Marijuana: respect for voters trumps supremacy clause

July 17, 2017:- Today the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held that where an employer fired an employee for her off-site use of marijuana, the employee may sue for handicap discrimination. The name of the case is Barbuto v. Advantage Sales and Marketing, LLC, and you can read it by clicking here. The decision does not sit easily with the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution of the United States, to put it mildly.

The case involves the Massachusetts anti-discrimination law, chapter 151B. Under 151B an employee who is a “qualified handicapped person” may seek “reasonable accommodations.” In this case, the employee asked for one particular accommodation, namely marijuana use. Faced with this request the employer demurred, arguing that marijuana use is a crime and, therefore, inherently unreasonable.

Certainly, in 2012 Massachusetts enacted the medical marijuana act. But the use of marijuana is illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act, which Congress enacted and has not repealed. The SJC referred to this contradiction between state and federal law as an “unusual backdrop.” That is one way of putting it, I suppose.

Now, admittedly I am no judge and nobody asked me, but my starting point in resolving the contradiction would have been clause 2 of article VI of the Constitution of the United States, which provides:

This Constitution and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof… shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.

The clause means that a law passed by Congress becomes part of “the supreme law of the land.” That is why we call it the Supremacy Clause. Lest there be any doubt, the clause includes the proviso “any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”  If a State does not like a Federal law, the judges of that State may not repeal it.  Nullification is not an option.  I believe we fought a war about this.

However, the SJC held that respect for the supreme law of the land must take second seat to something else, something not referred to in the Constitution of the United States:

“To declare an accommodation for medical marijuana to be per se unreasonable out of respect for the Federal law would not be respectful of the recognition of Massachusetts voters, shared by the legislatures or voters in the vast majority of States, that marijuana has an accepted medical use for some patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions.”

That is a very difficult sentence for me to understand.  Don’t get me wrong: I can read English, so I understand the words. I just do not understand how (with all due respect to the SJC) one can square that sentence with the plain language of the Supremacy Clause or with the body of precedent on the subject of field preemption.

After all, the Supremacy Clause is a straightforward answer to this simple question: Where there is a clear conflict between a federal law and a subsequent state law, which prevails? Federal law, says he Supremacy Clause. State law, says the SJC.  Why? Because it is better to ignore the federal law than fail to be “respectful” of the voters.

Perhaps this is one of those instances where the framers and ratifiers tacked on an exception using invisible ink, so that to the cognoscenti the Supremacy Clause actually concludes with the words “and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding, except when they decide not to be.” Hold your copy of the Constitution up close, then at arms’ length. If that doesn’t work, try holding it up to the light.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

Court corrects MCAD

April 18, 2017:- If an employer believes that an employee’s disability poses a safety threat, may it re-assign or terminate that employee?

Until today, the answer to that question was this: only if the employer can prove an affirmative defense by demonstrating a “reasonable probability of substantial harm.” That is the standard set by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) in its guidelines. Today the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decided that the MCAD guidelines are wrong. For the text of the decision in Gannon v. City of Boston click here. It involves a concussed MMA fighter/police officer, by the way.

After explaining why the MCAD is wrong to place the burden of proof on the employer (e.g. lack of statutory authority), the SJC stated that what the employer bears is the burden of production. So in a case where the employer’s decision is based on the employee’s disability, in order to avoid liability for discrimination the employer must show “specific evidence that the employee would pose an unacceptably significant risk of serious injury to the employee or others.” Then, when the employer has met this burden of production, the employee must prove that s/he is “capable of performing the essential functions of the job without posing an unacceptably significant risk of serious injury to the employee or others.”

The distinction between the burden of proof and the burden of production is important. The burden of proof must remain with the plaintiff employee, said the SJC. Contrary to the MCAD’s guidelines, employers do not have to raise the affirmative defense and then prove by the preponderance of the evidence the existence of “reasonable probability of substantial harm.” Rather, after the employer has shown an “unacceptably significant risk of injury” the onus is on the employee to prove that she or he can, in fact, do the job without posing such a risk.

In a nutshell: This decision delivers a subtle but important victory for employers.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

New MCAD bill filed

February 23, 2017:- If you are charged with discrimination and you file a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, must the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) rule on your motion before launching an investigation? No, not at present. But that will change if H. 775 becomes law.

Titled “An Act Streamlining the Investigation Process of Discrimination Complaints,” the bill would require the MCAD to adjudicate a respondent’s motion first and start its investigation only if it determines that jurisdiction is proper.

Why does this matter? The main reason is the constitutional principle of the separation of powers: an executive agency should not hale people in if the Legislature has said it should not. For example, when it enacted Chapter 151B the Legislature said that the MCAD would have no jurisdiction to investigate businesses with fewer than six employees (the small-business exemption). So when the MCAD does investigate businesses with fewer than six employees it is, in effect, exercising the legislative function by re-writing the statute.

But there are pocket-book reasons too. Defending against a charge of discrimination can prove costly, which rather stacks the deck in favor of the complainant who is represented either by a lawyer working on a contingent-fee basis or by the MCAD itself. Add to that the MCAD’s institutional bias toward early resolution (which is not necessarily a bad thing) and you have an incentive for respondents to fold faster than Superman on laundry day, as Jerry Seinfeld put it.

As things stand a respondent will be tempted to settle at a commission-mandated conciliation conference early on, even if the case should never have been on the agency’s docket in the first place. Real money is at stake here, and business owners should not have to fork over for claims that should be thrown out on jurisdictional grounds. That is not an efficient use of resources. Screening out cases like these would allow businesses to devote those resources to other purposes, e.g. improving products and services to benefit their customers and creating new jobs.

The bill has been assigned to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. Stay tuned for updates, and click here for a previous post on this subject.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

Speed-up at MCAD

February 9, 2017:- Earlier this month the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) announced a significant cut in its backlog of cases.

In 2016, the agency substantially reduced the number of cases that were more than 2 years old. Of the 3,811 investigations currently open at the MCAD, just 318 remain over 2 years old, down from 1,134 in 2015, a reduction of 72%.

Approximately 3,000 new complaints are filed with the MCAD every year, so the dramatic reduction in the old cases is quite an achievement. Complainants and respondents alike should hope that the agency manages to maintain this level of efficiency.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

 

New harassment enforcement guidelines

February 3, 2017:- The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is soliciting public comment on its proposed new Unlawful Harassment Enforcement Guidelines. You can read the guidelines and comment on them here.

One item that employers should note: Harassment of a “transgender individual ” can include “using a name or pronoun inconsistent with the individual’s gender identity in a persistent or offensive manner.”

The word “or” means that the use of the pronoun/name need only be offensive, and not necessarily persistent, in order to qualify as harassment under these enforcement guidelines.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

 

 

Hospital settles with flu vaccine refuseniks

May a hospital fire employees who refuse the flu vaccine on religious grounds? Saint Vincent Health Center in Erie, Pennsylvania, must have thought so back in 2014 when it terminated the employment of six vaccine refuseniks, but now that it has agreed to shell out $300,000 in back-pay and compensatory damages it probably realizes that the short answer is no. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) press release states:

“While Title VII does not prohibit health care employers from adopting seasonal flu vaccination requirements for their workers, those requirements, like any other employment rules, are subject to the employer’s Title VII duty to provide reasonable accommodation for religion… In that context, reasonable accommodation means granting religious exemptions to employees with sincerely held religious beliefs against vaccination when such exemptions do not create an undue hardship on the employer’s operations.”

Last year I wrote an article about Boston Children’s Hospital fending off a discrimination complaint after it fired an employee who had refused the flu vaccine on religious grounds. The judge found that the hospital had offered reasonable accommodations and the accommodation that the employee requested would have imposed an undue hardship on the hospital.

The lesson for health-care providers?  If employees object to the vaccine on religious grounds, work hard with them to devise some reasonable accommodations and document those efforts carefully and thoroughly.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

OK to exclude gay men, says MCAD

Must a charity that offers free reconstructive surgery to female victims of domestic violence also provide those services to a gay man? No, said the MCAD in a decision last September. Only two months earlier the Legislature and Governor had prohibited places of public accommodations from excluding men from women’s restrooms and locker rooms, so you might think the case would have grabbed the odd headline, but apart from this Mass Lawyers Weekly article it received surprisingly little media attention.

The respondent was the R.O.S.E (Regaining One’s Self Esteem) Fund, a non-profit that seeks to help women who are the survivors of domestic violence. In 2008 it declined to extend its services to Kevin Doran, whose male partner had assaulted him, leaving him with broken teeth and facial bones. With the support of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), Mr. Doran argued that the ROSE Fund is a place of public accommodation and that by turning him away it had violated the Massachusetts anti-discrimination laws.

In 2014 an MCAD hearing officer ruled in favor of the ROSE Fund, finding that the organization was not a place of public accommodation. In its appeal brief GLAD said the decision meant that “ROSE can now discriminate not only against men, but also on the basis of race, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, and disability as well.”

Nevertheless the full three-member Commission upheld the 2014 decision on First Amendment grounds:

“The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the venerable history of the public accommodation laws in Massachusetts, but when applied to expressive activity, the laws may not act to compel certain speech in violation of the First Amendment.”

For that reason, the Commission held that “a private charity set up with the express purpose of serving a narrow community may be allowed to make choices about whom to serve, based on the purpose of the organization and consistent selection criteria.”

This is a very narrow ruling. The MCAD limits its First Amendment expressive-activity exception to a thin sliver of entities: tax-exempt corporations set up to serve a “narrow community,” as opposed to regular businesses and individuals who do not have tax-exempt status and cater to the general public.  The decision sits awkwardly alongside expressive-conduct cases from other jurisdictions such as Elane Photography (photographers fined for refusing to photograph same-sex commitment ceremony) and Barronnelle Stutzman (flower arranger fined for refusing to design arrangement for her friend’s same-sex wedding). In those cases, the fact that the defendants’ businesses consisted of expressive activity did not exempt them from the legal obligation to provide their services at same-sex weddings. If those are not examples of the state “compelling certain speech” I don’t know what is.

And as for why tax-exempt corporations should have greater free-speech rights than the rest of us, that is not something the MCAD’s Doran decision addresses.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.