Sunday, November 11, 2012

Minority police officers can sue state for interfering with their equal employment rights

On Friday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state's employment discrimination statute, Chapter 151B, authorizes minority police officers to pursue a discrimination lawsuit against the state agency that develops their promotional examination. The ruling overturned a Superior Court decision that dismissed the officers' lawsuit on the grounds that the state's Human Resources Division ("HRD") is not the officer's employer under Chapter 151B. [Full disclosure: Joseph Sulman was co-counsel for the plaintiffs at the Superior Court.] In overturning the lower court's ruling, the SJC agreed that HRD did not qualify as an employer under the statute, but found that the officers could pursue a claim against the agency for interfering with their rights under the statute.

As the decision explains, Chapter 151B not only provides a claim against an employer for discrimination, but also provides a claim against any "person" for interference with rights protected by the statute. Because the interference provision applies to any "person," HRD does not need to be the officers' employer to be sued under that provision.

The case involves a class action complaint alleging that the civil service examination for promotion to sergeant has a discriminatory impact against black and Hispanic police officers. Although the law authorizes municipalities to develop their own promotional examinations, HRD has developed the sergeant examination used by virtually every municipality with a civil service police department.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

First Circuit reduces emotional distress award, upholds front pay in retaliation claim

A $500,000 emotional distress award was reduced to $200,000, but the First Circuit Court of Appeals otherwise affirmed a verdict in favor of an retaliation claim that awarded the plaintiff $2.5 million in combined lost wages and punitive damages.  The figure will become $2.9 million assuming the plaintiff does not challenge the new emotional distress calculation, which will become doubled due to the punitive damages.

Trainor v. HEI Hospitality, LLC  is a good example of the importance of bringing multiple claims: the plaintiff lost the underlying age discrimination claim, but succeeded on the retaliation claim. The plaintiff in brought the claims under federal and state law against his employer arising out of a planned restructuring of his position. When he objected to the restructuring and alleged age discrimination as the motivating factor, he was terminated. The jury found for the employer on the underlying claim of discrimination, but ruled for the plaintiff on retaliation and awarded $500,000 in backpay, $750,000 in front-pay, and $1 million for emotional distress. The judgment was doubled upon the finding that the employer acted wilfully. The judge then reduced the emotional distress award to $500,000.

On appeal, the First Circuit upheld the verdict in all respects except for the emotional distress award, which it further reduced to $200,000. The Court reasoned that the award was excessive since the plaintiff only offered his and his wife's testimony on the emotional distress, but he did not receive treatment or counseling from a physician or therapist.

In addition, the appeals court rejected the Defendant's argument that the front pay award was duplicative of the doubling of the damages, since front pay was intended to compensate the plaintiff for lost future earnings and the doubling of damages was a punitive measure targeting the employer.

The decision is noteworthy for at least points of law: First, this is a so-called "garden variety" emotional distress claim since no evidence of counseling or treatment of any kind supported the claim. As such, $200,000 is a sizable award, notwithstanding the reduction from the original $1 million. Second, the significant front-pay award of $750,000 is noteworthy and encouraging for other victims of retaliatory firings.