The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination: Steady in the Storm

by Simone R. Liebman

Legal Analysis

Introduction

In October, the Supreme Court of the United States heard argument in three cases that involve an unconventional division between the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency authorized to interpret and enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). These cases concern whether Title VII’s prohibition against bias “because of . . . sex” encompasses employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and transgender status.[1] At the federal circuit court level, the EEOC argued that discriminating against an employee because of sexual orientation and gender identity amounts to sex discrimination under Title VII. When the cases were appealed to the Supreme Court, however, the DOJ took the extraordinary step of filing briefs on behalf of the EEOC, rather than permitting the agency to do so.[2] Moreover, the DOJ urged the Court to review Title VII restrictively, contrary to the EEOC’s established position, and argued that the law does not explicitly prohibit sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination. The split in the federal government was further underscored when former federal officials, including the EEOC’s former chairs, commissioners, and general counsels, filed briefs arguing that sexual orientation and gender identity are intrinsically functions of sex and predicated on sex stereotypes.

The DOJ’s effort to override the authority and precedent of the EEOC is unique and historically noteworthy. And it provides a sharp contrast with the robust protections ensuring equal opportunities in employment available to Massachusetts employees through chapter 151B of the Massachusetts General Laws as enforced by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). In enacting G.L. c. 151B in 1946, the Legislature granted the MCAD broad remedial powers and significant enforcement authority. The MCAD is a law enforcement agency with police powers designed to vindicate public rights. This legislative mandate has shaped judicial precedent, often putting Massachusetts at the vanguard in providing protection for employees. The statutory scheme includes a case process that is accessible to victims of discrimination regardless of socio-economic class and results in remedies designed to compensate past wrongs and deter future illegal workplace conduct. Due to the independent, prosecutorial nature of the agency, courts have found that victims of discrimination at the MCAD may proceed in situations where private litigants would otherwise have been barred. The current battle in the Supreme Court over who interprets Title VII, and whether the law should be broadly or restrictively construed, demonstrates the importance of the MCAD’s ability to act in its own name as a public law enforcement agency to protect civil rights in Massachusetts.

G.L. c. 151B grants the MCAD law enforcement authority.

Chapter 151B has always prohibited religious, race, national origin and ancestry discrimination.[3] The Legislature acknowledged that discriminatory conduct is no less than a “harmful influence to our democratic institutions” and stated that “no well-informed, right thinking person can be oblivious or indifferent to this evil.”[4] The elimination of discrimination, the Legislature declared, was a “corner-stone” upon which “world peace must be based.”[5] With extraordinary legislative foresight, the statute authorized the MCAD at its inception to act as a civil prosecutor with significant enforcement authority. The legislation granted the MCAD the ability to conduct investigations; subpoena individuals; and issue complaints in its own name, even where no complaint has been filed by an aggrieved person.[6] To ensure that the MCAD has the opportunity to identify trends and, if appropriate, take action, MCAD’s enforcement proceedings “shall, while pending, be exclusive,” taking precedence over any other type of recourse available.[7] The statute imposed criminal sanctions, including imprisonment, where an employer willfully resists, prevents, impedes, or interferes with the MCAD in the performance of its statutory duties.[8]

G.L. c. 151B Mandates Liberal Construction.

Of considerable importance, the legislation explicitly requires that G.L. c. 151B “be construed liberally for the accomplishment of the purposes” of the statute.[9]  This directive has resulted in significant protections for Massachusetts employees. In 2013, the Supreme Judicial Court held that G.L. c. 151B prohibits discriminating against an employee based on the employee’s association with an individual who is disabled, despite the absence of an explicit statutory prohibition against associational disability discrimination.[10] In 2017, the SJC was the first state appellate court to conclude that under specific circumstances, an employer may be required to reasonably accommodate an employee with a debilitating medical condition that is treated through the use of medical marijuana.[11]  This year, the SJC concluded that an employer could be found to have engaged in illegal discrimination even when the discriminatory act in question was a lateral transfer, without any effect on the employee’s base salary, work responsibilities, or title.[12] Each of these cases relied, in large part, on the long-standing mandate that G.L. c. 151B must be interpreted liberally to achieve its remedial purposes. In contrast, Title VII has no such mandate.

The MCAD’s case processing furthers the remedial goals of the statute.

There is no fee for filing a charge of discrimination with the MCAD and no requirement to obtain legal assistance in filing. If the investigating commissioner concludes that the case has “probable cause” to proceed, and the charging party does not hire private counsel, the matter is assigned to a Commission attorney to prosecute the matter in the public interest. Almost half of the cases found by the MCAD to have probable cause are assigned to a Commission attorney, who generally prosecutes the matter through public hearing at no cost to the complainant.[13] After probable cause has been found, the Commission schedules a mandatory conciliation conference, again at no cost to the parties, in which an MCAD conciliator “will attempt to achieve a just resolution of the complaint and to obtain assurances that the Respondent will satisfactorily remedy any violations . . . and take such action as will assure the elimination of the discriminatory practices, or the prevention of their occurrence in the future.”[14] Many cases are resolved at the conciliation conference, and include public interest relief such as training or policy change.

The case is certified to public hearing if the investigating commissioner determines that the public interest so requires, and a complaint is issued in the name of the Commission.[15] It will then be heard by an MCAD hearing officer or a commissioner with expertise in G.L. c. 151B. If the employer is found to have violated the statute, the MCAD issues remedies designed to deter future illegal conduct, including a cease and desist order, a wide array of injunctive and affirmative relief such as training, reinstatement, policy change, and civil penalties, in addition to attorneys’ fees and compensatory damages to make the complainant whole. See Stonehill College v. Massachusetts Comm’n Against Discrimination, 441 Mass. 549, 563 (2004).

The MCAD may proceed where private litigants may not.

The MCAD’s “police powers” allow it to proceed with civil prosecutions in situations where a private litigant seeking redress in court could not. For example, where an employer files for bankruptcy during a civil proceeding, the automatic stay preventing the continuation of any civil proceeding generally applies.[16] Cases pursued through the administrative process at the MCAD, however, fall within the exception to the automatic stay that allows governmental units to exercise police or regulatory power.[17] Recognizing the “strongly felt” public policy against discrimination and the enforcement powers granted to the MCAD, the court in In re Mohawk Greenfield Motel Corp., 239 B.R. 1 (Bankr. D. Mass. 1999), held that the MCAD possessed police or regulatory power that qualified for the exception. The court further acknowledged that while back pay awards have a financial benefit to an employee who proves liability and is awarded victim-specific relief, the imposition of this remedy ensures future compliance and serves a public purpose: ensuring that the employer at issue “as well as others who might contemplate similar odious behavior, would be dissuaded from its future practice.” Id. at 9. Crucial to this decision exempting MCAD proceedings from the automatic stay was the recognition that it is fundamental to the MCAD’s authority to act in the public good to identify and remediate discriminatory conduct without excessive delay, and that “the benefit to the public arising from the continuing capability of MCAD to identify and sanction discriminatory behavior overshadows any associated pecuniary benefit to the victim of that discrimination.” Id. at 9.

Similarly, it was the public enforcement nature of the MCAD’s process that led the SJC in Joulé, Inc. v. Simmons, 459 Mass. 88 (2011), to permit the continued prosecution of an MCAD claim even where a binding pre-employment arbitration agreement required the victim of discrimination to arbitrate the claim rather than file a private right of action. Acknowledging that it is the MCAD and not the complainant that prosecutes the discrimination claim, the SJC concluded that mandatory arbitration clauses, otherwise applicable to private claims of workplace discrimination, do not and cannot bar administrative enforcement proceedings under G. L. c. 151B, § 5. Id. at 95-96. Given that over half of American private-sector nonunion employees are subject to mandatory arbitration procedures, the ability to proceed with a claim at the MCAD despite a binding arbitration agreement is of notable significance to employees in the Commonwealth.[18] In Whelchel v. Regus Management Group, LLC, 914 F. Supp. 2d 83 (D. Mass. 2012), the substantial state interest in preserving the MCAD’s oversight role over discrimination claims led the court to refuse to allow an employer to remove an MCAD matter to federal court. These practical advantages to proceeding at the MCAD all flow from the Legislature’s recognition over seventy years ago that the main object of an MCAD proceeding is to “vindicate the public’s interest in reducing discrimination in the workplace by deterring and punishing, instances of discrimination by employers against employees.” Stonehill College, 441 Mass. at 563.

Conclusion

When the Legislature enacted G.L. c. 151B in 1946, no one could have foreseen the current divisiveness in the federal government, nor were there any federal civil rights protections or an EEOC in place to enforce them. That was not to come into play until 1964. But the Massachusetts Legislature created safeguards resilient enough to withstand the winds of change.

Rather than merely creating a forum through which private litigants resolve disputes, the Legislature recognized the need for an independent, public agency to promote and protect the fundamental right of Massachusetts citizens to obtain equal opportunities in the workplace.

 

Simone R. Liebman is Commission Counsel at the MCAD where she where she represents the agency in Massachusetts trial and appellate courts, files amicus briefs in select cases, assists with the drafting of policy and guidance, prosecutes cases through public hearing, and conducts affirmative litigation. This article represents the opinions and legal conclusions of its author and not necessarily those of the MCAD. Opinions of the MCAD are formal documents rendered pursuant to specific statutory authority.

 

[1] Altitude Express, Inc. v. Zarda, No. 17-1623 and Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, No. 17-1618 involve the question of whether sex discrimination under Title VII includes bias based on sexual orientation. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, No. 18-107, addresses the question of whether it is a violation of Title VII to discriminate against an employee based on the employee’s transgender status or under a theory of sex stereotyping under Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989).

[2] http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/eeoc-doesnt-sign-us-brief-telling-supreme-court-that-transgender-discrimination-is-legal; https://www.reuters.com/article/us-otc-doj/once-again-trump-doj-busts-convention-splits-government-in-high-profile-employment-case-idUSKBN1AC32U.

[3] See G. L. c. 151B, inserted by St. 1946, c. 368, § 4. Since its enactment, G.L. c. 151B has been expanded to include other protected categories. Currently, G.L. c. 151B prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religious creed, national origin, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, genetic information, pregnancy (including a pregnancy-related condition), veteran status, age, and active military service. G.L. c. 151B, § 4. The MCAD also has jurisdiction over a host of other types of discriminatory conduct including retaliation, failure to accommodate disabilities, housing discrimination, certain inquiries regarding criminal records, parental leave, public accommodation discrimination, mortgage lending and credit discrimination, and certain types of education discrimination.

[4] REPORT OF THE SPECIAL COMMISSION RELATIVE TO THE MATTER OF DISCRIMINATION AGAINST PERSONS IN EMPLOYMENT BECAUSE OF THEIR RACE, COLOR, RELIGION, OR NATIONALITY, H.R. Rep. No. No. 337, 154th Leg., 1st Sess. at 2 (Mass. 1945).

[5] REPORT  OF  THE GOVERNOR’S COMMITTEE TO RECOMMEND FAIR EMPLOYMENT PRACTICE LEGISLATION, H.R. REP. No. 400, 154th Leg., 2nd Sess., at 7 (Mass. 1946).

[6] G. L. c. 151B, §§ 1(7) & 5, inserted by St. 1946, c. 368, § 4.

[7] G. L. c. 151B, § 9, inserted by St. 1946, c. 368, § 4.

[8] G. L. c. 151B, § 8, inserted by St. 1946, c. 368, § 4.

[9] G. L. c. 151B, § 9.

[10] Flagg v. AliMed, Inc., 466 Mass. 23 (2013) (“reading the statutory language broadly in light of its remedial purpose, and in order best to effectuate the Legislature’s intent, we think that the concept of associational discrimination also furthers the more general purposes of c. 151B as a wide-ranging law, ‘seek[ing] … removal of artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary barriers to full participation in the workplace’ that are based on discrimination”).

[11] Barbuto v. Advantage Sales and Marketing, LLC, 477 Mass. 456 (2017) (employee use of medical marijuana is not facially unreasonable as a reasonable accommodation).

[12] Yee v. Massachusetts State Police, 481 Mass. 290 (2019) (where there are material differences between two positions in the opportunity to earn compensation, or in the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, the failure to grant a lateral transfer to the preferred position may constitute an adverse employment action under G.L. c. 151B).

[13] 2018 MCAD Annual Report, p. 11 (Commission counsel were assigned 46% of these cases in 2018).

[14] 804 C.M.R. § 1.18(1)(a).

[15] 804 C.M.R. § 1.20(3).

[16] 11 U.S.C. § 362(a)(1) (the filing of a bankruptcy petition stays the commencement or continuation of all non-bankruptcy judicial proceedings against the debtor).

[17] 11 U.S.C. § 362(b)(4).

[18] See A. Colvin, Economic Policy Institute (EPI), “The Growing Use of Mandatory Arbitration” 1-2, 4 (Sept. 27, 2017).


The New Transgender Anti-Discrimination Law and Guidance Issued by the Attorney General’s Office and the MCAD

peranersweet_andreaby Andrea Peraner-Sweet

Heads Up

On July 8, 2016, Governor Baker signed into law An Act Relative to Transgender Anti-Discrimination, St. 2016, c. 134 (the “Act”), expanding Massachusetts’ protection against gender identity discrimination. Before the Act, the Transgender Equal Rights Act (“TERA”), St. 2011, c. 199, had prohibited gender identity discrimination in employment, housing, education, credit and lending. The Act now prohibits gender identity discrimination in places of public accommodation. G.L. c. 272, § 98, as amended by St. 2016, c. 134, § 3. It also requires places of public accommodation that lawfully segregate or separate access based on a person’s sex to “grant all persons admission to, and the full enjoyment of, such places of public accommodation, consistent with the person’s gender identity.” G.L. c. 272, § 92A, para. 2, as amended by St. 2016, c. 134, § 2 (emphasis added).

Guidance on the new law was issued on September 1, 2016, by the Attorney General’s Office (“AGO”) and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”). The MCAD issued clarified guidance on December 5, 2016, as discussed in more detail below. This article provides an overview of the AGO and MCAD guidance and recommended best practices.

Overview

 Effective October 1, 2016, the Act amended G.L. c. 272, §§ 92A and 98 to include gender identity as an unlawful basis for discrimination in places of public accommodation. St. 2016, c. 134, § 5. A place of public accommodation is “any place whether licensed or unlicensed which is open to and accepts or solicits the patronage of the general public.” G.L. c. 272, § 92A. The definition is broad: a place of public accommodation can be either public or private, can provide products or services (regardless of whether it charges for products, services, or admission), and can include retail stores, restaurants, hotels, theaters, museums, libraries, public facilities, and sports and health clubs. AGO Guidance, p. 2. After a lawsuit filed by four religious organizations (which has been voluntarily dismissed), the AGO removed an unqualified reference to “houses of worship” from its list of examples of places of public accommodation. The MCAD similarly clarified that although the Act would not apply to religious organizations if such application “would violate the organization’s First Amendment rights,” places of public worship may be subject to the public accommodations law if they engage in, or their facilities are used for, a “public, secular function.” MCAD Guidance, p. 4.

Gender identity is defined as “a person’s gender-related identity, appearance or behavior, whether or not that gender-related identity, appearance or behavior is different from that traditionally associated with the person’s physiology or assigned sex at birth.” G.L. c. 4, § 7, Fifty-ninth.  A person’s gender identity must be “sincerely held as part of the person’s core identity.” Id. It includes transgender, that is, “a person whose gender identity is different from that person’s assigned birth sex.”  AGO Guidance, p. 1; MCAD Guidance, p. 6.

Examples of unlawful gender identity discrimination by places of public accommodation include: refusing or denying services; offering different or inferior services; advertising the refusal to accept business from or patronage of transgender or gender non-conforming individuals; providing false information about the availability of products, goods or services, facilities or admission; and harassment or intimidation. AGO Guidance, p. 2; MCAD Guidance, pp. 4-5. Moreover, it is now a crime, punishable by fine and/or imprisonment, and subject to a private right of action, for any individual to “aid or incite another in making a distinction, discriminating against or restricting an individual from a place of public accommodation” based on gender identity. MCAD Guidance, p. 4.    

Use of Sex-Segregated Facilities

By far, the law’s most controversial provision concerns the use of sex-segregated facilities (e.g., bathrooms). Although places of public accommodation need not eliminate sex-segregated facilities, they must now allow patrons to use the facility most consistent with their gender identity. G.L. c. 272, § 92A, para. 2, as amended by St. 2016, c. 134, § 2. A person should be presumed to be using the facility most consistent with their gender identity if the person is not engaged in any improper or unlawful conduct. AGO Guidance, pp. 2-3. A person should not be presumed to be using the wrong facility based solely upon the person’s appearance. Id., p. 3.

If a place of public accommodation has a legitimate concern (i.e., about potentially improper or unlawful conduct) as to whether a person is using the appropriate facility, a limited inquiry of the person is recommended through a “private and discrete conversation.” Id., pp. 3-4. After confirming that the person is using the appropriate facility, the inquiry should end. Id., p. 4.

Improper or Unlawful Purpose

Gender identity cannot be asserted for an “improper or unlawful purpose.” G.L. c. 4, § 7, Fifty-ninth. Examples of such conduct include:

  • loitering in a facility for the purpose of observing other patrons;
  • harassment of employees or patrons;
  • threats or violence;
  • photographing or videotaping others without their permission; and
  • violation of the law.

AGO Guidance, p. 5.

If a place of public accommodation has reasonable grounds to believe that a person is using the facility for an improper or unlawful purpose, it may take action consistent with its usual policies regarding removing persons who engage in improper conduct, including contacting law enforcement if warranted. Id. 

Request for Proof of Gender Identity

Only in very limited circumstances is it permissible to request proof of gender identity. AGO Guidance, p. 4; MCAD Guidance, pp. 6-7. If a place of public accommodation, such as a health or sports club, regularly requires documentation of gender for all members, an individual’s gender identity may be documented by presenting “any one of the following:

  • (1) a driver’s license or any other government-issued identification;
  • (2) a letter from a doctor, therapist or other healthcare provider;
  • (3) a letter from a friend, clergy or family member regarding the individual’s routine conduct such as dress, grooming and the use of corresponding pronouns; or;
  • (4) any other evidence that the gender identity is sincerely held as a part of the person’s core identity.”

AGO Guidance, p. 4 (emphasis in original); MCAD Guidance, pp. 6-7 (providing additional examples). A place of public accommodation cannot use a request for documentation to harass, intimidate, embarrass or otherwise discriminate. AGO Guidance, p. 4; MCAD Guidance, p. 6. 

Best Practices

The Act’s major change is to ensure that places of public accommodations are accessible to all persons, consistent with their gender identity, and that employees of public facilities are properly trained in the Act’s provisions. Most businesses updated their anti-discrimination policies following enactment of the TERA; similar updates are warranted in light of the Act. The following adapts the best practice recommendations in the updated MCAD guidance for places of public accommodation:

  • Update employment policies and training materials to include a statement that discrimination and harassment based on gender identity is prohibited;
  • Prohibit derogatory comments or jokes about transgender people and promptly investigate and discipline persons who engage in prohibited conduct;
  • Update business and personnel records, payroll records, email systems and all other administrative records to reflect the stated name and gender identity of employees, clients and vendors;
  • Use appropriate names and pronouns corresponding to each person’s stated gender identification in communications;
  • Avoid gender-specific dress codes and permit attire that is consistent with each person’s stated gender identity;
  • Develop a written policy concerning procedures for when a person undergoes gender transition and which promotes the confidentiality of the person’s transition; and
  • Develop a policy that provides access to any sex-segregated facility consistent with a person’s gender identity and train all staff on the policy.

The Act is not expected to usher in a new round of litigation, in light of the TERA’s prior enactment and the public accommodation law’s liberal construction  by courts and the MCAD.  See e.g., Joyce v. Town of Dennis, 705 F. Supp. 2d 74, 83 (D. Mass. 2010).  But, all places of public accommodation should review their policies and procedures to ensure that they are in compliance with the new law.

Andrea Peraner-Sweet is a partner at Fitch Law Partners LLP.  Her practice focuses on general business litigation with an emphasis on employment litigation as well as probate litigation.