Civil Rights: Don’t Be Penny-wise and Pound Foolish

It is no secret that, in today’s economy, businesses of all sizes, and in all industries, are experiencing layoffs and cutting costs, particularly their discretionary expenses. The same is true for landlords, who are faced with more than the usual number of evictions.

In taking these necessary actions, however, both employers and landlords should be careful not to expose themselves to potential liability, particularly in the area of discrimination law. Discrimination cases can yield very large awards, and are more prevalent during difficult times such as these.

While no strategy can prevent all lawsuits, sound planning is vital to avoiding and winning discrimination cases. While it may be tempting to rely on boilerplate anti-discrimination policies and procedures found on the Internet or created by in-house counsel at corporate headquarters in Nevada, Massachusetts has some of the strongest anti-discrimination and sexual harassment laws in the country. In fact, the courts have strengthened the rights of employees and tenants in several recent cases.

For example, employers with fewer than six employees, who are exempt from the provisions of M.G.L. c. 151B (the Massachusetts anti-discrimination statute), nonetheless can now be sued for discrimination under the Massachusetts Equal Rights Act under a recent court case involving pregnancy-based discrimination. In another recent ruling, the court held that a landlord’s economic interest is not a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason to refuse to rent to a prospective tenant who is the holder of a housing subsidy, even if the subsidy requirements create a greater economic burden on the landlord. Subsidy holders are considered a protected class under M.G.L. c. 151B.

Even if your business has adopted policies and procedures in accordance with Massachusetts law, have they been updated recently to reflect these recent rulings? Perhaps more important, have your employees been sufficiently trained to understand and comply with these policies? In the event your business is sued for discrimination, being able to distance yourself from an employee’s actions by showing they are not in compliance with your company’s policies and procedures will be helpful.

If you need assistance understanding the requirements of Massachusetts anti-discrimination laws and how they impact your business practices, please feel free to contact me.

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