News + Insights from the Legal Team at Zalkind Duncan & Bernstein

Articles Posted in Employment Law

pexels-fauxels-3184603-scaledWe have previously written about how Massachusetts law limits non-competition clauses. Non-competition clauses restrict where an employee can work after she leaves a job; an employee agrees in a contract not to work for a competitor for a period of time after she separates from an employer. Under M.G.L. c. 149 § 24L, Restrictions on Non-Solicitation Clauses non-compete agreements signed as a condition of employment must meet certain requirements, including advance notice of the clause, compensation in exchange for accepting the limitation, and the opportunity to consult with counsel. The law also requires that non-competes have a limited duration and scope. Clauses signed after October 2018 must comply with the statute to be enforceable.

But there are other kinds of restrictions that are like non-competes that are not subject to the statute’s requirements. Principal among those are non-solicitation agreements. Non-solicitation clauses restrict who an employee can contact after they leave a job. Non-solicitation clauses can prohibit people from recruiting employees at the prior employer. Clauses can prohibit reaching out to, or doing business with, any customers of the prior employer. Sometimes they are written so broadly that a clause tries to prohibit an employee from even speaking with a former customer or co-worker. Thus, employers sometimes try to use non-solicitation agreements to accomplish what they no longer can through a non-compete clause: The clauses are broad and unlimited; they can be so restrictive about what communications an employee may have, that, in practice, the employee cannot conduct business. Imagine, for example, a seasoned salesperson with a large existent network of customers. As a practical matter, a non-solicitation agreement might bar her from talking to most potential customers in her industry should she leave a job, preventing her from performing any new job she should get that involves sales.

Courts, however, have held overly broad non-solicitation agreements unenforceable. Thus, even absent the protection of a statute, the law still places restrictions on a company to limit a former employee’s communications with former colleagues and customers. A judge in the Massachusetts Superior Court recently noted that non-solicitation agreements “limit competition in a market to sell goods or services to potential customers.” As the Appeals Court has held, a non-solicitation agreement can only be enforced under Massachusetts law to the extent “necessary to protect the employer’s legitimate business interests” and “and only to the extent that it is reasonable in time and space, necessary to protect legitimate interests, and not an obstruction of the public interest.” That means, for example, that a non-solicitation clause that does not have any relationship to protecting an employer’s confidential information, intellectual property, or trade secrets is likely unenforceable. A non-solicitation agreement that is not limited in time or geography is also likely unenforceable.

Woman sitting at laptop in her homeIn the last few decades, and particularly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, remote working arrangements have become increasingly common. In many industries, an employee can produce documents, answer emails, and attend video meetings from anywhere with an Internet connection, without even setting foot in an employer’s office. That flexibility, however, can create complications for the employment relationship, particularly when there is a question about which state’s laws apply. Since Massachusetts laws are often more favorable to employees than those of other states, we regularly field questions from workers wondering whether they can enforce their rights under Massachusetts law even if they do not live, or regularly work, in Massachusetts.

Unfortunately, there is not one clear answer that applies to all laws or all situations. For the most part, a court will look at the details of an employment relationship to decide whether Massachusetts is the core of the relationship or has significant connections to what the employee was doing. The physical place that work takes place is relevant but not always dispositive.  CONTINUE READING ›

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If you are an at-will employee, you have the right to quit your job at any time. And there may be compelling reasons to leave immediately. But quitting your job will affect your legal rights, so before you resign, here are some things to consider. 

 Can I collect unemployment? 

You may not be able to collect unemployment if you quit. In Massachusetts, if you choose to resign, you will not be eligible for unemployment unless you show that you left (a) for good cause attributable to your employer; or (b) for urgent and compelling personal reasons. When you quit, the burden will be on you to show that you should receive unemployment.  CONTINUE READING ›

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Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Appeals Court limited protections available to public employees in Harrison vs. MBTA, holding that sovereign immunity protects public employers from claims brought under the employee misclassification and anti-retaliation provisions of G.L. c. 149.  

In general, sovereign immunity is a legal doctrine that protects a government from being sued. The Massachusetts government, like most governments, has created certain exceptions to the doctrine, so that the state can be sued under limited circumstances. Unfortunately, as decided in Harrison, employee misclassification and wage-based retaliation do not qualify.  

Background of the Case 

Harrison involves two workers who performed IT services for the MBTA pursuant to contracts between the MBTA and other merchants. The workers alleged that they were misclassified as independent contractors rather than employees, which disqualifies them from certain legal protections, and one of them alleged that he was fired in retaliation after asserting that he was misclassified.  

Both claims – misclassification and retaliation – arise under the Massachusetts Wage Act, G.L. c. 149, §148 et seq. Before reaching the question of whether the workers were misclassified or retaliated against, though, the court had to decide whether sovereign immunity allowed the suits to be brought against the MBTA.   CONTINUE READING ›

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What Teachers and Other School Employees Need to Know About Title IX 

  While many people think of Title IX as a law that applies only to students, in fact the law does not mention students at all. The language of the statute is: “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.” Professors, teachers, and other employees of educational programs are protected by Title IX, and also have obligations under Title IX not to engage in actions that constitute sex-based discrimination or harassment.  

Title IX Protects Employees from Discrimination and Harassment 

As I have previously discussed, Title IX protects school employees from gender-based harassment or discrimination. The current federal regulations implementing Title IX make explicit that Title IX prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex, stating “A recipient shall make all employment decisions in any education program or activity operated by such recipient in a nondiscriminatory manner.” While there has been some disagreement among different federal courts about whether employees can bring Title IX claims if they also have claims under Title VII (the federal law prohibiting discrimination in employment more generally), the majority of appeals courts have found that employees can bring claims under both laws. The Department of Justice’s Title IX Legal Manual makes clear that that Department agrees with the circuits that have found that employees can pursue both Title IX and Title VII claims: “The Department takes the position that Title IX and Title VII are separate enforcement mechanisms. Individuals can use both statutes to attack the same violations.” Here in Massachusetts, both the First Circuit, in a case from 1988, and a judge in the District of Massachusetts in a case last year, have held that Title IX claims are not preempted by Title VII claims, and school employees can pursue both claims simultaneously.  CONTINUE READING ›

Uber-EatsThe SJC struck an initiative from November’s ballot that, if approved, would have created a new class of “app-based driver” not subject to many bedrock employment laws. In Koussa v. Attorney General, the Court held that the proposed initiative raised too many different policy questions, and, thus, did not meet constitutional requirements for petitions. Because Massachusetts law only allows ballot initiatives that present voters with “related” and “mutually dependent” issues, the Court held that the Attorney General should not have allowed the initiative onto the ballot. CONTINUE READING ›

Image-A-scaledTitle VII promises to protect employees who oppose workplace discrimination and harassment in good faith.  Over time, judicial opinions have eroded this protection by creating an exception that has allowed employers to discipline employees if the employer deems that the manner of the employee’s complaints was insubordinate or disruptive. Last fall, the First Circuit affirmed this exception in a panel decision in Jenkins v. Housing Court Department. In that case, a Black Costa Rican employee emailed multiple discrimination complaints to his supervisors and various staff. The employer then terminated the employee for disobeying orders after he was told and refused, to cease his complaints. The First Circuit affirmed a ruling of summary judgment for the employer. Last month, the plaintiff filed a petition for certiorari, asking the Supreme Court of the United States to weigh in on a doctrine that has appeared in various forms in the lower courts and that, as scholars have noted, severely undercuts Title VII’s anti-retaliation provisions. 

The insubordination exception is not rooted in Title VII’s text or legislative history, but emerged in a 1976 preliminary injunction decision concluding that a female biologist whose employer characterized her pay complaints as disloyal and noncooperative was not protected by Title VII, Hochstadt v. Worcester Found. for Experimental Biology.   

Most modern First Circuit Title VII cases—including Jenkins—draw the principle that anti-retaliation statutes do not protect employees from termination for insubordination from Mesnick v. General Electric Co., a First Circuit ADEA retaliation case in which the employer terminated an employee in part for his “confrontational attitude” and other interpersonal issues with coworkers and managers against whom he alleged age discrimination. Mesnick draws its reasoning from Jackson v. St. Joseph State Hospital, an Eighth Circuit Title VII case regarding a hospital accountant who was terminated for “highly offensive and disruptive” attempts to obtain a specific statement from a coworker to use in his sex discrimination case against the hospital. Jackson, in turn cites Hochstadt 

option-2-scaledOn Friday the Supreme Judicial Court handed employees a decisive victory, holding in Meehan v. Medical Information Technology, Inc. that employers cannot retaliate against employees who exercise their statutory rights to file rebuttals in their personnel record. In so holding, the SJC overturned a decision of the Appeals Court from earlier this year (which we discussed on this blog). The Appeals Court had held that while the state’s personnel records law gives employees the right to submit written responses to documents in their personnel records with which they disagree, because the Legislature did not write a provision prohibiting retaliation for exercising that right, an employer could fire the employee for submitting such a rebuttal.  

 The SJC overturned the Appeals Court. In an opinion written by Justice Kafker, the Court held that a termination in retaliation for an employee exercising their rights under the personnel records statute violates the Commonwealth’s public policy. While Massachusetts is generally an “at-will” employment state—meaning an employer has the right to terminate an employee at any time for (almost) any reason—there are statutory exceptions to that rule. An employer cannot fire an employee for discriminatory reasons, or because the employee engaged in certain protected activity, like making complaints about discrimination, health and safety issues, or equal pay issues. Where there is no statute preventing an employer from terminating an employee, the only common law constraint on employers is that they cannot terminate an employee for reasons that would violate a public policy. As Justice Kafker noted in his opinion, the Court previously held the public policy doctrine has been recognized “for asserting a legally guaranteed right (e.g., filing a worker’s compensation claim), for doing what the law requires (e.g., serving on a jury), or for refusing to do that which the law forbids (e.g., committing perjury)” and for employees performing important public deeds. When an employee’s actions fall under one of these categories they are protected from termination. 

 In Meehan the Court held that the rights created by the public records law fall under the first category of the public policy exception to the at-will employment rule: when an employee files a rebuttal in their personnel record they are asserting a legally guaranteed right. In coming to this decision, the Court noted that the Appeals Court had weighed whether the statutory right set forth in the personnel record law was “important.” While the Appeals Court had concluded it was not, the SJC disagreed. The Court held that “the right of rebuttal and accuracy of information in personnel files” is important for employees to protect their ability to seek other employment, for future employers to have accurate information about the people they hire, and for evaluating employers’ compliance with Massachusetts laws. More importantly, however, the Court held that whether a right is “important” is not a decision a Court should make determining whether an employee was terminated in violation of public policy for asserting a legal right. The Court stated that by passing the personnel record statute, the Legislature had already made the decision that the right is important. This holding will extend beyond the context of the Meehan case; where the Legislature has created a statutory right, Meehan should be read to mean that the exercise of that right will always be protected from retaliation under the public policy exception, even if the statute itself does not contain an anti-retaliation provision.   

By Mackenpexels-anthony-shkraba-5244025-scaledzie Bouverat, Law Student Intern

As states begin to lift restrictions designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, some employers have begun to require that their employees return to some form of in-person work, whether full-time or hybrid. Yet even for the fully vaccinated, the risk of infection is not eliminated. And for employees with disabilities, the possibility of contracting COVID-19 may present a grave risk. CONTINUE READING ›

pexels-tracy-le-blanc-607812-scaledThe convergence of widespread social media use, and recent national social movements and events—including the MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter movement, and the COVID-19 pandemic—has led to a growing number of public school teachers and other government employees being disciplined for statements they make on their private social media. Here in Massachusetts,  a teacher was fired after posting a diatribe against people living in poverty and the conversation about privilege. In Ohio, a teacher was fired after making a social media post criticizing police brutality against students. There has been significant attention paid to public university professors across the country, with institutions taking differing views of whether they can terminate professors for their online speech. In Texas, Collin College fired three professors  for making political comments on social media and criticizing their institutions’ handlings of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Indiana, the University of Indiana said it could not fire a professor who wrote posts denigrating women and LGBTQ people. We have been hearing from more public school teachers around Massachusetts who are being investigated and sometimes disciplined for their private social media posts about political and social issues. CONTINUE READING ›

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