Tuesday, May 31, 2016
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has held that summary judgment is not appropriate on most of an attorney's claims against the Mintz Levin law firm.
The court also held that some "self-help" options are available to an attorney alleging discrimination.
Here, we are asked to determine whether summary judgment should have entered for the employer on an employee's claims for gender discrimination and retaliation. In addressing the retaliation claim, we confront the novel question whether it is "protected activity" for an employee to search for, copy, and share with the employee's attorney confidential documents that the employee is authorized to access in the course of employment and that may help prove a discrimination claim.
The plaintiff is an attorney who worked for a Boston law firm, defendant Mintz, Levin, Ferris, Cohn, Glovsky and Popeo, P.C. (firm). During the course of her employment with that firm, from June, 2004, to November, 2008, she complained to her superiors and, ultimately, to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), that she was being subjected to discriminatory treatment on the basis of her gender -- treatment that, she believed, led to her demotion in February, 2007. In the wake of this demotion, and on the advice of her attorney, the plaintiff searched the firm's document management system for items that might prove her assertions of discrimination. In November, 2008, after these searches were made known to the firm's chairman, the plaintiff's employment was terminated "for cause."
The plaintiff sued; the firm countersued. All the plaintiffs claims were thrown out on summary judgment
We conclude, first, that the plaintiff has 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. Therefore, summary judgment for the defendants on those counts was inappropriate. Second, we hold that an employee's accessing, copying, and forwarding of documents may, in certain limited circumstances, constitute "protected activity," but only where her actions are reasonable in the totality of the circumstances. Finally, we conclude that judgment was entered properly on the claim against Cohen for tortious interference with contractual relations.
On self help
The question whether an employee's acts of self-help discovery in aid of claims under G. L. c. 151B, § 4, may ever, under any circumstances, constitute protected activity is one of first impression for this court. Taking into consideration the interests at stake and the views of other courts that have addressed the matter, we conclude that such conduct may in certain circumstances constitute protected activity under that statute, but only if the employee's actions are reasonable in the totality of the circumstances.
New England In House had this report on the case. (Mike Frisch)