Articles Posted in Massachusetts Courts

Massachusetts employers can not refuse to accommodate handicapped employees who are lawfully prescribed medical marijuana to treat or alleviate a medical condition. In Barbuto v. Advantage Sales, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) reversed the Superior Court’s decision granting summary judgment to the employer and reinstated the employee’s handicap discrimination claim under the Fair Employment Practices Act (M.G.L. c. 151B, §4). There, the plaintiff, Cristina Barbuto, receive a valid prescription for medical marijuana to treat the debilitating symptoms caused by Crohn’s disease. According to the decision, due to this medical condition, Ms. Barbuto has little or no appetite, finds it difficult to maintain a healthy weight, and typically uses marijuana for medicinal purposes in small quantities two or three times per week. The record also makes clear that Ms. Barbuto did not use marijuana daily, nor would she consume it before or during work.

Ms. Barbuto’s employer, Advantage Sales & Marketing, required her to submit a urine sample as part of the hiring process. After learning of this requirement, Ms. Barbuto was up front with her future supervisor about her diagnosis of Crohn’s disease and her medical marijuana use. The decision further reports that her future supervisor responded that this “should not be a problem,” which he later confirmed with others at the company. After completing her first day of work, Ms. Barbuto received a call from a human resources representative, who informed her that she was terminated for testing positive for marijuana. In doing so, Ms. Barbuto was allegedly told that the company did not care if she used marijuana to treat her medical condition because “we follow federal law, not state law.”

Sexual harassment claims often involve salacious allegations that can form the basis of a punitive damages award, the purpose of which is not to compensate the victim but to punish the wrongdoer and thus deter similar misconduct in the future. Fox’s payment to Gretchen Carlson of reportedly $20 million to settle sexual harassment allegations against its ousted founder, Roger Ailes, recently brought workplace sexual harassment into the limelight. According to her complaint, among other incidents, Ailes allegedly told Carlson: “I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago and then you’d be good and better and I’d be good and better … sometimes problems are easier to solve [that way].” The size of the settlement suggests that Fox may have been concerned about a jury awarding Carlson significant punitive damages.

More recently, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in Gyulakian v. Lexus of Watertown had the opportunity to clarify in what circumstances a jury may award punitive damages in sexual harassment cases under the Fair Employment Practices Act, namely M.G.L. c. 151B, §9. There, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff of $40,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. In response to the defendants’ Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict (JNOV) pursuant to Massachusetts Rule of Civil Procedure 50, the trial judge wiped out the jury’s punitive damages award and upheld the compensatory award. Both parties appealed and the SJC granted direct appellate review.

Pregnancy discrimination cases are rarely built on direct or “smoking gun” evidence. Instead, employment discrimination cases typically hinge on circumstantial evidence. The Supreme Judicial Court’s (“SJC”) ruling in Verdrager v. Mintz Levin, in which it reversed summary judgment thus allowing the case to proceed to trial, is a prime example of the various ways in which pretext for pregnancy and gender discrimination as well as retaliation may be inferred. The case is fact-intensive with a long, procedural history. Below is a summary of certain key facts along with a general overview of its precedential value among employment law attorneys, both in Massachusetts and in other jurisdictions.

Retaliation, Pregnancy & Gender Discrimination Allegations

Retaliation against employees who exercise their right to medical leave is prohibited under Massachusetts and federal law.  As with any employment discrimination suit,  plaintiffs who bring retaliation claims must overcome various hurdles before having a jury hear and decide their case.  Under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure and its federal corollary, for instance, an employer may file a motion near the start of the litigation asking the court to dismiss the case due to the alleged lack of a cognizable legal theory or the absence of sufficient facts to support a particular theory. As an example, a plaintiff who brings suit under the Family and Medical Leave Act against a company that has less than 50 employees would not survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion because the law only generally applies to employers with at least 50 employees.

In addition, under Rule 56 of the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure and its federal corollary, an employer will likely file a motion after the close of discovery once again asking the court to dismiss the case. Through this mechanism, the employer must show that – even when viewing all the evidence in the most favorable light to the employee – there’s no chance a reasonable jury could rule in his or her favor.

Employment discrimination claims under Massachusetts law, pursuant to the Fair Employment Practices Act, have a better chance of making it to trial thanks to the clarification issued in Bulwer v. Mt Auburn. There, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court evaluated the summary judgment standard under Rule 56 and reiterated, as it first made clear in Blare v. Husky, that Massachusetts is a pretext-only jurisdiction when it comes to proving employment discrimination.  In particular, the SJC reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the case at summary judgment, thus allowing the employee’s claims for race and national origin discrimination to proceed to trial and be heard by a jury.

In doing so, the SJC refused to adopt the employer’s articulation of the plaintiff’s burden at summary judgment standard; namely, that an employee must present evidence that the employer’s reason for termination constituted a pretext for discrimination. Rather, consistent with long-standing precedent, the Court reminded litigants that a plaintiff bringing an employment discrimination claim “need only present evidence from which a reasonable jury could infer that ‘the respondent’s facially proper reasons given for its action against him were not the real reasons for that action'” to survive summary judgment and advance to trial.