Pleading a claim of hostile work environment may now prove easier for employees thanks to a recent decision by the Appeals Court of Massachusetts. On June 3rd, the court ruled that an employee could bring a hostile work environment claim against his former employer even though the claim did not appear in the original complaint.
Massachusetts laws require employees to first file their grievances with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) before bringing an action in the Superior Court. The purpose of the MCAD prerequisite is to provide MCAD with a chance to investigate and mediate the discrimination claim while providing notice to the defendant of the possible claim. An employee is limited to pleading matters alleged in the MCAD complaint at trial.
In the recent decision, the plaintiff had filed the MCAD complaint alleging discrimination based on race, color, and national origin without specifically alleging a claim of hostile work environment. A claim for discrimination is different from a claim for hostile work environment because, in addition to the requirements necessary to prove discrimination, a plaintiff seeking to prove a hostile work environment must show that the abusive conduct was sufficiently severe and recurring to interfere with a reasonable person’s job performance.
Nevertheless, the court held that the plaintiff had stated sufficient facts on the MCAD complaint to sustain his claim in Superior Court by describing a work environment in which he was persistently subjected to racially abusive comments that were severe and pervasive enough to interfere with the performance of his work. In fact, the court noted that MCAD regulations did not require the complaint to state any specific legal theory and only required a concise statement of alleged discriminatory acts.
Because of this decision, it appears that an employee claiming discrimination also sufficiently states a claim for hostile work environment so long as the facts establish the discrimination was recurring. Employers facing litigation should assume that discrimination claims also state a claim for hostile work environment so long as the conduct was over a continued period of time.