Limits Quickly Placed on Associational Discrimination Lawsuits

Not so fast, says the Massachusetts Court of Appeals. On the heels of the state’s highest court’s ruling that employees can sue their employers for discrimination against them based on their association with handicapped people, it promptly noted that not all associations are created equally. In Lashgari v. ZOLL Medical, which was decided a mere 3 weeks after the SJC affirmed that associational discrimination claims can be brought under the Massachusetts anti-discrimination statute, the Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of a suit brought on the same basis.

Dismissals of lawsuits generally occur immediately after a suit is filed and help employers avoid the costs of defending them. The Lashgari case is significant in this respect as it begins to distinguish the factual patterns that will and will not state valid associational discrimination causes of action. The employee here asserted that his ability to work extra hours was proscribed by his son’s autism, which required constant care. He was demoted as a result and, he claimed, consequently suffered severe emotional distress. Eventually, the employee quit his job, claiming he’d been constructively discharged by his employer’s discriminatory behavior. Calling the allegations “conclusory and speculative,” the Court of Appeals found they were not sufficient to plausibly state a case of associational discrimination. The court was, of course, mindful of the SJC’s prior decision. It nonetheless held that employees must connect alleged discriminatory conduct to the particular association concerning which they complain.

WAGE ACT’S REACH EXPANDED BY SUPERIOR COURT JUDGE

In a surprising decision early this month, a superior court judge entered an expansive reading of the Massachusetts Wage Act that brings severance pay into the law’s ambit. If the thinking of Justice Dennis Curran is adopted by other judges or affirmed by the state’s appeals courts, it will leave employers who don’t make severance payments exposed to the Wage Act’s mandatory triple damages provision, its provision for individual management liability, and its requirement that defendants pay winning plaintiffs for all legal fees they expend.

Justice Curran’s decision came as a surprise because it has been largely accepted among employment lawyers that severance pay issues are not covered by the Wage Act. That law, which requires employers to pay their workers all wages they earn, including commissions, within specific and narrow time frames, appears on its face to apply only to money that an employee earns by appearing at work and performing job duties for his/her employer. Severance pay generally does not fit this description, coming as it does after an employee is terminated or quits and, therefore, after he/she stops coming to work. What’s more, severance is usually conditioned not on work performance but on a waiver of an employee’s rights to sue and other undertakings that have little to do with working. Apparently recognizing these distinctions between severance pay and wages, the state’s Appeals Court — a higher legal authority whose rulings must generally be followed by superior court judges — has already concluded that severance pay is not subject to the Wage Act’s strict penalty provisions. [Read more…]

UPS Hit Hard by MCAD Again

The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination has hit United Parcel Service with a second substantial judgment for discriminating against a Massachusetts employee. This time, the complaint was for handicap bias by UPS in Springfield, Massachusetts. After a trial at the MCAD, UPS was ordered to pay almost $750,000 in lost wages and another $125,000 in emotional distress.

The case of William Anderson, Jr. v. UPS was decided in March 2010. It involved a handicapped man who sought a reasonable accommodation but was denied by UPS, which refused to engage in a required interactive discussion with Mr. Anderson, made unreasonable demands, and, according to the Commission, placed form over substance as it violated Massachusetts anti-discrimination law. “Respondent’s approach to the reasonable accommodation process was long on formality, short on meaningful communication,” the Commission wrote. UPS took unauthorized photos that made demonstrated Mr. Anderson’s condition but still claimed to be uninformed about it. UPS was “rigid and unyielding” in its approach to Mr. Anderson and refused to engage in a flexible dialogue toward a mutually acceptable accommodation of his disabilities, the commission concluded. With interest and legal fees, the award could exceed $1 million. [Read more…]

Wrongful Termination Law in Massachusetts

Wrongful termination is a phrase frequently used by employers and employees alike to cover the whole rubric of potential causes of action that an individual could have against the company when he or she is fired.

Wrongful termination means, simply, that there is some kind of legal action that the an employee may take after being let go by an employer.

There are several discrete categories of wrongful termination in Massachusetts. Under the local law, all employees, unless they have a specific contract that they have negotiated with their employer, either in writing or orally, are At-Will employees.  This means they can leave whenever they choose to, or be let go whenever the employer chooses to let them go.  There are a couple of very narrow exceptions to the At-Will rule in Massachusetts that would constitute Wrongful Termination under the States Law. The exceptions are:

  1. A violation of Good Faith and Fair Dealing, meaning an employer, in a typical case, lets an employee go to avoid paying an employee a commission or large sum of compensation that would normally be due.
  2. Another way to violate the At-Will law is if an employer lets someone go in violation of something called the Public Policy Exception. There are very few Public Policy Exceptions. However, if an employee is serving on a jury, testifying in court, or performing some other act that the government wants to protect, the employer can not fire the employee for those actions.
  3. An employer also cannot fire or discharge someone in Massachusetts if they have a contract that provides otherwise. Sometimes employees have an employment contract that says,  for example,  they can only be fired for specific reasons, such as stealing from the employer, insubordination, or committing a crime. Where a company violates those terms, a breach of contract claim can arise in Massachusetts and that would be Wrongful Termination.
  4. The final category for Wrongful Termination involves discrimination cases. In Massachusetts, and under Federal Law, you can not let an employee go or treat them less favorably because of their race, gender, national origin, age, sexual orientation, handicap status, or genetic disposition.

If any of these factors are in play in your situation when you are let go from work, call me for a consultation.

If you have questions about Massachusetts employment law, consult an qualified Massachusetts employment lawyer before you take action.

Boston employment lawyer, Attorney Jack Merrill provides legal services to employees and employers throughout the Boston metro and Worcester County region including Ashland, Dedham, Framingham, Franklin, Hopkinton, Maynard, Marlborough, Milford, Natick, Needham, Newton, Shrewsbury, Sudbury, Waltham, and Worcester, Massachusetts.