The False Claims Act prohibits employers from discriminating against an employee "because of" his or her protected conduct. In a case of first impression recently decided, Lestage v. Coloplast Corp., the First Circuit explained the meaning of "because of." Lestage, a salesperson, sued Coloplast alleging that, after it learned she had filed a qui tam action against it and against one of its customers, Coloplast retaliated against her in violation of the False Claims Act by placing her on leave and then assigning her inferior accounts when she returned. A jury trial awarded Lestage $762,525 in compensatory damages. Coloplast unsuccessfully moved for judgment as a matter of law and new trial, and then appealed. The First Circuit affirmed the judgment.
Under the theory of respondeat superior, an employer may be vicariously liable for the torts of its employee. In order to prevail on a claim of vicarious liability, the plaintiff must show two elements: (1) that an employer-employee relationship exists and (2) that the alleged conduct occurred within the course and the scope of employment.
In a decision recently issued in the case of Maldonado et al. v. Cultural Care, Inc. et al., a group of "local childcare consultants" ("LCCs") brought a class action suit against Cultural Care, a company that places foreign au pairs with host families located in the United States. The plaintiffs alleged that Cultural Care and its officers violated the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") by misclassifying them as independent contractors and paying them less than the minimum wage required by both the FLSA and state law in Massachusetts, New York, and California. Cultural Care moved to dismiss the plaintiffs' claims based on a lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.
In Knous v. Broadridge Financial Solutions, Inc., the United States District Court for the District Court of Massachusetts awarded summary judgment to an employer on the employee's claims of unpaid wages and earned vacation at the time of discharge.
Recently, in NuVasive, Inc. v. Day, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld the decision of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts to apply Delaware law and grant an employer a preliminary injunction against a former employee related to a nonsolicitation clause.
Recently in Parker v. EnerNOC, Inc., the Supreme Judicial Court held that, per the Massachusetts Wage Act, G.L. c. 149, §§ 148A, 150, an employee, who was deprived of a commission as a result of a retaliatory termination by her employer prior to the commission coming due, was entitled to treble the amount of the unpaid commission.
Recently in Costello v. Molari, Inc. (Memo and Order, November 20, 2019), the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts granted an employer summary judgment because the employee failed to show that the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") applied to the employer. The employee did not identify evidence that would create a dispute of material fact as to whether the employer was engaged in interstate commerce.
The United States Supreme Court held in the unanimous decision of New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira earlier this year that the Federal Arbitration Act's exclusion as to contracts of employment necessitated that the parties' arbitration clause be overridden and the plaintiff be allowed to pursue his lawsuit in the Massachusetts federal courts.
In Baer v. Montachusett Regional Technical School District (D. Mass. May 17, 2019), the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts granted summary judgment to an employer on a former employee's claim that he was discriminated and retaliated against because of his association with his wife, who was also a former employee.
The Massachusetts Wage Act, M. G. L. c. 149, § 148, governs how and when an employee's wages must be paid and provides that an employer who fails to comply with the Wage Act may be subject to treble damages and be ordered to pay the attorneys' fees of the employee who has to turn to the courts to enforce their rights under the Wage Act. Commission payments are considered "wages" and, therefore, are governed by the Wage Act. For a commission to be "wages," the Wage Act provides that the amount of the commission must be "definitely determined" and "due and payable to [the] employee." Commission compensation has been "definitely determined" when the amount of the compensation due is "arithmetically determinable." Commission compensation is "due and payable" to the employee when "dependent contingencies have been met and it is thus owed to the employee." Practically speaking, that means that the employee (or the court considering whether an employer has violated the Wage Act by failing to pay a commission) must be able to calculate how much commission was owed to the employee and that all of the conditions that must be met for the commission to be payable must have been met.
In a recent landmark decision, Barbuto v. Advantage Sales & Marketing, LLC, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that an employer that terminated an employee for testing positive for marijuana use (which violated the company's policy) could be found to have discriminated against the employee on the basis of her handicap. At the time she was hired, Barbuto was informed that the company would require her to undergo a drug test. She informed the company that her physician had provided her a written certification that allowed her to use marijuana for medical purposes, due to the fact that she suffered from a debilitating medical condition under Massachusetts law; she also agreed that she would not use marijuana before work. The employer told her that a positive result for marijuana would not disqualify her from the position. Despite having made that assurance, following Barbuto's first day of work Advantage Sales terminated her employment due to the positive drug test, on grounds that the company followed federal law, not state law. The use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, while legal in Massachusetts at the time (the non-medicinal use of marijuana had not yet been legalized), was still a crime pursuant to federal law. Therefore, the use marijuana for medical purposes, even while legal in Massachusetts, could still subject the user to federal criminal prosecution. Barbuto sued Advantage Sales, alleging (among other things) that she had been discriminated against on the basis of her handicap. In Massachusetts, a "handicap" is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of a person (or a record of having such impairment or being regarded as having such impairment). Massachusetts law prohibits employers from terminating or refusing to hire an employee because of their handicap if that employee is capable of performing the essential functions of the position involved with "reasonable accommodation," unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation that would need to be made would impose an undue hardship to the employer's business. A reasonable accommodation is an adjustment or modification to a job (or the way it is done or the environment in which it is done) that makes it possible for the handicapped individual to perform the essential functions of the job. An employer who receives a request for a reasonable accommodation from a handicapped person is required by Massachusetts law to engage in an interactive process with the employee to ascertain whether the requested accommodation is reasonable and, if not, whether another accommodation can be made that would be reasonable. The Massachusetts medical marijuana law provides, "Any person meeting the requirements under this law shall not be penalized under Massachusetts law in any manner, or denied any right or privilege, for such actions." Advantage Sales claimed it owed Barbuto no obligation to participate in the interactive process to identify a reasonable accommodation before it terminated her employment because, it alleged, the accommodation she sought violated a federal statute and was, consequently, unreasonable. It also alleged that she was terminated because she failed the drug test in violation of company policy, not because of her handicap. The SJC rejected Advantage Sales' first argument on grounds that the fact that Barbuto's possession of medical marijuana violated federal law does not make it per se unreasonable as an accommodation. It noted that only the employee was at risk of federal criminal prosecution for her possession of the medical marijuana, not the employer. It concluded that to hold otherwise would operate to deny handicapped employees the right to or privilege of a reasonable accommodation under Massachusetts law. It also pointed out that, even if the requested accommodation had been unreasonable, Advantage Sales was still obligated to participate in the interactive process of trying to craft another, equally effective accommodation that was reasonable (which it had not done). The Court rejected Advantage Sales' second argument on grounds that it would permit employers to enact policies that would enable them to do an end-run around handicap discrimination laws (i.e., by adopting company policies that would deny employees reasonable accommodations). The Court reversed the lower court's dismissal of Barbuto's claims of handicap discrimination and sent the case back to the lower court to determine whether her use of medical marijuana would impose an undue hardship on Advantage Sales' business and would, therefore, not be a reasonable accommodation. The Barbuto decision does not mean that employers must permit the use of marijuana even by handicapped employees. The significance of the decision is, instead, that use of medical marijuana might constitute a reasonable accommodation available to a qualified handicapped employee even if the employer has a no-tolerance drug policy or federal law prohibits the possession of marijuana. When the use of medical marijuana is proposed as an accommodation by a qualified handicapped employee, employers must engage in the interactive process to determine whether it is reasonable and, if not, whether another reasonable accommodation exists.