Insight

High Court Reinforces Discrimination Is About More Than Money

A new case in Massachusetts clarifies something important about the standards to be met in workplace harassment cases.

What's the Standard for Workplace Harassment?
Brian J. MacDonough

Brian J. MacDonough

March 28, 2019 02:42 PM

Discrimination in the workplace can take many forms and present itself in countless ways. Many people mistakenly believe that discrimination is not actionable until the discrimination has had a financial impact. A recent Supreme Judicial Court decision clarified that this is not true under Massachusetts’ anti-discrimination statute, Chapter 151B. In the recent case of Yee v. Massachusetts State Police, the Court considered what constitutes an “adverse employment action” and reinforced that discrimination claims are about more than just money.

The Law

Chapter 151B makes it unlawful for any employer, on the basis of “race, color, religious creed, national origin, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation…genetic information, ancestry or status as a veteran,” to discriminate “in compensation or in terms, conditions or privileges of employment.”

The Case

In Yee, the Court addresses whether the denial of Officer Yee’s request for a lateral transfer to a specific unit—one generally considered a preferred unit/position—could be unlawfully discriminatory. A Superior Court judge had granted the Massachusetts State Police’s motion for summary judgement, concluding the plaintiff had not met this burden of showing that the denial of his request for a lateral transfer was an "adverse employment action." The Supreme Judicial Court reversed and remanded the earlier decision, stating that because “there are material differences between [the] 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 c. 151B.”

The Court's Ruling and Impact

The Court’s discussion regarding “terms, conditions or privileges of employment” is important. In its ruling, the Court, for the first time, elaborated on what each of those words mean.

For example:

  • “Terms of employment” includes “personnel policies…or contractual provisions that may be either explicit or implied.”
  • “‘Conditions of employment’ may … encompass the general environment, atmosphere, or quality of the workplace.”
  • “A ‘privilege of employment’ is an unmandated benefit that, ‘though not a contractual right of employment,’ is nonetheless customarily provided by an employer…[and] may not be doled out in a discriminatory fashion.”

Additionally, whether a particular employment action is “adverse” requires a case-by-case analysis, viewed from the perspective of a reasonable person in the employee’s position. The Court offered the example that a “transfer from an evening to a day shift may be an adverse employment action to one employee, but be welcomed by another.” The ruling enforces that, because these cases involve genuine issues of material fact, their merits should be evaluated by a jury at trial, and not prematurely disposed of by a judge.

The bottom line is that discrimination is about more than money. Whether or not a particular employment action violates Chapter 151B is a fact-intensive inquiry that requires careful, case-specific examination. Additionally, the time within which to pursue claims can be very short. Retaining counsel sooner rather than later can help you protect and preserve your rights.

------------------

Brian J. MacDonough concentrates his practice in employment law and executive advocacy. He handles a wide range of matters, including contract negotiation and enforcement, discrimination, whistleblowing, wage and hour issues, and wrongful termination. In particular, Brian counsels and represents executives and professionals regarding sophisticated employment and compensation matters, including employment agreements, change of control agreements, equity and deferred compensation vehicles, non-competition and other restrictive covenants, severance /separation terms, and transition agreements.

Related Articles

A Double Dose of Power


by Constance Endelicato

Women in the Legal and Medical Professions Can Work Together to Dismantle Gender Inequality

Women Work to Dismantle Gender Inequality

Racial Discrimination Suit Against NFL May End in Arbitration


by John Ettorre

A former Miami Dolphins head coach is up against the NLF in a discrimination case that is on a path to arbitration; the NFL remains focused on equality for their diverse coaching staff.

Arbitrating Discrimination Suit Against NFL

What Does Workplace Harassment Look Like in 2021?


by Victoria E. Langley

The COVID-19 pandemic reshaped the U.S. workforce. But has it changed harassment on the job?

Workplace Harassment in 2021

WATCH: A Landmark Win for LGBTQ Rights


by Best Lawyers

Two top employment attorneys join the CEO of Best Lawyers to discuss the landmark Supreme Court ruling protecting gay and transgender employees.

Panel: LGBTQ SCOTUS Ruling

The Fighter From New York


by Justin Smulison

Benedict Morelli discusses recent successes and high-profile casework.

Morelli Law Firm

Jamie Gorelick Gets It Right


by Meredith Hinshaw-Chaney

Jamie Gorelick on politics, justice, and the rule of law.

Jamie Gorelick on the Rule of Law

Trending Articles

The Real Camille: An Interview with Johnny Depp’s Lawyer Camille Vasquez


by Rebecca Blackwell

Camille Vasquez, a young lawyer at Brown Rudnick, sat down with Best Lawyers CEO Phillip Greer to talk about her distinguished career, recently being named partner and what comes next for her.

Camille Vasquez in office

Announcing The Best Lawyers in The United Kingdom™ 2023


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from the United Kingdom.

The Best Lawyers in The United Kingdom 2023

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard: The Best Lawyers Honorees Behind the Litigation


by Gregory Sirico

Best Lawyers takes a look at the recognized legal talent representing Johnny Depp and Amber Heard in their ongoing defamation trial.

Lawyers for Johnny Depp and Amber Heard

Announcing The Best Lawyers in France™ 2023


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from France.

Blue, white and red strips

Announcing The Best Lawyers in Germany™ 2023


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from Germany.

Black, red and yellow stripes

Education by Trial: Cultivating Legal Expertise in the Courtroom


by Margo Pierce

The intricacies of complex lawsuits require extensive knowledge of the legal precedent. But they also demand a high level of skill in every discipline needed to succeed at trial, such as analyzing technical reports and deposing expert witnesses.

Cultivating Legal Expertise in the Courtroom

Announcing The Best Lawyers in Belgium™ 2023


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from Belgium.

Black, yellow and red stripes

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers® in the United States


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers listed in the 28th Edition of The Best Lawyers in America® and in the 2nd Edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2022.

2022 Best Lawyers Listings for United States

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers™ in France


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms, including our inaugural Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch recipients.

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers™ in France

Choosing a Title Company: What a Seller Should Expect


by Roy D. Oppenheim

When it comes to choosing a title company, how much power exactly does a seller have?

Choosing the Title Company As Seller

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers™ in Germany


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms, including our inaugural Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch recipients.

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers™ in Germany

We Are Women, We Are Fearless


by Deborah S. Chang and Justin Smulison

Athea Trial Lawyers is a female owned and operated law firm specializing in civil litigation, catastrophic energy, wrongful death and product liability.

Athea Trial Law Female Leadership and Success

U.K. Introduces Revisions to Right-to-Work Scheme and Immigration Rules


by Gregory Sirico

Right-to-Work Scheme and Immigration Rules in

Famous Songs Unprotected by Copyright Could Mean Royalties for Some


by Michael B. Fein

A guide to navigating copyright claims on famous songs.

Can I Sing "Happy Birthday" in Public?

Destiny Fulfilled


by Sara Collin

Was Angela Reddock-Wright destined to become a lawyer? It sure seems that way. Yet her path was circuitous. This accomplished employment attorney, turned mediator, arbitrator and ADR specialist nonpareil discusses her career, the role of attorneys in society, the new world of post-pandemic work and why new Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson represents the future.

Interview with Lawyer Angela Reddock-Wright

What the Courts Say About Recording in the Classroom


by Christina Henagen Peer and Peter Zawadski

Students and parents are increasingly asking to use audio devices to record what's being said in the classroom. But is it legal? A recent ruling offer gives the answer to a question confusing parents and administrators alike.

Is It Legal for Students to Record Teachers?