Articles Posted in Employment Law

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In April, six women filed a proposed class-action gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and pregnancy discrimination lawsuit in federal court in D.C. against international law firm Jones Day, with four of the women proceeding under the pseudonyms “Jane Doe 1-4.” business-894846_1920The court initially allowed this, stating “Plaintiffs significant interest in maintaining their anonymity at this stage of the litigation is sufficient to overcome any general presumption in favor of open proceedings.” Jones Day vigorously contested this move, arguing that by allowing the women to proceed under pseudonym, the court was giving credence to the women’s argument that Jones Day would retaliate against them if their identities were public, that it prevents the public from assessing the claims, and that because the plaintiffs courted publicityproceeding under pseudonym was inappropriate. Jones Day also argued that it could not investigate the women’s claims without knowing their identities. In similar gender, pregnancy, and family responsibility discrimination cases filed against Jones Day in 2018 and just this month, the plaintiffs chose to proceed under their own names. Over the course of the litigation, all but one of the anonymous plaintiffs chose to reveal their identities. On August 7, 2019, the judge presiding over the case issued a sealed order requiring the last remaining anonymous plaintiff to reveal her identity. In lieu of revealing her identity, Jane Doe 4 left the lawsuit. 

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On August 21, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit released a decision that reaffirms that a hostile work environment claim can span many years, so long as some of the acts that are part of the broader pattern of harassment occurred within the statute of limitations period. In Nieves Borges v. El Conquistador Partnership, kitchen-731351_1920the First Circuit reversed a grant of summary judgment for a defendant, holding that the district court erred in excluding past evidence of sexual harassment in evaluating the plaintiff’s. The Court emphasized that “so long as one instance of harassment falls within the statutory limitations period,” “the entire period of the hostile environment may be considered by a court for the purposes of determining liability.”  In other words, past conduct is part of the broader pattern of harassment at issue and is therefore relevant to assessing the nature of an employer’s bad behavior.

The plaintiff in Nieves Borges took a long time to report the harassment he faced.  This is, of course, not unusual in employment discrimination cases in which a worker who experience sexual or other types of harassment fears losing his or her job.  The plaintiff had worked at his company as a food service manager for twenty-two years when he was terminated in July of 2015.  During that time, a high level manager (the Director of Human Resources) had harassed the plaintiff for more than a decade: According to the plaintiff that harassment included unwanted touching and frequent episodes in which the manager would look the plaintiff up and down while pressuring him to go out for drinks. In 2007, the alleged harasser went so far as to proposition the plaintiff over lunch. After that time, the alleged harasser bothered the plaintiff intermittently, even asking him to socialize several times in 2014, but never propositioned him again. But the plaintiff did not report his supervisor’s behavior until 2014, years after the pattern began and well after the most severe incident.  At summary judgment, the district court refused to consider the older incidents, because none of the acts that occurred after 2014 rose to the level of sexual harassment. The district court also held that to prove his claim that he was subjected to a hostile environment the plaintiff had to demonstrate that the conduct he faced was both severe and pervasive.

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Joint-RollingWe frequently get inquiries from employees who are unsure of their rights regarding cannabis. Their confusion is understandable, since marijuana is very much in a legal gray area. Although possession of any amount of marijuana is a federal crime, Congress and Justice Department priorities have sharply limited enforcement of federal law against most people who have marijuana only for personal use. Under Massachusetts state law, different statutes authorize medical and recreational sale and use of cannabis. State-licensed dispensaries sell cannabis in cities and towns across Massachusetts for medical purposes and increasingly for non-medical purposes as well. Depending on the situation, employees who use cannabis may or may not have legal protections. This general overview will focus on three areas: drug testing, the use of medical cannabis under state law, and recreational marijuana. 

Massachusetts employers may require employees to take drug tests under some circumstances, but the employers must meet specific legal criteriaUnder federal and state laws against disability discrimination (the Americans with Disabilities Act and Chapter 151B), an employer may be permitted to require an applicant to undergo a test for illegal drugs after offering the applicant a job, if the test is relevant to the employee’s ability to perform the job and is applied equally to all employees in the same job category. After an employee has been hired, any drug test must be job-related and consistent with business necessity. Because marijuana is illegal for federal purposes but legal under state law, it is unclear whether Massachusetts employers may test for marijuana even if they can test for other drugs; however, if there is a specific federal requirement to test for marijuana, such as for truck driversthe federal law would govern. 

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MoneyThe 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.

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adult-2893847_1920Last 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. 

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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 fromhandshake 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.

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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!

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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.

Family-LeaveWith 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.

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Massachusetts-Appeals-Court-Wage-Act-Decision

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.

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SJC-Sick-Time-Wage-Act

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

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