The Supreme Judicial Court in the recent case of Ferman v. Sturgis Cleaners, Inc. addressed a limited but important question under state law: when an employee brings a claim for violation of the Wage Act or similar statutes and then settles the claim before trial, can the court award attorney’s fees to the employee? This is a common situation because wage cases, like any other civil cases, typically are resolved one way or another before going all the way to trial. The SJC held that, in contrast to federal law, a plaintiff who obtains a favorable settlement is a prevailing party under state law, and therefore can seek attorney’s fees. There are unique aspects of the Wage Act that make settlements especially common, such as mandatory treble damages, but the provision requiring an award of attorney’s fees to prevailing plaintiffs works the same under other employment-related and civil rights statutes. Thus, this decision is likely to be applicable beyond the specific context of the Wage Act.
Last week the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) issued its decision in Yee v. Massachusetts State Police, an employment discrimination case raising the question of whether denying a police officer a lateral transfer to different troop could be a discriminatory under our state anti-discrimination law. (As a note of disclosure: I wrote an amicus brief on behalf of the Massachusetts Employment Lawyers’ Association and other groups in support of the plaintiff, Lt. Yee.) The SJC reaffirmed that chapter 151B—Massachusetts’ law addressing discrimination in employment—is to be read broadly to protect employees. The Court held that when an employer makes a decision that causes a material disadvantage to an employee in objective aspects of their job, even if the employee doesn’t lose money as a result of the decision, that decision is illegal employment discrimination if it is based on the employee’s membership in a protected class.
On August 10, 2018, Governor Baker signed a new law that, among many other things, restricts and reforms noncompetition agreements, which are commonly used by employers in some sectors of the economy. Noncompetition agreements, or noncompetes, restrict what an individual can do during or after their employment – typically, to prevent them from working for competitors or entering market areas where the employer is already present. Although reasonable noncompetes sometimes serve to protect legitimate business interests of an employer, they can also be used to punish employees who decide to leave, or even lock them into their current employers by severely limiting permissible opportunities to work elsewhere. In one egregious case, the sandwich shop Jimmy John’s attempted to use noncompetition agreements to stop fast food workers from leaving for competitors, although they stopped this practice after investigations by multiple state attorneys general.
Zalkind Law’s David Russcol participated in a Wage Theft Legal Clinic yesterday through the Volunteer Lawyers Project. There were many people who had not been paid fairly by their employers. VLP and other community organizations are helping them get legal assistance. Thanks to the MA Attorney General’s Office and Suffolk University Law School for organizing and hosting!
On June 28, 2018, Charlie Baker signed An Act Relative to Minimum Wage, Paid Family Medical Leave and the Sales Tax Holiday, part of a “grand bargain” between social justice advocates who pushed for paid family leave and a higher minimum wage and retail business representatives who urged a lower sales tax.
With passage of this law, Massachusetts is now the sixth state (plus Washington D.C.) to offer paid family and medical leave to employees. It will also outdo the U.S., which is currently the only country in the 41 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and European Union nations that does not offer any paid family or medical leave.
In this post, I will focus on the family and medical leave portion of the new law, which will take effect in 2021, and the legal protections it will provide for Massachusetts employees.
It’s not as easy as it used to be to answer the question of who’s the boss. Many employees survive on a patchwork of part-time jobs; the gig economy is growing fast enough to double in the next few years. Indeed, a recent study released by Upwork and the Freelancers Union predicts that most workers will be freelancers by the years 2020. As facts in the workplace evolve, so must the law.
That’s exactly what happened last fall in Gallagher v. Chambers, a case decided by the Massachusetts Appeals Court. There, the Court clarified the test for identifying an employer under the Massachusetts Wage Act. Previously, courts had applied a common-law set of factors that led to inconsistent results in lower courts, which in some cases dismissed corporate defendants even though those entities benefitted from a plaintiff’s work. In Gallagher, a home health aide sued to recover for unpaid overtime wages. She named as defendants both her former customer – who had overseen her work on a daily basis – and the agency that had helped her find the placement and processed her paychecks. That raised the question of whether both were really her “employers” for purposes of the Wage Act. The Appeals Court took the opportunity to refine the rule for answering that question.
On January 29, the Supreme Judicial Court in Mui v. Massachusetts Port Authority held that accrued but unused sick pay is not subject to the state Wage Act, even if the employer has agreed to pay out some or all of the sick pay when an employee separates from employment. While the result may make sense on the facts of this case, and is generally consistent with the way the Wage Act is currently drafted, the Court’s decision sweeps more broadly than it needs to. It removes a powerful incentive for employers to promptly pay compensation that is due to some employees at the end of their employment.
In Mui, MassPort (the agency responsible for Logan Airport, among other things) began the process of discharging the plaintiff, a longtime employee, after he made an apparent suicide attempt that caused property damage. Before that process completed, Mui retired from MassPort, and an arbitrator later decided that MassPort could not fire him because he had already retired. MassPort had a policy of paying a portion of accrued but unused sick time to employees upon their departure, unless they were discharged for cause. MassPort at least initially refused to give Mui his sick pay (which amounted to about $47,000) because it claimed he had been discharged for cause. Continue reading
In this series, I look at some of the protections afforded by Title IX that have received less attention in the media and political arena than Title IX’s applications to equity in athletics and campus sexual assault.
The common conception of Title IX is that it is a law aimed at protecting students. That conception is too limited. Title IX’s reach is broader than the student body—it is directed at the educational program that receives federal funds, and broadly prohibits discrimination in such programs. The language of the statute states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Federal Regulations promulgated by the Department of Education make clear that Title IX prohibits employment discrimination in educational programs. 34 C.F.R. § 106.51 et seq. Continue reading
In Barbuto v. Advantage Sales and Marketing, the Supreme Judicial Court recently blazed a trail as the first state high court to extend state employment protections to medical marijuana users where those protections were not explicitly spelled out in the medical marijuana statute. The SJC unanimously gave the green light to discrimination claims by those who use medical marijuana under state law but then are punished by employers. There are limits to the court’s holding; for instance, the medical marijuana statute specifies that employers do not need to accommodate on-site use of marijuana, and an employer can still take adverse actions by meeting the high burden of showing an “undue hardship” for tolerating off-site marijuana use. But many patients who consume marijuana to treat debilitating medical conditions like cancer or, like the plaintiff Barbuto, Crohn’s disease, will get some relief by not having to choose between effective treatment and keeping their jobs.
In Barbuto, the plaintiff was hired subject to a drug test and started working. She informed her employer that she would test positive for marijuana because she used it for medical purposes according to state law because she suffered from Crohn’s disease. The hiring manager told her that would not be a problem, but after the test came back positive, she was fired by a manager who told her “we follow federal law, not state law.” (Any use or possession of marijuana remains illegal under federal law, although for several years Congress has prohibited federal authorities from spending money to interfere with state medical marijuana laws.) The plaintiff brought suit claiming, among other things, disability discrimination, and the lower court dismissed her case.
Yesterday the Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 2093, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA). Last month the House unanimously passed a similar bill, H. 3680. The PWFA is headed to Governor Charlie Baker, who has indicated he will sign it.
What is the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act?
The PWFA will amend Massachusetts’ anti-discrimination law (General Laws chapter 151B) to include pregnancy and related medical conditions (including breastfeeding) as protected categories. The law will also require employers to grant their employees reasonable accommodations related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related conditions if such accommodations do not cause an undue hardship on the employer. The law lists examples of the types of accommodations that might be required: more frequent breaks, time off to recover from childbirth, light duty, modification of equipment or seating, modified work schedules, and a private space for pumping breast milk. While the law allows employers to require medical documentation for some accommodations, employers are required to provide the following accommodations with no medical documentation: “(i) more frequent restroom, food or water breaks; (ii) seating; (iii) limits on lifting over 20 pounds; and (iv) private non-bathroom space for expressing breast milk.” Continue reading