On July 15, 2020, the Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed a Superior Court decision allowing the Defendants’ motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) with respect to the Plaintiff’s employment-based claims stemming from an alleged constructive discharge brought against Lowell General Hospital and the Plaintiff’s supervisors. Kelleher v. Lowell General Hospital, 96 Mass. App. Ct. 49 (2020). The Plaintiff’s complaint involved allegations of: (1) constructive discharge; (2) defamation; (3) intentional interference with advantageous business relations; (4) intentional infliction of emotional distress; and (5) breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

The Plaintiff claimed that she endured months of intolerable working conditions at Lowell General Hospital, which she described as “daily, unprovoked angry and humiliating outbursts” and that these conditions ultimately led to her resignation, which constituted constructive discharge. The Plaintiff identified three specific occurrences in which she was berated or humiliated by her supervisor in front of co-workers and patients. Two of the instances were connected to scheduling issues and the last outburst was in response to Plaintiff’s inability to help her supervisor with a patient because she was busy with her own work. The third incident involved Plaintiff’s supervisor allegedly shouting “you never help!” in front of patients and co-workers.

Constructive discharge does not constitute a distinct cause of action under Massachusetts law, but can be an element of a viable wrongful termination employment claim stemming from a well-defined public policy or a contractual right. The Plaintiff was an “at-will employee,” defined as an employment relationship in which either the employer or employee may terminate the employment at any time without cause, for any reason, except for a reason proscribed by statute or public policy. M.G.L. c. 151B et seq.; Fortune v. National Cash Register Co., 373 Mass. 96, 101 (1977); Wright v. Shriners Hosp. for Crippled Children, 412 Mass. 469, 472 (1992). Well-established Massachusetts law, continually affirmed by Massachusetts appellate courts, demonstrates that an at-will employee can be terminated at any time “for almost any reason or for no reason at all.”[1]

The Plaintiff’s defamation claim failed because the two statements described in the Plaintiff’s complaint, consisting of “you never help!” and “I’m done with her,” were found to be either a subjective state of mind or “rhetorical hyperbole,” that cannot be reasonably understood to be a statement of actual fact or one that implies defamatory facts. A viable defamation claim requires a plaintiff to show that: (1) a false statement was made to a third party; (2) of and concerning the plaintiff; that (3) is capable of damaging plaintiff’s reputation in the community; and (4) either caused plaintiff economic loss or is actionable without proof of economic loss.

The elements of a claim for intentional tortious interference with advantageous business relations are: (1) the plaintiff had a contract or advantageous business relationship with a third party; (2) the defendant knowingly induced the third party to break the contract or to forego the business relations; (3) the defendant’s interference was improper in
Continue Reading Massachusetts Appeals Court Affirms Dismissal of Non-Discriminatory Workplace Bullying Case

Partner Jeff McLucas explores Employment Issues in the Age of Coronavirus. For more information, we encourage you to contact Jeff and visit the Employment Litigation section of the MG+M website. 

COVID-19 has impacted the entire planet and the daily lives of all. The pandemic has turned our valued first responders into heroic warriors on the front lines of the battle against the virus. COVID-19 has wreaked a tragic toll upon the population, taking lives and destroying families. At the micro-level, the Coronavirus has turned the incidents of daily life into a herculean task. Social distancing requirements, stay-at-home orders, the closures of schools, businesses and places of social gathering and recreation, restricted travel and limited public transportation have completely disrupted the daily routines and habits of everyone.

Beyond the obvious health related issues, the initial impact of COVID-19 was widely felt through the closures of schools and the closure or severe operational limitations on government and private businesses. Closures, layoffs, furloughs and other austerity measures have become the rule and not the exception. The closures or limited operations of courts both state and federal as well as the disruption to the functioning of law firms may have slowed or delayed various civil employment actions ranging from unemployment claims to discrimination charges to cases under the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (“WARN”). However, the litigation of such claims by employees is inevitable through individual suits and class actions.

Multiple complaints relating to Coronavirus workplace exposure have been filed with the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”). OSHA has issued advisory guidance with recommendations for the workplace and descriptions of health and safety standards including how existing regulations apply to the circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic. OSHA issued an interim enforcement response plan for OSHA Area Offices and compliance safety and health officers for handling complaints and reports of Coronavirus. An array of OSHA guidance is available at www.osha.gov.

Like OSHA, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has issued a variety of publications relating to COVID-19, available on its website: www.eeoc.gov. The EEOC emphasizes that despite the closure of its physical offices to the public, the agency remains “virtually” open and accessible by phone and through the EEOC’s website.

The remote work environment fashioned by private and public employers alike in response to the Coronavirus does not mean a suspension of discrimination and equal opportunity laws. There are large, multi-state employers actively seeking to hire tens of thousands of workers to adjust to the overwhelming increase in e-commerce demands. Equal opportunity laws that apply to the hiring process remain in effect. Physical workplace environments already complicated by the internet and smartphones have evolved into virtual workspaces where electronic harassment and discrimination remain a constant issue for employers to monitor.

With reports of new infection rates slowing and evidence of some states of “flattening of the curve,” plans for and initial steps of easing back of restrictions are now evolving and taking place. Following measures taken
Continue Reading To Work Or Not To Work…That Is The Question.

In September 2018, Governor Jerry Brown signed a series of bills aimed at drastically reshaping California’s approach to claims of discrimination and harassment amidst the “#MeToo” Movement. Among the legislation is Senate Bill 1300 which clarifies and expands employee rights under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). SB 1300, which was met with both opposition and support, became effective January 1, 2019. In addition to Senate Bill 1300, Gov. Brown also signed into law a series of bills on issues relating to workplace harassment, gender equality and human trafficking.

CALIFORNIA SENATE BILL 1300: HEIGHTENED EXPOSURE FOR EMPLOYERS

SB 1300 intends to close loopholes in the law that discourage or prevent victims from speaking out, and allow employers to avoid sexual harassment and discrimination laws and leave employees vulnerable to sexual harassment at work. In an attempt to aid these efforts, SB 1300 provides the following enhancements, further described below: 1) a new “single occurrence” standard for sexual harassment cases; 2) increases the challenges of recovering litigation costs for defendants; 3) potentially holds employers liable for third-party harassment; 4) prohibits release of both claims and non-disparagement agreements; and 5) provides for workplace accommodation and bystander training.

“SINGLE OCCURRENCE” STANDARD

One highly significant implication of SB 1300 is that it now makes a single instance of sexually harassing conduct a potentially triable sexual harassment claim by statute. Under FEHA, action was required to be so “severe or pervasive” so as to create a hostile work environment before it was actionable. However, the term “severe or pervasive” was subjective, leaving room for interpretation as to what conduct would be significantly severe or pervasive to support a claim under the existing law. For example, in Brooks v. City of San Mateo, 229 F.3d 917 (9th Cir. 2000), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that an employee touching another employee’s chest under her sweater was not significant enough to rise to the level of “severe or pervasive,” and, thus, granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment.

SB 1300 narrows the definition of “severe or pervasive” by clarifying that a single incident of harassing conduct is sufficient to create a triable issue, so long as the conduct limited the employee’s work performance or created a hostile work environment. The Legislation specifically rejects the court’s holding in Brooks and states that the case opinion shall not be used in determining what kind of conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive to constitute a violation of the FEHA.

Of significance to litigation resulting from employment claims, SB 1300 affirms the court’s opinion in Nazir v. United Airlines, Inc. (2009) 178 Cal.App.4th 243. In Nazir, the Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against his former employer, United Airlines, and his former supervisor (“Defendants”). Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment/summary adjudication, seeking adjudication of 44 issues. The appellate court found that hostile work environment cases involve issues that are “not determinable on paper.” SB 1300’s reference to the finding in the Nazir case that employment issues are too complex for motions for summary judgment may be a threat to the validity of future motions for summary judgment in employment law cases which has been a common and successful defense tactic.
Continue Reading California Enacts Legislation to Combat Discrimination and Harassment

Ramsey v. Georgia Southern University Advanced Development Center, et al., No. 305, 2017, C.A. No. N14C-01-287 ASB (Del. June 27, 2018).

On June 27, 2018, the Supreme Court of the State of Delaware issued a fifty-seven-page opinion in the above-mentioned case, creating new precedent for Delaware employer liability in secondary or “take-home” asbestos cases. Below is a summary of both the relevant factual and procedural background, as well as Chief Justice Strine’s opinion.

The plaintiff’s spouse, Robert Ramsey, worked for Haveg Industries, Inc. at its industrial plant for twenty-four years. From 1967 to 1979, Mr. Ramsey regularly handled asbestos-containing products manufactured by Georgia Southern University Advanced Development Center and Hollingsworth and Vose Company as part of his job as a maintenance worker at Haveg. Throughout this period his wife, Plaintiff, Dorothy Ramsey, washed Mr. Ramsey’s asbestos-covered clothing. Mrs. Ramsey eventually developed lung cancer, from which she subsequently died in 2015. Her estate sued the manufacturers of the asbestos products, alleging that the cancer was caused by Mrs. Ramsey’s exposure to her husband’s asbestos-riddled clothing. In granting the appellee manufacturers’ motions for summary judgment and dismissing the claims, the Delaware Superior Court relied primarily on two previous Delaware Supreme Court cases, Riedel v. ICI Americas Inc., 968 A.2d 17 (Del. 2009), and Price v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., 26 A.3d 162 (Del. 2011), in which the Delaware Supreme Court held that an employer owed no duty to non-employees, including their spouses, for failure to adequately warn of the dangers of handling clothing exposed to asbestos, minus a special relationship between the employer and the non-employee, because the failure to warn was nonfeasance rather than misfeasance. Mrs. Ramsey appealed, arguing that in distinguishing an employer from a manufacturer: 1) a manufacturer of asbestos products creates the danger of asbestos-related harm and therefore commits misfeasance by failing to warn foreseeable victims; and 2) to the extent the holdings in Riedel and Price would block recovery on take-home claims against manufacturers, those holdings should be overruled. The appellant defendants argued that Riedel and Price controlled, and prevented Mrs. Ramsey from recovering from manufacturers because they are even further removed from an employer’s spouse than the employer itself. Additionally, they argued that allowing such claims would impose upon manufacturers an essentially limitless duty to warn that would be both impractical and unfair.

The Supreme Court acknowledged the compelling arguments on each side, but ultimately agreed with Mrs. Ramsey. First, the Court held that manufacturers owe a duty to warn to reasonably foreseeable users of their products, stating that “[b]ecause the risk of harm from take-home asbestos exposure when laundering asbestos-covered clothing is reasonably foreseeable, a plaintiff in Mrs. Ramsey’s position has a viable claim against a manufacturer . . . . Ramsey. at p. 44 of 57. However, the Court limited this duty by stating that the “sophisticated purchaser” defense would cut off a manufacturer’s liability to ultimate end users once the manufacturer has warned the
Continue Reading Delaware Supreme Court Finds Duty To Warn For Product Manufacturers And Employer Defendants In Take Home Exposure Case

On April 16, 2018, a Rhode Island court addressed for the first time whether an entity owes a duty of care to protect non-employees from exposure to the asbestos-tainted work clothes of the entity’s employee.  In a decision denying the defendant Crane Co.’s motion for summary judgment in the matter of Carolyn Nichols, as Executrix of the Estate of Iva Pearl Jones, et al. v. Allis Chalmers Product Liability Trust, et al., C.A. No. PC-2008-1134, Judge Sarah Taft-Carter held that while the existence of such a duty is determined on a case-by-case basis, the plaintiffs had presented sufficient evidence to establish that Crane Co. had a duty to protect against such “secondary” or “take-home” exposure.  The decision is significant in that the Court demonstrated a willingness to impose such a broad duty upon an employer if certain factors are met through the plaintiff’s evidence.

In the Jones matter, the plaintiffs alleged that the decedent, Iva Pearl Jones (“Ms. Jones”) was exposed to asbestos from the clothing of her brother-in-law, Stanley Nichols (“Mr. Nichols”) while Mr. Nichols was employed by Crane Co. from 1979 to 1980 and resided in the same home as Ms. Jones and other family members.  The testimony also established that Ms. Jones “always” did the laundry, including Mr. Nichols’ work clothes.  Ms. Jones was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2005 and passed away in 2007.  The plaintiffs alleged that Crane Co. failed to take adequate precautions to prevent asbestos fibers from leaving the work site and failed to warn employees of a foreseeable risk of take-home exposures to their cohabitants. Following discovery, Crane Co. moved for summary judgment on all counts asserting that it had no duty of care to Ms. Jones, its employee’s sister-in-law, and that the plaintiffs had failed to establish that the alleged exposure to asbestos from Mr. Nichols’ clothing caused Ms. Jones’ disease.

The Court, noting that an employer’s duty to protect against “take-home” exposures is an issue of first impression in Rhode Island, recognized the division of existing authority in other jurisdictions that have addressed the issue in NY, MD, GA, TN, NJ, IL, and ND. The Court held that it need not find a “special relationship” between Crane Co. and Ms. Jones to impose a duty because the plaintiffs allegations were based upon Crane Co.’s own alleged misfeasance in utilizing asbestos-containing products and not on an alleged failure of Crane Co. to protect against the actions of a third-party tortfeasor.  Instead, the Court held that under Rhode Island law, the existence of a duty of care is determined on a case-by-case basis considering the following factors: (1) the foreseeability of the harm; (2) the degree of certainty of injury; (3) the closeness of connection between the defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s injury; (4) the policy of preventing future harm; (5) the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community in imposing a legal duty; and (6) the relationship between the parties.

After considering the above-factors, the Court
Continue Reading A Rhode Island Court Considers an Employer’s Duty of Care to a Non-Employee for Asbestos Exposure