Verdrager v. Mintz Levin: The SJC Establishes Standards for Protected Self-Help Discovery in Aid of Anti-Discrimination Claims in Massachusetts

messing_ellennewhouse_martinby Ellen Messing and Martin Newhouse

Case Focus

In Verdrager v. Mintz Levin, 474 Mass. 382 (2016), the Supreme Judicial Court answered a question of first impression under Massachusetts law: Do the anti-retaliation provisions of state anti-discrimination law protect an employee who accesses her employer’s documents to support her employment discrimination claim?  The SJC held that, under certain circumstances, such activity may be “protected,” thereby precluding an employer from taking any adverse employment action based on that activity.  The decision examined the interplay between “self-help discovery,” or searches of employer materials outside the formal litigation discovery process, and the protections of the Commonwealth’s chief anti-bias statute, G.L. c. 151B, which bars retaliation against plaintiffs who engage in “protected activity.”  G.L. c. 151B, §4(4).  The SJC articulated the standards to be applied in determining whether employee acts of self-help discovery are protected, and specified limits on that protection.

Although this was a question of first impression in Massachusetts, in deciding that “self-help” discovery in a c. 151B case may be protected activity, the Court was not writing on a blank slate.  Rather, its decision drew upon the sizeable case law on this issue that courts around the country have developed.  Indeed, the multi-factor test for protected activity that the SJC has now adopted was expressly derived from a leading New Jersey case, Quinlan v. Curtiss-Wright Corp., 8 A.3d 209, 204 N.J. 239 (2010).  It is likely that Massachusetts courts will look to decisions from other jurisdictions in applying the new Massachusetts standards.

Consistently with the courts that have confronted this issue and its own jurisprudence on protected activity under c. 151B, see, e.g., Abramian v. President & Fellows of Harvard Coll., 432 Mass. 107, 121 (2000), the SJC in Verdrager held that self-help discovery “may in certain circumstances constitute protected activity under the statute, but only if the employee’s actions are reasonable in the totality of the circumstances.”  But the SJC placed an important limit on this holding, namely that only documents that would be subject to formal discovery may be subject to protected self-help discovery, although that can include privileged documents.  Finally, the Court noted that the determination whether the self-help discovery at issue was reasonable is to be made as a matter of law by the court, not by the jury.

Whether an employee’s self-help discovery was reasonable requires a fact-based determination.  The SJC held that, “without limiting the considerations that additionally may be relevant in individual cases, the seven nuanced factors in Quinlan should be taken into account in any such analysis.”  The Quinlan factors as adopted by the SJC are: (1) “how the employee came to have possession of, or access to, the document;” (2) a balancing of the “‘relevance’ of the seized documents to the employee’s legal action against the disruption caused by the seizure ‘to the employer’s ordinary business;”’ (3) “the strength of the employee’s expressed reason for copying the document rather than, for example, simply describing it or identifying its existence to counsel so that it might be requested in discovery;” (4) what the employee did with the document, or who the employee showed it to; (5) “the nature and content of the particular document in order to weigh the strength of the employer’s interest in keeping the document confidential;” (6) “whether there is a clearly identified company policy on privacy or confidentiality that the employee’s disclosure has violated” and “whether the employer has routinely enforced that policy;” and (7) “the broad remedial purposes the Legislature has advanced through . . . G.L. 151B” and “the decision’s effect on ‘the balance of legitimate rights of both employers and employees.’”  The SJC, again adopting the Quinlan approach, noted that this last factor is “‘a supplement’ to the other factors, and plays a decisive role only in the ‘close case’ in which it would be appropriate for these broader considerations to ‘tip the balance.’”

Of particular note for lawyers, the SJC held that self-help discovery protections apply equally to attorney-employees, such as the Verdrager plaintiff, and to documents that may be attorney-client privileged.  The SJC focused on the importance of ensuring that attorney-employees have the same opportunity as other employees to show documents to their own lawyers in order to obtain legal advice.

Verdrager clearly is a victory for employees’ rights in that it recognizes that employees who engage in self-help discovery in support of discrimination claims may be protected from adverse employment action.  The decision, however, sounded several cautionary notes.  First, the SJC limited its holding, and the application of the Quinlan factors, to claims under G.L. c. 151B, expressing no opinion on self-help discovery unrelated to such claims.  Second, because the decision protects only self-help discovery found to be “reasonable in the totality of the circumstances,” the SJC warned that employees who engage in self-help discovery “even under the best of circumstances . . . run a significant risk that the conduct in which they engage will not be found . . . [ultimately] to fall within the protections of the statute.”

Finally, the SJC envisioned that, in deciding whether self-help discovery in a particular case was reasonable, a court will separately analyze each document or type of document accessed.  As the SJC stated, “[t]he application of this test in particular cases may well result in determinations that certain acts of self-help discovery by the same employee are reasonable, while others are not.”  In such a case “the resolution of the claim of retaliation likely would entail a determination whether the employee’s unreasonable and unprotected acts, standing alone, would have induced [the employer] to make the same [adverse employment] decision.”

In sum, Verdrager now provides protection for reasonable acts of employee self-help discovery.  Employers will need to proceed very cautiously before taking adverse action against employees who acquire internal documents, even confidential ones, in the course of pursuing discrimination claims.  But discrimination plaintiffs, too, will need to consider carefully the factors articulated by the Court, and to judge carefully what acts of self-discovery will survive the future application of what we can now cal the seven-factor Verdrager test.

Martin J. Newhouse, President of the New England Legal Foundation, is a member of the SJC Clients’ Security Board and BBA Ethics Committee.

Ellen J. Messing is a partner in the Boston firm of Messing, Rudavsky & Weliky, P.C., which concentrates its practice in representing employees in labor and employment litigation, including wrongful termination, discrimination, contract, sexual harassment, and public employee matters.

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