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By: Victoria Fuller and Matthew Schwartz
In 15 LaGrange Street Corporation v. MCAD, Civ. A. No. 20-P-726, the Massachusetts Appeals Court partially vacated a judgment entered by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (the “Commission”) against an employer to the extent it was based on the Hearing Officer’s finding that the complainant-employee was unlawfully terminated on the basis of race. The Appeals Court held that the Commission failed to provide sufficient notice of the “substance and nature of the grounds” of the claim against the employer, in violation of the employer’s due process rights and the Massachusetts Administrative Procedures Act.
In 15 LaGrange Street, the employee had filed a complaint with the Commission alleging that he was terminated for reporting discriminatory and illegal practices occurring at the workplace. The investigating commissioner issued a probable cause determination and certified the case to a public hearing. The employee’s complaint was attached to the certification, but the certification failed to identify the specific claims to be tried. The investigating commissioner waived the certification conference and instructed the parties to raise issues at the prehearing conference with the hearing officer. The employer contested the investigator’s waiver of the certification conference. Nevertheless, no certification conference was held, and the Commission did not issue a complaint in its own name or identify the issues to be certified.
The Public Hearing proceeded. The hearing officer determined that the employee failed to show his termination was retaliatory as pleaded. The hearing officer found, instead, that the complainant’s termination was discriminatory on the basis of race – a claim that had not been previously identified by the complainant or Commission. The employer exhausted its administrative appeals with the Commission without success.
In its decision, the Appeals Court itemized each missed opportunity the Commission and the complainant had to put the employer on notice of the claim: the complaint did not allege that complainant was terminated because of his race; the complainant and Commission failed to cure the defective pleading through amendment; the complainant’s counsel failed to reference the claim in a statement given at the commencement of the Public Hearing; and the investigating commissioner failed to hold a certification conference or issue an order identifying the complainant’s claims certified to the Public Hearing.
Importantly, the Court held that “[w]hile the commission ‘is allowed to relax the application of the regulations where necessary in the interests of justice’ it must not do so where it would ‘prejudice the substantial rights of a party.’”
It is also worth noting that the Appeals Court upheld the Commission’s finding that the complainant had been submitted to a hostile work environment. Importantly, the Appeals Court rejected the employer’s argument that it could not be liable because the former employee was able to get his work done despite the harassment.
The takeaway from 15 LaGrange is that employers defending against a complaint in the MCAD need to vigorously defend their right to a fair proceeding. They must also keep their eye on the long game. Indeed, like in 15 LaGrange, employers may need to pursue several rounds of appeals after a Public Hearing.
For more information, please contact R. Victoria Fuller at [email protected] or Matthew Schwartz at [email protected].