In a recent decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), the court provided crucial clarification on the impact of its COVID-19 emergency orders on employment discrimination claims. The case, Dunn vs. Langevin (SJC-13364), revolved around whether the emergency orders issued by the SJC during the early months of the pandemic extended the time limits established in G. L. c. 151B, § 5, including those that require that claims be pursued by first filing a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) “within 300 days after the alleged act of discrimination.”
Matthew Dunn, the plaintiff, alleged that he and his girlfriend suffered sexual harassment at a leadership conference run by his employer, Phoenix Communications, Inc., in January 2019. After discussing the events with other employees, Dunn claimed he suffered several acts of retaliation, culminating in his termination on November 21, 2019. Dunn filed a complaint with the MCAD alleging sexual harassment and retaliation on November 16, 2020, 361 days after his termination, exceeding the 300-day filing window set forth in G. L. c. 151B, § 5.
The SJC’s Decision
The SJC ruled that the emergency orders did not extend the MCAD filing deadlines. The court reasoned that the orders were issued under its authority to oversee court operations, not executive agencies like the MCAD. The court also rejected Dunn’s argument for equitable tolling, noting that the MCAD had its own express tolling process, which Dunn did not try to use.
This decision underscores the importance of adhering to the strict filing deadlines for discrimination claims. Failure to file a claim within the MCAD’s 300-day deadline may result in the irreversible loss of a viable discrimination or retaliation claim. Clients should be aware that the MCAD has its own tolling process, which must be used if they cannot meet the standard filing deadlines.
The lessons from the Dunn case are clear. Plaintiffs’ counsel must ensure that their Charges of Discrimination under G.L. c. 151B are filed within 300 days of the last act of discrimination. Employers’ counsel should remember that the 300-day filing requirement is jurisdictional: an untimely Charge is subject to dismissal and will not satisfy the exhaustion requirement. If you have questions about an employment law matter, contact the lawyers at Rose Law Partners LLP.