees try to help. They may adjust a work schedule, grant a leave of absence, or even modify job duties. Too often, however, those same employers fail to grasp the broad scope of their ongoing duties to accommodate. They reach what they perceive as an end point based on their own interpretations of what’s reasonable, then refuse to help workers further. Decisions like that have a high potential to lead them into hot legal waters.

A recent Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) decision illustrates this point. The employer involved believed it bent over backwards, as it were, to help its employee. It gave her 12 weeks of FMLA leave, 23 weeks of part-time work, job relocation, and adjustments to avoid heavy lifting. Despite the seeming generosity of these accommodations — a fact expressly noted by the MCAD in its decision — the employer was tripped up when it refused to extend part-time work for three additional weeks so its employee could complete physical therapy and, hopefully, return to full-time work. Because the employer could not demonstrate that the continued leave would impose an undue hardship, it violated the Massachusetts anti-discrimination statute. It was ordered to pay damages to its former employee despite the fact that she did not recover sufficiently to work full-time as hoped.

The lesson for employers here is patent. Reasonable accommodation is an ongoing and fungible process that requires regular reassessment of workplace requirements and employee needs. Granting a work adjustment is not alone enough to satisfy the law, which requires an interactive engagement with employees in search of accommodations that are reasonable and appropriate under given circumstances. Employers who fail to understand that process as they seek to themselves decide what’s reasonable and what is not run the risk of lawsuits. In most cases, those suits can be avoided by careful consideration of what the law requires.

Marijuana Use Rights Arise in Employment Situations

With the enactment of two marijuana laws in Massachusetts during the past few years, there’s never been much doubt that use of it would someday become a workplace issue. Now, the Supreme Judicial Court is taking up the issue in connection with medical marijuana use. It seems likely that similar legal questions regarding recreational use of the drug will also soon arise in the wake of the 2016 legalization of marijuana in the Commonwealth.

The current case involves an employee who was fired after she failed her employer’s mandatory drug test. She sued, claiming her rights were violated because she was legally authorized to use marijuana to treat Crohn’s Disease. According to the complaint, her employer told her it did not care about her medical authorization to use marijuana because it followed federal law, under which marijuana remains illegal. After the superior court dismissed her lawsuit, the SJC opted to hear her appeal. It will reportedly consider both whether the company violated Massachusetts anti-discrimination laws and whether employees can sue their employers under the medical marijuana statute.

The case signals problems on the horizon for employers on various fronts. Drug testing has long been a problematic policy that runs headlong into individual rights of privacy. Since testing can potentially uncover drug use that occurs outside work, employers need to respond to positive tests carefully. Now that marijuana is legal for recreational use in Massachusetts, complexities with testing and in other areas of the employer/employee relationship will likely multiply. The wisest course may be for employers to treat marijuana as they commonly do alcohol — by proscribing its use only while employees are working.

Minimum Wage Now at $11 Per Hour

Effective January 1, 2017, the minimum wage for Massachusetts workers rose from $10 to $11 per hour. The new rate applies to almost all employees. For employees who regularly receive tips as part of their pay, the minimum rate is $3.75/hour. Those workers’ total compensation with tips included must be at least $11/hour. All categories of workers remain eligible for overtime pay at 1.5 times their normal rates of pay for hours worked above 40 in a workweek. Some workers are exempt from overtime requirements based on job classifications and administrative requirements.

SJC Holds that Second Element of Independent Contractor Test is Preempted by Federal Law

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today weighed in on the hot topic whether and to what extent the state’s Independent Contractor Statute is exempted as applied to courier drivers and the companies they work for. Like a federal court that ruled on the same question last year, the SJC concluded that the second of the law’s three elements is preempted by the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (FAAAA).

Legal battle over the applicability of Mass. Gen. L. ch. 149, §148B has raged for years, with courier companies seeking to avoid application of what’s referred to as Prong B of the statute – the requirement that all individuals who perform services within a company’s regular course of business be classified as employees. The companies rely on the FAAAA’s restriction against state laws that impact the prices, routes or services of covered businesses. Because Prong B is so broad, they contend, it effectively bars all uses of contractors to make deliveries. This, in turn, forces courier companies to eliminate services, increase costs, alter routes, and make other business changes.

Though two state judges had previously ruled that the entire Independent Contractor Statute was preempted by the FAAAA, the SJC rejected this approach. The law’s first and third elements thus remain intact. In order to avoid classifying their drivers as employees, courier companies must demonstrate that they do not control the performance of their work and that the drivers are customarily engaged in an independent business. There are currently several active cases on this topic, including two class action suits being handled by my office.

Legislators Work to Revive Noncompetition Law

Recent reports suggest that Massachusetts legislators are continuing to work on a compromise noncompetition law that will garner enough support to become law. Earlier this year, both the House and Senate passed versions of a proposed statute that would have imposed rules on noncompetition agreements, which are currently governed by judges without direction from a formal statute. Because the House and Senate could not reach a compromise over differences in the bills each passed, the proposed statute died with the end of the legislative session on July 31, 2016.

Indications are that, this and other failures notwithstanding, Massachusetts will soon enact a law to govern the uses of noncompetition agreements. Among the provisions now being discussed are ones that would require advance notice to employees, limit the duration and applicability of restrictive covenants, and require employers to continue to pay some portion of a former employee’s salary as a condition to enforcement. If no deal is reached informally this month, legislation will almost certainly be reintroduced when the House and Senate reconvene in January 2017. Any bill they pass must, of course, be signed by the governor.

Legislator will Try Again to Impose Liability on Companies for Wage Violations by Entities they Contract With

After failing to pass what’s referred to as a wage theft bill in the recently ended legislative session, the bill’s sponsor is not giving up. According to published reports, Sen. Sal DiDomenico will reintroduce the controversial measure when legislators go back into session in January.

The proposal would make employers that contract with third parties to have labor performed or services provided to them guarantors of the payment of wages earned by the employees of those third parties. It appears to make such employers, in effect, co-employers of the third party’s employees. If, then, the third party doesn’t pay its workers, the company that received the benefit of the workers’ services would be liable. The proposal does not make an exception for companies that pay whatever is due under their third-party contracts. The effect could be, it seems, that company A pays for labor provided to it by company B and is nonetheless liable directly to the company B’s employees because it failed to remit wages earned by them. This could mean company A pays the same penalties — triple damages and legal fees — as it would if it failed to pay its own employees for work performed.

The statute is apparently aimed at upending a practice under which large companies hire third parties to be employers of workers who actually perform services for them directly. Whether it will ever becomes law remains to be seen.

Good Faith Interactive Process is Key to Properly Handling Accommodation Issues

Most employers know (though some, incredibly, still do not) that they are obligated by law to reasonably accommodate disabled employees. After that, there are several areas of knowledge breakdown that form a theme for cases in litigation. Among them is a rule that is commonly overlooked: the requirement that employers engage in good faith interactions with disabled employees to find reasonable accommodations that will allow them to perform their jobs. Doing so is critical to effectively preventing or defending against handicap discrimination lawsuits.

After acknowledging an employee’s handicap, a process that is not always as simple as it may seem, employers on notice that an accommodation is needed have the duty to figure out what can be done. Commonly, they treat it as a one way street along which they alone consider potential work changes and decide whether they can be implemented. This approach can work as long a reasonable accommodation is identified, accepted by the employee involved, and implemented. When this  doesn’t happen for one reason or another, employers need to be sure they turn to the employee for and engage in a good faith interaction aimed at exploring accommodation options and finding one that will work. This normally involves a review of medical information, meeting with the employee, considering which job duties are essential, and exploring all reasonable options for helping the employee perform them. Employers should be careful that, while working with employees in this area, they are not counter-acting that effort by disciplining or mistreating them actions that somehow relate to the disability in question.

Employers must Investigate Sexual Harassment Complaints to Reduce Risk of Punitive Damages

When in doubt, investigate – carefully and thoroughly. That’s the message again delivered to employers by a recent decision of Massachusetts’ highest court. When an employee complains about sexual mistreatment or other discrimination, it’s critical that he/she be taken seriously and that appropriate remedies be implemented to address any allegation that is borne out by a fair investigation.

Lexus of Watertown learned this lesson the hard way recently. After its former employee filed suit for sexual harassment, among other things, a jury awarded her $40,000 for emotional distress and another $500,000 in punitive damages. On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court rejected Lexus’s argument that it did not act badly enough to justify a punitive damages award, which can be used to punish employers only in cases of outrageous or egregious misconduct.  Lexus, the court found, exposed itself to a punitive damages award because it did not adequately investigate its employee’s complaints after it learned about them. Those complaints were later proved true at trial, at least to some degree.

“Where the employer is aware of a sexually hostile or offensive work environment, the potential for punitive damages against the enterprise is triggered and an inquiry into the response by the employer is warranted….The failure to do so opens the door to the potential imposition of punitive damages if the jury conclude that the employer’s failure was sufficiently outrageous and egregious,” the SJC found.

Although Lexus of Watertown in fact conducted an investigation, the court found that it was inadequate. It was conducted by a supervisor who doubted the complainant from the outset, did not include interviews of all relevant personnel, and did not involve the complaining employee. Though the investigation did not corroborate any of the complaints, a former manager had previously circulated a memo regarding the harasser’s inappropriate behavior. At trial, many of the complaints were corroborated by testimony. Other employers should learn from this case. All complaints should be investigated fairly by an impartial person. Counsel should either guide the investigation or conduct it.

Court Rejects Another Expansion of At-Will Employment Rule

Yet another attempt to expand the public policy exception to the Massachusetts at-will employment rule has fallen by the wayside. This time, the court rejected a former employee’s challenge to his firing based on a concept termed, “honest, open and accountable government.”

“The question what exactly is required by the policy of open, honest and accountable government… is both difficult to define and open to debate,” the Appeals Court wrote on August 4, 2016. “The Supreme Judicial Court…has made clear that the public policy exception must be construed narrowly in order to avoid effectively imposing a just cause requirement for termination of at will employees….”

The at-will employment rule provides that either employees or their employers are free to end their working relationship at any time, for any reason, and either with or without cause. This means that employees generally have no recourse when fired except as may be provided by particular laws. The Massachusetts anti-discrimination law and anti-retaliation language in the state’s Wage Act are examples. Absent those legal protections, employees can challenge their firings only if they can identify an exception to the at-will rule.  Exceptions are few and far between.

In Tramontozzi v. Mass. Dept. of Transportation, a former employee of the Massachusetts Transportation Department claimed he was unfairly made a scapegoat after a light fixture fell from the Central Artery Tunnel in Boston. He accused the Department of unfairly blaming him for alleged delayed disclosure of the incident in order to provide cover for higher authorities. While the Appeals Court agreed that government should be open and honest, it declined to create a public policy exception to the at-will rule on this basis.

New Pay Equity Law Means Employers Must Prevent Gender-Based Wage Disparities

In the wake of passage of the new pay equity law in Massachusetts, employers again have work to do. To prevent getting caught up in what is certain to be another fertile area of employment litigation, both individually and on class-wide bases, employers must review current pay structures, implement new policies, and train anyone involved in the hiring process. Fortunately, they’ll have plenty of time to do so and those that comply may have an absolute defense to liability under the equal pay statute.

The law was passed at the end of the 2016 legislative session and signed into law by Gov. Baker. It replaces an existing law that, though it nominally banned pay discrimination based on sex, was a virtual nullity due to evidentiary hurdles set up by the Supreme Judicial Court. Under the new law, an employer that pays employees less based on gender will face liability for double the amount of any underpayments, plus plaintiffs’ legal fees and costs. Complaining employees of either gender will succeed if they prove that the work in question is comparable – that is, it “requires substantially similar skill, effort and responsibility and is performed under similar working conditions.” Job titles are irrelevant. Where workers of different genders perform jobs that satisfy these criteria and one is paid less than the other, employers will be exposed to lawsuits.

Fortunately for employers, the statute won’t take effect until July 1, 2018. As additional protection, the legislature included language to protect employers that perform self-evaluations of their pay practices and make reasonable progress toward eliminating any they may identify. The Massachusetts Attorney General may issue regulations to help guide self-evaluations, but employers are free to devise their own processes to do so. Because the new law bars employers from asking applicants about salary histories prior to a job offer, all should review job applications to remove any questions on the subject and train managers not to inquire about salaries during job interviews. Policies that may bar employees from discussing their salaries must also be amended as they will become illegal under the equal pay law.