One major lesson from the “blind barber” case

The recent decision from the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) in Nixon v Tony’s Barber Shop has attracted some media coverage, e.g. this story in the Boston Herald and another in the New York Daily News.  The MCAD awarded the visually-impaired Joel Nixon $100,000.00 because his employer, Tony’s Barber Shop, fired him after he tripped over a customer’s legs, a chair, and a ladder.

Perhaps the most noteworthy fact for employers is that the respondent, Tony’s Barber Shop, defaulted. At the hearing,  there was nobody to advocate for the employer (by raising the possibility of a BFOQ, for example) and the only witness was the complainant himself, Mr. Nixon. The key lesson for employers? Show up!

Boston’s $11 million payout: mission accomplished

I see that the declared mission of City of Boston’s treasury department is “to collect and transfer all funds due to the City.” Well, as a result of a generous jury decision, the treasury department is going to have to transfer funds in the amount of $11 million to one of its own employees, senior administrative assistant Chantal Charles. Congratulations to all concerned — parties, counsel, and jury — for demonstrating that whatever happens in Washington, D.C., at least local government can accomplish its mission.

mission accomplished

On a completely different subject, here’s a guide to public choice theory.

ZAP! That’ll be a quarter million bucks

In the business of intimate hair removal, it turns out that in Massachusetts it is not only unkind but costly for employees to joke about zapping a client in the scrotum with a laser.  By “costly” I refer to a figure north of one quarter of a million dollars ($260,000.00, in fact), which is the sum of money that a respondent in a discrimination suit is going to have to part with following a decision from the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), namely Barnes v. Sleek, Inc., et al.

ZAPThe bare facts are these: The respondents hired the complainant, Mr. Barnes, to manage a spa in the Burlington mall, where patrons could pay for certain hair removal procedures, such as bikini waxing. Mr. Barnes was only there a week, however. He was fired after complaining to his boss about the employees’ habit of laughing and joking about what the MCAD describes as “clients’ genitals and private parts” (emphasis added; until today I had thought that genitals were private parts, not something separate and additional to them). As an example, the decision refers to a “discussion about intentionally ‘zapping’ a male client in the scrotum with a laser.”

To make matters worse, at least so far as Mr. Barnes was concerned, “the outgoing manager of the spa flashed her breasts to a web-camera.” She expressed the hope that the owner was watching. And all of this going on in the Burlington mall, just a few doors down from Pretzel Twister and the Cheesecake Factory.

Perhaps it is my British school-boyishness, but given the nature of the work, i.e. pubic topiary, I would have considered ribaldry to be a what lawyers call a BFOQ, or a bona fide occupational qualification. Not so the MCAD, which awarded Mr. Barnes $41,641.67 for lost wages and $150,000.00 for emotional distress. In addition, the Commission imposed a civil penalty of $50,000.00 and ordered the respondents to pay a hair over $18,000.00 in legal fees, with interest running at 12%. Altogether that comes to more than a quarter of a million dollars, which is at least as eye-watering as the prospect of a laser zap to the private parts, including but not limited to the genitals.

Readers should note that the respondents did not mount a defense. They did not submit an answer and position statement nor did they, in the words of the decision, “cooperate in the Commission’s investigation.” Although it may not have made any difference to the finding of retaliation — and I am speculating here — the lack of a robust defense may have affected the size of the damage award. With a bit of care and attention, the respondents might have been able to shave off a few thousand dollars.

Two Reasons to Worry About the New Domestic Worker Law

At a recent conference on employment law, I heard a panelist say that the new Massachusetts law on domestic workers will leave people who hire housecleaners vulnerable to lawsuits in the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). And those people need not be employers of six or more workers: Even individual homeowners will be open to suit in the MCAD. My first thought was that housecleaners have a hard enough time as it is, without having their potential clients scared away by politicians. After all, who in their right mind would engage the services of a cleaner if the deal included a possible sojourn in the MCAD? My second thought was that the panelist had to be mistaken and that I must go back to the office and read the whole statute for myself. So I did, and now I am slightly more worried than before.

The statute in question is M.G.L. c.149, s. 190 and s. 191, which you can read here and here. Its proponents (the National Domestic Workers Alliance) gave it the moniker the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, and in their FAQs they claim that it covers “housekeepers, housecleaners, nannies, and those who care for the sick, convalescing or elderly.” Some provisions are already in force, and the law in its entirety comes into effect on April 1, 2015. I suspect that by May 1, 2015, the MCAD will have screened in at least one case of a disgruntled housecleaner suing a homeowner for harassment on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, color, age, religion, national origin, disability, or some combination thereof. Of course, this will depend on how the MCAD construes the statutory definition of “domestic worker.”

So who is a “domestic worker” under the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights?  Before I tell you who is one, let me tell you who is not one. There are three categories of workers who, although they would qualify as domestic workers in ordinary common parlance, fall outside the statute’s definition of the term. First, personal care attendants. Second, people whose services “primarily consist of childcare on a casual, intermittent and irregular basis,” i.e. babysitters. Third, “an individual whose vocation is not childcare.”

Yes, according to the text of the new law, and contrary to the assertion of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the term “domestic worker” does not include “an individual whose vocation is not childcare.” The two negatives can trip the reader up, so the exclusion merits some time and attention. Bear with me while I re-state it: The term “domestic worker” does not include “an individual whose vocation is not childcare.”

If my powers of reasoning and grasp of English are up to snuff, a domestic worker must be an individual whose vocation is childcare. In other words, if you are an individual whose vocation is childcare, you are a domestic worker; if your vocation is not childcare, you are not a domestic worker. Either the Legislature consciously and deliberately chose to limit the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights to childcare workers, or did so by accident. I am not sure which is worse.

The exemption within the definition defies one of the elementary principles of draftsmanship and rule-making, one that has been around since antiquity. I am no Latin scholar, but I feel confident that when Cicero said exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis he meant that the exception confirms the rule in the cases not excepted, not that the exception should swallow the rule. Accordingly, if one of my Legislative Drafting students had submitted a draft bill containing such a poorly crafted definition, she or he would have to try again.

The meaning of the exemption is plain. Like personal care attendants and babysitters, people whose vocation is not childcare are not “domestic workers” and not, therefore, entitled to the statute’s protection. From the statutory-construction standpoint that should be an end of it. Interpretatio cessat in claris as the maxim says (interpretation comes to an end when the text is clear). But is this what the Legislature meant? I doubt it, given that the Legislature defined the term “domestic worker” to include caring for the elderly, a task not synonymous with — in fact, quite distinct from — caring for children.

What will happen when Mr. Wooster, facing the need to retrench, decides, as part of his belt-tightening, to let go of old Jeeves, his long-suffering English factotum? If Jeeves files a complaint against Wooster in the MCAD alleging harassment on the basis of — picking a couple of categories at random — age and national origin, what will the MCAD intake staffer tell him: Sorry, you lack standing to sue under Chapter 149, Section 191, because you are an individual whose vocation is not childcare? “Is that so?” Jeeves might say, eyebrow raised.

To summarize, my two reasons for worrying about this new law are (1) what it tries to do, (2) that its failure to do what it tries to do will make no difference to the construction the MCAD will put on it. The Legislature’s unintentional limitation of the law to childcare workers will not prevent the MCAD from construing the law as if the limitation did not exist. The MCAD will pretend that the Legislature had drafted it competently, and the courts will defer to the MCAD’s interpretation.

For housecleaners looking for work in Massachusetts, life may become just that bit harder in 2015.

Peter Vickery, Esq.
Peter Vickery, Esq.

Massachusetts recognizes associational discrimination

July 19, 2013: Massachusetts law has long protected employees from discrimination based on their disabilities, both real and perceived. It now also protects employees who have suffered discrimination on the basis of a another person’s disability, if that person is someone with whom the employee “associates” (e.g. a spouse). That was the decision that the Supreme Judicial Court released earlier today in the case of Flagg v. Alimed (SJC-11182).

The question before the Court was whether the state’s anti-discrimination law (M.G.L. c. 151B) “bars an employer from discriminating against its employee based on the handicap of a person with whom the employee associates.”  In an unequivocal answer, which endorsed the position of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), the Court stated: “[W]e hold that associational discrimination based on handicap is prohibited under [M.G.L. c. 151B] § 4(16).”

Although they concurred in the opinion, two of the justices (Gants and Cordy) would have found for the plaintiff employee on narrower grounds.

The case involved an employee who was “fired because the employer feared the medical expenses his spouse was likely to incur because of her handicap,” not because of any request for “reasonable accommodations,” such as taking time off to care for her.  What concerned the two Justices Gants and Cordy was the possibility that plaintiff employees might use the Flagg decision to argue that employers now have a duty to provide them with reasonable accommodations — flexible schedules for example — based on the needs of the individuals they are associated with, e.g. disabled spouses. Such a reading of Chapter 151B after Flagg would go further than the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an outcome the two concurring justices would have liked to forestall.

Will the MCAD and lower courts apply associational discrimination under Chapter 151B more broadly than under the ADA, as Justices Gants and Cordy fear? I suspect they will.

For a PDF of my Briefing Paper on the implications of the Flagg decision, click this link: associational-discrimination-paper.pdf.