Unlawful Discrimination in Massachusetts

Steffans Legal has represented countless employees who were victims of unlawful discrimination from Pittsfield to Worcester; Springfield to Lowell, New Bedford to Fall River, and on the Cape. Our clients have learned that if they are subject to unlawful discrimination, we can help.

Under both state and federal law, discrimination is only unlawful if it is directed at employees because they fall into a protected class. Currently protected classes include race, color, sex, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital status, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity, genetics, ancestry, and military status. Numerous statues prohibit discrimination based upon these characteristics, including Title VII, the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act

The easiest way to prove unlawful discrimination is through the use of direct evidence. Direct evidence is the kind that, if believed, requires a conclusion that unlawful discrimination motivated the employer’s decision. Direct evidence requires no inference or presumption. Direct evidence reflects directly the discriminatory attitude.  

Direct evidence typically takes the form of discriminatory comments. For example, a supervisor’s comment that it’s “time for some young blood” before terminating an older employee may be direct evidence. Think of direct evidence as the “smoking gun.” Employees with direct evidence of discrimination are typically more likely to be able to prove unlawful discrimination.

Employees without direct evidence of discrimination can prove their claims with indirect evidence, commonly thought of as circumstantial evidence. The most common form of indirect evidence of discrimination is disparate treatment evidence. Disparate treatment evidence exists where an employer treats employees of a certain protected class differently than those not in the protected class. Holding protected employees to higher performance standards, disciplining protected employees for conduct that others engage in without discipline, and providing protected employees with less desirable benefits amount to disparate treatment evidence and can help an employee prove unlawful discrimination.

Typically, discrimination claims surround an employment decision made by an employer that the employee believes was discriminatory, such as a termination, a demotion, a failure to give a raise, or other types of adverse employment actions. In those situations, the employee bears the burden of establishing that the decision occurred under circumstances that give rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination. Perhaps, for example, a minority employee is disciplined for conduct that non-minorities engage in without punishment or, a less-qualified male employee is promoted instead of a more qualified female employee. Employees who can establish that type of discriminatory situation will succeed on their claim of unlawful discrimination unless the employer can provide a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the employment action. At that point, the employer will win the case unless the employee can prove that the given reason isn’t true / not the real reason, something courts refer to as “pretext.”

In 2016, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court made it easier for employees to establish unlawful discrimination by establishing that Massachusetts is a pretext-only jurisdiction. In doing so, the Court refused to force employees to establish that a reason for termination constituted pretext for discrimination. Instead, the Court held that an employee could succeed on an unlawful discrimination claim simply by producing enough evidence to demonstrate that the stated justification was inaccurate or not the real reason.

Are you experiencing workplace discrimination in Massachusetts? Contact us for a free consultation.