The cases that follow represent a sample of those decided regularly by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). The areas covered are sexual harassment, handicap discrimination, age discrimination, race discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, retaliation, and gender discrimination. The cases are deemed by Mayer, Antonellis, Jachowicz & Haranas, LLP to be representative of certain principles of law that all employers should be aware of. Though this list does not illustrate every relevant issue for employers, it highlights the types of difficult situations they can find themselves in when they do not have a firm grasp of what anti-discrimination laws require and how the MCAD views discrimination issues.
Following the title of each MCAD case that follows, there appears a brief summary of the case holing and an editorial comment on its perceived significance to employers. Readers should remember that all cases are decided on their own particular circumstances. These cases do not and cannot predict what will happen in any given situation. They do, however, highlight problems experienced by Massachusetts employers and suggest ways for others to avoid the same pitfalls.
O’Connor Constructors v. MCAD (2008)
After an employee complained about racially offensive remarks on a construction job site, the employer investigated. It did not, however, follow up with the complainant before concluding the investigation, nor did it discipline the alleged offender. Instead, it reassigned him to work with the complainant party, who consequently packed his tools and left a job he “loved” and that paid him good money. The MCAD awarded the employee $50,000 in emotional distress damages, assessed a $10,000 civil penalty against the employer, and ordered the company to train its managers and supervisors on discrimination law.
This case illustrates the importance of understanding the potential effects of job discrimination and maintaining/implementing an effective investigative and disciplinary policy. Underestimating the depth of emotional injury that such misconduct often causes can be costly.
City of Boston v. MCAD (2009)
The Massachusetts Appeals Court here reinstated a Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination award of $195,000 in emotional distress damages to a victim of handicap discrimination. The employer also paid $127,000 in lost wages and a $10,000 civil penalty for failing to accommodate the employee’s foot ailment, which prevented her from standing for long periods of time. The huge emotional distress award was reinstated after a lower court judge had reduced it based on the employee’s long history of non-work mental stressors. The Appeals Court concluded that, though a different fact finder might have viewed the employee’s emotional distress differently, the MCAD’s valuation was supported by the record and could not be disturbed on appeal.
This case illustrates the broad discretion in the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and other fact finders to award emotional damages as they deem appropriate, even where no medical professional testifies about the injury. It also demonstrates that unintentional conduct can lead to large MCAD awards when employees do not understand the legal implications of their actions. Employers should note that $195,000 award here (as in other cases) substantially understates the size of the actual payout by the employer, since this case was filed in 1997. Statutory 12% interest is generally applied to final judgments like this one.
Bridges v. ABCC (2008)
In this job application case, the minority complainant was awarded $25,000 in emotional distress damages after he applied for a job, was put through a difficult hiring process, and was misled about jobs that were available to him. The damages were awarded despite the complainant’s history of other emotional issues.
This case illustrates the importance of understanding what employers can and cannot do during the hiring process, including the types of questions they can and can’t ask. It also demonstrates the MCAD’s willingness to award damages for emotional distress when it believes an employer acted offensively and/or unfairly to a worker or job applicant. It is noteworthy that the hearing officer originally awarded $50,000, an amount later reduced to $25,000.
Stephan v. SPS New England, Inc. (2008)
In this handicap discrimination case, a fired employee received $371,000 in back pay damages. After an appeal that remanded this figure for reconsideration by the Commission, the employer submitted evidence that the employee really lost only $88,000. Still, the MCAD hearing officer reissued the $371,000 award, holding that it was justified by the record.
This case demonstrates the importance of understanding what is at stake in a discrimination case. Here, the employer appears to have failed to properly evaluate and submit evidence concerning damages, perhaps because it did not appreciate the risks it faced at trial. Employers who make this error as to any aspect of a discrimination case can place themselves at high risk of large awards that get increased by 12% statutory interest and the costs of lawyers for both sides of the proceeding.
By Attorney Jack K. Merrill – Framingham, MA Employment Lawyer
Attorney Jack K. Merrill is a Massachusetts employment lawyer and specializes in employment law and civil litigation. He counsels small businesses and individuals on discrimination cases and other employment related legal matters.
With law offices in Framingham, MA and Milford, MA, our employment law lawyers provide legal services to individuals and businesses throughout the Boston metro west and Worcester county region including Ashland, Dedham, Framingham, Franklin, Hopkinton, Maynard, Marlborough, Milford, Natick, Needham, Newton, Shrewsbury, Sudbury, Waltham, and Worcester, Massachusetts.