Discrimination Laws in Massachusetts

Massachusetts statutes prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religious creed, national origin, sex, gender identity, pregnancy, sexual orientation, age, genetic information, ancestry and physical or mental disability in the terms and conditions of employment, housing, credit and mortgage financing and public accommodation. The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), an independent public agency, is the state’s chief civil rights authority charged with promulgating regulations to carry out the laws and has the mandate to investigate, prosecute, adjudicate and resolve cases of discrimination.

In Massachusetts, all claims based on discrimination must first be brought to the MCAD and must be filed within 300 days of the last act of discrimination (eg. termination, discipline, last act of harassment). Cases that involve school applications have only six months to file. Because these limitation periods are very short, less than one third of the usual tort limitations period of three years, it is especially important to consult an attorney promptly if you believe you have been discriminated against. You may want to consult an attorney even if you think you may have missed the deadline because the limitations period may be tolled under certain circumstances, or there may be other options available such as filing a federal claim. Although similar, federal discrimination laws are generally not as broad as the state’s laws and may have different standards of proof and limitations periods.

Ninety days after filing a complaint with the MCAD, a complainant may request to withdraw his or her case from the agency in order to file a private action in court. Although the MCAD has the authority to issue injunctions and award compensatory damages and attorney’s fees, only a court can additionally award punitive damages.  A case may be removed to court up until three years of the date of the last discriminatory act or the MCAD public hearing, whichever occurs first. In order to remove a case to court, a complainant must file a complaint in court and must notify the Commission.

The procedural hurdles to prosecuting a discrimination claim in Massachusetts are only the first steps. Discrimination law is a complex and evolving area. Just this past May, the Supreme Judicial Court recognized for the first time that, under certain circumstances, state discrimination law protects from retaliation employees who engage in so-called “self-help” discovery, but only where their actions are reasonable in the totality of the circumstances. In that case, a female attorney who had filed an internal complaint for sexual harassment was demoted following her return to work after maternity leave, and fired after she searched internal files for evidence to support her claims. The trial court awarded summary judgment to the firm finding that there was insufficient evidence that the plaintiff’s self help was a pretext for her termination. Reversing the award of summary judgment, the SJC adopted a multi-factored standard to assess the reasonableness of an employee’s actions, and found that “the plaintiff had presented evidence from which a reasonable jury could infer that both her demotion and her termination were the result of unlawful discrimination, as well as evidence allowing an inference that both were the result of retaliation.”