Category Archives: Employment

Show Me the (Same Amount of) Money!

By on June 21, 2018

The state’s new pay equity law, which amends the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act (“MEPA”), will take effect on July 1, 2018.  It is one of the strongest pay equity laws in the country, and subjects employers to double damages and attorneys’ fees in the event of a violation.  Moreover, it is a “strict liability” statute.  Thus, whether or not an employer intends to discriminate against employees of one gender is “irrelevant” to the analysis.

The amendments prohibit employers from, among other things:

• Paying different wages to people of different genders who perform “comparable work,” unless the difference in salary is attributable to one (or more) of six enumerated statutory factors;

• Asking job applicants about their wage or salary history;

• Decreasing the wages of an employee solely to close the wage gap;

• Retaliating against employees for exercising their rights under MEPA.

The revisions also establish a safe harbor provision for employers who perform self-evaluations of their pay practices.

What Does “Comparable Work” Mean?

MEPA defines “comparable work” as work that “requires substantially similar skill, effort, and responsibility” that is performed under similar working conditions.  Employers should not assume that a job title, or even a job description, necessarily determines comparability.  In fact, employees need not even be in the same business unit or department in order have “comparable” jobs.  Notably, this is a broader definition than the “equal work” standard under federal law.

Even if employees are in comparable roles, however, employers are permitted to pay them different salaries if the difference is based on of one (or more) of the following factors:

• A seniority system (as long as seniority is not affected by pregnancy, parental or family leave);
• A merit system;
• A system that measures earnings by quantity or quality of production, sales, or revenue;
• The geographic location in which a job is performed;
• Education, training, or experience, as long as these factors are reasonably related to the job in question; and
• Travel that is a regular and necessary part of the job.

What Employers Should Know About the Safe Harbor Provision

In order to trigger the safe harbor provision, which establishes an affirmative defense against liability for claims of pay discrimination, an employer must have conducted a “reasonable and good faith” pay audit within the previous three years (and before an employee files an action), and must demonstrate that it is making “reasonable progress” towards eliminating wage differentials across genders.

Self-evaluations not only help employers identify and rectify wage gaps, they guard against liquidated damages in the event of a judgment against the employer, even if the evaluation was not “reasonable” in detail and scope.

Guidance for Employers

The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office has issued a Guidance that addresses the amendments.  While the Guidance does not have legal force, it is a useful compliance tool and a good place to start if you have basic questions about how to ensure you are compensating your employees equally across genders for “comparable work.”  However, employers should bear in mind that “the complexity of the analysis required will vary significantly depending on the size, make-up, and resources of each employer”; the Guidance does not, and cannot, address the many fact-specific situations that may arise at any given place of employment.

In addition to the Guidance, the AG’s Office has generated a “Pay Calculation Tool” to help employers identify and evaluate gender-based pay gaps.  Smaller employers with clearly defined groupings of comparable jobs and relatively simply pay structures may benefit from using the tool, at least as a first step; it is not appropriate for large pay groups or complicated pay structures.  Furthermore, the data the tool generates may be discoverable in litigation or government investigations, so employers should consult with counsel before conducting any self-evaluation.

“Ban-the-Box” Update for Employers

By on May 21, 2018

Since 2010, employers in Massachusetts have been prohibited, under the Criminal Offender Record Information (“CORI”) Reform Act, from requiring a job applicant to check a box indicating that he or she has a criminal history (the “ban-the-box” law).  Employers are also prohibited from requiring applicants and employees to disclose certain criminal information, including arrests and criminal cases that did not result in a conviction; first convictions for various misdemeanor offenses; misdemeanor convictions where the date of conviction or release from incarceration occurred five or more years prior to the date of the employment application (in the absence of an intervening conviction); juvenile records; and sealed criminal records.

Under new amendments to the CORI Reform Act signed by Governor Baker on April 13, 2018, and slated to take effect on October 13, 2018, employers may not inquire into misdemeanor convictions where the date of the conviction occurred three or more years from the date of the application (unless there was an intervening conviction).  In addition, employers may not ask applicants about “a criminal record, or anything related to a criminal record, that has been sealed or expunged . . . .”  Finally, employers must include the following statement on any application “which seeks information concerning prior arrests or conviction of the applicant”: “An applicant for employment with a record expunged pursuant to section 100F, section 100G, section 100H or section 100K of chapter 276 of the General Laws may answer ‘no record’ with respect to an inquiry herein relative to prior arrests, criminal court appearances or convictions. An applicant for employment with a record expunged pursuant to section 100F, section 100G, section 100H or section 100K of chapter 276 of the General Laws may answer ‘no record’ to an inquiry herein relative to prior arrests, criminal court appearances, juvenile court appearances, adjudications or convictions.”

Employers are advised to take note of these important changes and revise their applications, and application processes, accordingly.

Massachusetts Pregnant Workers Fairness Act Takes Effect

By on April 25, 2018

As of April 1, 2018, all Massachusetts employers with six (6) or more employees are subject to the state’s new Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (the “Act”).

In light of the pre-existing federal law in this area, what is most notable about the Act is that it requires covered employers to provide:

• non-exempt and exempt employees with reasonable breaks and an appropriately private place to express breast milk;
• written notice to their employees regarding the rights provided under the Act; and
• reasonable accommodation(s) to employees on the basis of pregnancy and pregnancy-related conditions.

Reasonable accommodations may include thing like frequent or longer breaks, light duty, or a modified work schedule.

It is unlawful to retaliate against employees for requesting such an accommodation. Likewise, employers cannot deny an employment opportunity to an employee if the denial is based on the employer’s knowledge that it would have to provide the employee a reasonable accommodation, nor can an employer refuse to hire someone on the basis of pregnancy or a pregnancy-related condition, provided that person can perform the job (with a reasonable accommodation, if necessary).

Employers must provide the required written notice in a handbook, pamphlet, or other appropriate form to:

• current employees on or before the effective date of the Act;
• a newly-hired employee at the time of his or her hire; and
• any employee who notifies the employer of a pregnancy or a pregnancy-related condition, within 10 days of such notice.

Employers may satisfy the written notice requirement using the two-page Pregnant Workers Fairness Act Guidance published in part for this purpose by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). The MCAD has also published a helpful Q&A regarding the Act.  Should you have questions concerning compliance with the Act or other matters, speak with an experienced employment attorney.

Understanding the Limitations of Chapter 93A: Pre-Litigation Attorneys’ Fees Not Recoverable

By on January 30, 2018

The Regulation of Business Practices for Consumer Protection Act, commonly referred to by its statutory chapter number, “Chapter 93A,” is a frequently utilized statute that provides individual consumers and businesses with a right to bring legal action and recover damages if they are harmed by an unfair business practice.  Under the statute, “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” or “unfair methods of competition” committed while conducting business in Massachusetts permit the harmed party to recover their actual damages, or a statutory minimum of $25 per offense (whichever is greater), and up to three times such damages for knowing and willful violations of the statute, plus an award for reasonable attorneys’ fees and the costs of the lawsuit.  Chapter 93A creates harsh penalties, with a wide-reaching scope, to deter unfair business acts, however, it does have limitations.

Previously, we explained the prohibition on Chapter 93A recovery with regard to a party’s decision to litigate a dispute, rather than settle with the opposing party.

A second limitation on recovery under Chapter 93A relates to the timing of when a party’s legal fees are incurred. Recently, the Suffolk County Superior Court considered the issue of whether pre-litigation attorneys’ fees are recoverable under Chapter 93A in Beninati, et al. v. Borghi, et al. The court awarded double damages to one of the plaintiffs under Chapter 93A. The defendants who were found liable under Chapter 93A then moved the court to reduce the attorneys’ fees award by $170,000 for fees incurred prior to the filing of the lawsuit, relating to “extensive settlement discussions.” The court agreed that pre-litigation fees are not recoverable under Chapter 93A, stating that it “is aware of no authority that permits the award of fees incurred before the litigation began and that do not bear directly on its preparation.”  Accordingly, the court excluded the pre-litigation attorneys’ fees from the award.

This case is just one example of the importance of understanding the process of litigating claims and the implications of dealing with an adverse party.  Depending on the circumstances of a dispute, it can be wise to initiate litigation sooner to ensure large portions of incurred attorneys’ fees are ultimately recoverable from the party causing the harm. To learn more about scope and application of Chapter 93A, contact an experienced Massachusetts litigation attorney.

Sports Bar Liable for Wrongful Death in Patron’s Fall Down Stairs

By on November 3, 2016

The Massachusetts Court of Appeals recently affirmed a lower court ruling that held a sports bar liable for the death of a patron who entered a door marked “Employees Only” and was subsequently killed falling down a flight of stairs, in Bernier, et al. v. Smitty’s Sports Pub, Inc. (MA Appeals Court 14-P-1967). The bar, Smitty’s Sports Pub, Inc. (“Smitty’s”), argued that the deceased, Roger Leger, was a trespasser and thus not subject to a negligence claim. The trial court disagreed.

On the night of the incident, Mr. Leger went to find the bar’s restroom. Three adjacent doors, marked “Gentlemen,” “Ladies,” and “Employees Only” were the same color and similarly marked. The “Employees Only” door opened into an unlit stairwell, with an over two-foot drop to the stairs, and while it was normally locked during business hours, the door was not locked on this particular night. Mr. Leger accidentally used the “Employees Only” door, fell down the stairs, and succumbed to injuries two weeks later.

Mr. Leger’s estate filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Smitty’s. Smitty’s argued that because Mr. Leger had no right to open a door marked “Employee’s Only” and enter the basement area, he was a trespasser and thus not entitled to a duty of reasonable care. The jury ultimately found that Smitty’s was negligent in maintaining the property, and that negligence caused Mr. Leger’s injuries (although the ultimate damage award was reduced by 20%, the amount of negligence the jury attached to Mr. Leger).

The crux of the matter here is that Mr. Luger was lawfully on the premises, and that he accidentally went through a door marked “Employees Only” does not make him a trespasser. Because he was lawfully on the premises, Smitty’s, like any landowner (especially those open to the general public), owed Mr. Luger a duty of care to act reasonably and maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition. At trial, Smitty’s had testified that the unlocked “Employee’s Only” door created a dangerous condition for anybody not knowing what lay on the other side, and that it was foreseeable that a patron may accidentally open that door, given its proximity and similarity in appearance to the restroom doors.

This case contains some important lessons for bar and restaurant owners, and the hospitality industry generally. All patrons are owed a duty of care that the establishment be reasonably free of hazards. Especially where alcohol is served, owners should expect that customers may wander around the premises and may not read every posted sign. Areas that are off-limits to customers should be very clearly noted, if not locked or otherwise physically inaccessible. Smitty’s ran into problems here because a door that should have been locked was not, and that door’s proximity to the restrooms, areas patrons are expected to go, was not reasonable given the hazard behind the door. All business owners should review the layout of their establishments and ensure that patrons may only access areas they are permitted to enter.

“Culture of Profanity” or a Hostile Work Environment? Massachusetts Court Issues Ruling on Permissible Use of Expletives in the Workplace

By on August 22, 2016

Hostile work environments exist when an employer’s statements, actions, and behavior make it impossible for an employee to perform their job. Massachusetts law protects employees against discrimination and hostile work environments by prohibiting an employer, or its agents, from refusing to hire an individual, discharging an employee, or discriminating on the basis of a protected class status.  Protected class status exists based on an individual’s “race, color, religious creed, national origin, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, genetic information, or ancestry.” 

Recently, in Griffin v. Adams & Assoc. of Nevada, et al., the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts determined that a former employee sufficiently presented evidence to bring a hostile work environment claim based on sexually derogative terms directed at him by his former supervisor and others.

In Griffin, a former employee filed suit for discrimination based on his sexual orientation, harassment, and retaliation against his former employer and his former supervisor.  In defense, the employer argued that the employee failed to establish a hostile work environment claim because the conduct directed at him was not “of a sexual nature” and was not a comment on the employee’s gender or sexual orientation.  In making this argument, the employer relied on a prior Massachusetts Appeals Court case, Prader v. Leading Edge Products, Inc., which held that use of “crass garden-variety expletives” in a workplace, which are not sexual commands or lurid innuendos, may only evidence a “culture of profanity” in the workplace and would be insufficient to establish a sexually hostile work environment.

The District Court’s summary judgment decision in Griffin, dismissed the employer’s Prader argument.  The Court determined that the comments directed at Mr. Griffin went beyond “garden-variety expletives” (such as those commonly used with or without meaning or reference to a sexual connotation), making it reasonably possible to construe the statements as sexual innuendo that “could suggest discriminatory animus.”  The District Court held that the specific nature of the statements, when viewed with consideration to previous statements (derogatory comments about the former employee’s attire and mannerisms being “feminine,” describing his office décor as “flamboyant,” and using derogatory terms based on his sexual orientation), went beyond statements “tinged with offensive sexual connotations” and could be reasonably viewed as discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender stereotypes.

The Griffin decision allowed the employee’s hostile work environment and retaliation claims to survive summary judgment, permitting the employee to proceed with those claims against the defendants toward trial.  While the Griffin decision did not determine whether the employer’s actions actually violated Chapter 151B, it should serve as a stern reminder to employers that protected-class discrimination and hostile work environments are not tolerated under Massachusetts law.  While the use of common profanity may be a recognized element of a work environment, that may not excuse the employer from liability where profanity with offensive connotations is targeted toward particular employees.  Employers must work with their human resources staff and employment counsel to create and maintain policies that promote healthy work environments and prohibit discriminatory conduct.  Should you have questions or concerns regarding Massachusetts’ anti-discrimination laws, hostile work environments, or your company’s practices, consult a Massachusetts employment attorney.

Federal Judge Allows Tort Claims Over Rescinded Job Offer to Proceed

By on August 10, 2016

A federal court judge has allowed a plaintiff to proceed with claims against a Massachusetts company that rescinded a job offer shortly after the plaintiff left his prior job. The defendant, Loomis, Sayles & Co., is an international investment firm that had intended to launch a new hedge fund. Over a course of six months, the defendant recruited plaintiff Vishal Bhammer, then employed by a different financial services firm in Hong Kong, to join the new fund.

During the recruitment process, the defendant allegedly informed Mr. Bhammer that the new fund was an opportunity that warranted leaving his current job and relocating his family to Singapore. The defendant allegedly emphasized that the fund had an “appropriate and well-defined investment process, strategy, and philosophy.” Several of the defendant’s employees allegedly made similar statements to Mr. Bhammer via Skype video calls, conference calls and in-person meetings. In early June, 2015, the defendant allegedly told Mr. Bhammer that he should not delay in giving notice of his resignation to his current employer. Mr. Bhammer’s resignation became effective on July 5, 2015. On July 16, 2015, the defendant informed Mr. Bhammer that it had decided to abandon the new hedge fund, and thus Mr. Bhammer’s job no longer existed. The defendant allegedly told Mr. Bhammer that the fund was abandoned in part because the defendant did not approve of the Fund’s strategy and its odds of success were too low.

Mr. Bhammer filed suit on December 23, 2015, alleging three claims: misrepresentation (intentional and negligent), tortious nondisclosure, and tortious interference. Shortly thereafter, the defendant moved to dismiss all counts, and the Court denied the motion. The defendant moved to dismiss the misrepresentation claim on several grounds, including that the complaint did not meet the strict specificity requirements of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  The Court disagreed, finding that the complaint contains several allegations that the defendant intended to move forward with the new fund, was committed to the fund, and that there was no reason Mr. Bhammer should delay in moving his family to Singapore. The defendant also argued that such statements are not actionable fact statements, but instead merely opinions. The Court acknowledged that the distinction between opinion and fact is “often blurry,” and that the overall circumstances must be evaluated to determine the true meaning of the language used. While the defendant’s representation of the fund’s investment strategy was “appropriate and well-defined” could be considered an opinion, those words imply that the defendant believed the strategy was appropriate and well-defined, implying that it was an opinion grounded in fact. The Court found that the facts alleged covered both intentional misrepresentation and negligent misrepresentation (the claims are similar but negligent misrepresentation requires a less demanding standard).

“Tortious nondisclosure,” perhaps the most interesting claim due to its rare appearance, is a tort arising out of a duty to disclose. It is distinct from misrepresentation in that it covers what a party does not say. The Court found that the facts alleged in the complaint represented, at a minimum, circumstances in which the defendant had a duty to disclosure matters necessary to prevent its partial statement of fact from being misleading. In other words, if Mr. Bhammer’s allegations are true, then the defendant had an obligation to disclose its true belief regarding the hedge fund.

The third claim, “tortious interference,” requires a plaintiff to prove that it had an advantageous relationship with a third party (including an employment relationship), the defendant knowingly induced a breaking of the relationship, the interference was improper in motive or means, and the plaintiff suffered harm. The parties here dispute whether the defendant’s conduct was must be directed at a third party, or whether conduct directed at the plaintiff is sufficient. All of the defendant’s conduct was directed at Mr. Bhammer, not at his then-current employer. The Court stated that recent Massachusetts cases do not require the defendant to have induced the employer to break the relationship. Put differently, preventing the plaintiff from performing its own end of the contract is apparently sufficient under Massachusetts law, and this claim was also allowed to proceed to the next stage of litigation.

One lesson from this case is that employers should recruit new employees with care, particularly when such employees are leaving current jobs for a new opportunity. As the Court noted, the distinction between fact and opinion is often blurrier than one might think, and thus employers must ensure that their recruiters and senior staff avoid over-promising. Concerned parties should contact a Massachusetts employment attorney to review the recruitment process.

Massachusetts Enacts Equal Pay Law

By on August 3, 2016

On August 1, 2016, Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker signed the equal pay law, a law that has been working through the legislature since 1998. The law takes effect on July 1, 2018.  The law bars discrimination on the basis of gender in the payment of wages, including benefits and other compensation, for “comparable work.”  The statute defines comparable work to mean work that requires substantially similar “skill, effort and responsibility” and is performed under similar working conditions. The law allows variation in wages based on:

  • seniority;
  • merit;
  • productivity as measured by quantity or quality of sales or production;
  • geographic location;
  • education, training, or experience reasonably related to the job; or
  • regular travel.

The law provides several direct remedies for violations with a three-year statute of limitations.  Aggrieved employees can bring a lawsuit on behalf of themselves and similar situated employees, and recover the amount of wages underpaid, as well as an additional amount of wages underpaid as liquidated damages (amounting to double damages), plus reasonable attorney’s fees.  Employers also face liability for retaliation under the law.

An employee’s previous wage or salary history may not be used as a defense, but the law does provide employers with one affirmative defense:  if, within the prior three years and before a lawsuit is brought, employers complete a good faith self-evaluation of its pay practices and demonstrate that reasonable progress has been made towards eliminating pay differentials based on gender, liability under this law can be avoided. Employers may design their own self-evaluations, if they are reasonable in detail and scope in light of the employer’s size.

Finally, this law makes illegal some common practices.  Employers may not bar employees from discussing their own wages or the wages of fellow employees.  Further, employers may not screen job applicants based on salary history or even ask about prior wages or salary history.  However, prospective employees may provide written authorization for a prospective employer to confirm prior wages, but only after the prospective employer makes an employment offer.

The attorney general is empowered to bring its own lawsuit based on equal pay violations and may issue regulations interpreting this law, which can include templates for employer self-evaluations.  Although gender discrimination has long been illegal in Massachusetts, this law provides employees with new avenues for relief and places additional restrictions on employers. Employers should consult with Massachusetts employment attorneys to confirm that hiring practices will comply with the law and to ensure that potential liability is limited through self-evaluations.

Contractors Beware:  OSHA Penalties Set to Increase on August 1, 2016

By on July 27, 2016

On August 1, 2016, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (“OSHA”), will raise the limits of its maximum penalties for the first time in nearly twenty-six years.

Current maximum penalties for “serious,” “other than serious” and “posting requirement” penalties will increase from $7,000.00 per violation to $12,471.00 per violation.  Penalties for failure to abate hazards or violations will increase from $7,000.00 to $12,471.00 per day for each failure to abate the condition subsequent to the abatement date.  Finally, the maximum penalties for “willful” or “repeat” violations will increase from $70,000.00 to $124,709.00 per violation. 

All contractors, and especially those with a history of violations or alleged violations with OSHA, would be wise to insure that all personal protective equipment, tools and equipment are OSHA compliant in advance of the changes in maximum penalties.  If your firm hasn’t recently revisited its safety procedures, practices and documentation, now is the time to review your firm’s safety program in order to avoid exposure to increased maximum penalties for OSHA violations set to take effect. 

For contractors in states that operate their own, state run, “mini-OSHAs,” OSHA has required that those agencies adopt maximum penalties that meet or exceed those imposed by OSHA.  Accordingly, contractors operating in states with “mini-OSHA” agencies should be mindful to consider whether they’re subject to penalties for any violation that may exceed the penalty that OSHA might impose for any similar violation.  

Of course, the best way to avoid an increased OSHA penalty for a violation is to refrain from committing any violation.  As a practical matter, violations frequently occur despite your firm’s best efforts and dedication to providing a safe and compliant work environment.  If OSHA requests to inspect your work site or office, you’d be well-advised to immediately contact an attorney experienced in OSHA practice to help guide your firm through the process and to achieve best results.

Defend Trade Secrets Act – Employment Implications

By on June 2, 2016

President Obama recently signed the Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”), which provides a federal private right of action for the misappropriation of trade secrets. Previously, trade secret claims were handled only at the state level. The DTSA does not preempt state law, but instead provides another avenue for recovery. Trade secret owners may pursue federal claims including property seizure (to prevent dissemination of trade secrets), injunctive relief, and damages for actual loss and unjust enrichment. Property seizure is not lightly granted, and the DTSA provides a detailed framework for when and how property may be seized. Further, if the trade secret is willfully and maliciously misappropriated, courts may award double damages and attorney’s fees.

In the employment context, employees are immune from liability under the DTSA (and arguably state laws as well given the DTSA’s specific wording) for disclosing trade secrets that are made in confidence to a government official or attorney for the purpose of reporting or investigating a violation of law. Employees are permitted to use trade secret information in a lawsuit alleging retaliation by an employer for reporting a trade secret violation, as long as any court document containing trade secrets is filed under seal.

Although the DTSA provides a powerful cause of action for employers, the DTSA also contains some employee protections. Employers must now provide notice to employees of the immunities contained in the DTSA in agreements with employees (such as nondisclosure agreements), which may be handled by including a cross-reference to a company policy containing notice of the immunity. Failure to provide such notice prevents employers from receiving multiple damages or attorney’s fees under the DTSA. While injunctions are available under the DTSA, any injunction may prevent actual or threatened misappropriation but must not prevent the employee from entering into an employment relationship or conflict with state laws concerning the restraint of trade.

In sum, employers may now bring a civil action against employees who misappropriate trade secrets that can lead to damages and injunctive relief including seizure. However, to receive the full benefits of the DTSA, employers must update their nondisclosure and similar agreements to inform employees of the immunities available under the DTSA.  The DTSA’s effect on the technology, biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries almost certainly will be far-reaching.  As a result, the DTSA is of particular importance to businesses in greater Boston, Cambridge and other emerging technical hubs in Masshachusetts and throughout New England.  Both employers and employees should contact a Massachusetts employment attorney to update their agreements and confirm their duties.