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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Strips Management of The Right to a Jury Trial in Discrimination Case

In Stonehill College v. Massachusetts Comm’n Against Discrimination, a 6-1 decision handed down May 6, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reversed a six-year policy allowing employers the constitutional right to a jury trial in state discrimination cases. The decision overruled the Court’s prior decision in Lavelle v. MCAD, a 1997 case where the Court held employers enjoy the same constitutional right to a jury as employees in proceedings before the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

In Stonehill College, the Court held the primary purpose in proceedings before the state anti-discrimination agency is to “vindicate the public’s interest in reducing discrimination in the workplace by deterring and punishing instances of discrimination by employers against employees.” However, the court noted “employers now are seeking jury trials in nearly all cases in which a complainant prevails.” Therefore, granting employers access to a jury in state administrative proceedings “circumvents the comprehensive scheme set out by the Legislature for the resolution of discrimination claims and undermines the commission’s authority to fulfill its mandate of protecting citizens … from discriminatory employment decisions and punishing discrimination in the workplace.”

In the sole dissenting opinion, Justice Judy A. Cowin defended Management’s fundamental rights, arguing the right to a jury “must be equally available to plaintiffs and respondents,” and only allowing employees access to a jury “creates a constitutional asymmetry.”

While this decision is, in practice, not disastrous for Management because juries tend to favor employees, it is nonetheless alarming that Massachusetts’ highest court is so heavily tilted in Labor’s favor, and virtually ignores Management’s rights – even rights as universal as the right to a jury trial. The decision leaves little room for error for employers when defending an action before the state’s anti-discrimination board.

Brody and Associates regularly represents clients before state anti-discrimination boards and the NLRB. Should you have any questions, please call us. We can be reached at 203.965.0560 or info@brodyandassociates.com.