Real Estate Law

Wrongful Termination Case

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A Complex Wrongful Termination Case

For anyone who feels they were wrongfully terminated from their job, the following case, involving a plaintiff’s claim that her employment was terminated because of her race, involves many different legal concepts and rulings. Because of that complexity, it can be highly instructive.

We’ve summarized the main proceedings of the case and provided a second section listing important employee takeaways from the rulings. If you’re in a position where you feel wrongfully terminated, or simply want to know your rights and precedents, read on.

Michele Dimanche v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA)

Plaintiff Michele Dimanche, in her legal action, alleges that her supervisors at MBTA conspired to terminate her employment because of her race. Dimanche is a black woman of Haitian descent who worked as a motor person on the MBTA Green Line from 2000 until 2013. What caused Dimanche’s suspension and termination was an incident on January 25, 2013, involving a co-worker, another black Haitian woman. Both women claimed that the other was the instigator who yelled, spat, cursed and continued the fight form the office into the lobby.

The event was witnessed by many MBTA employees and the other woman reported the incident to a supervisor. Both women were suspended during the investigation of the affair. By the time of the altercation, Dimanche had already received four disciplinary warnings and a five-day suspension. MBTA’s regulations provided the possibility of termination for a fifth infraction. She was suspended for thirty days and then terminated. Dimanche insisted that the five previous disciplinary rulings were fabricated or distorted out of proportion.

On January 8, 2015, Dimanche filed suit in federal court on three counts: 1) racial discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1981; 2) racial discrimination under Massachusetts General Law ch. 151B. § 4; and 3) intentional infliction of emotional distress. The complaint stated that MBTA “subjected Ms. Dimanche to racial discrimination as a means to humiliate and ultimately terminate her.” It also labeled six co-workers and supervisors as the ones conducting the racial harassment.

Although the MBTA was correctly served on February 20, 2015, they failed to file a timely answer due to a clerical error. The district court entered a default for Dimanche (when a defendant fails to respond to a claim in the time set by law) on June 2, 2015. One week later, the MBTA filed a motion to set aside the default which was denied by the district court. On July 31, 2015, the MBTA refiled the motion to set aside the default and in September, the district court lifted the default over Dimanche’s objections. On February 10, 2016, Dimanche moved to clarify the scope of the sanctions. This was denied on February 26, 2016.

The trial began on October 17, 2016. Dimanche took the stand and produced two former co-workers and her psychiatrist as witnesse. The MBTA presented nine witnesses including three who witnessed the fight. Dimanche and her witnesses alleged that a couple of white inspectors referred to her as a “black bitch” and made fun of her Haitian accent. She claimed a supervisor refused to process her complaints. Although MBTA testified about its disciplinary policy, the altercation incident and the investigation, and the resulting decision to terminate Dimanche, they did not address her specific claims of racial harassment.

On October 20, 2016, the jury ruled in favor of Dimanche assessing MBTA for over $1.3 million in compensatory damages and $1.3 million in punitive damages. The MBTA appealed the decision based on three reasons: 1) there was insufficient evidence to support the jury verdict; 2) the district judge committed reversible error, and 3) the court lacked sufficient subject matter jurisdiction. Regarding reason #2, the MBTA claimed that the trial judge made two basic errors. One was that he imposed a very severe punitive sanction as the price for removing MBTA’s accidental default. The other was that the hostile work environment charge was only added on the last day of the trial. Regarding reason #3, the MBTA brought up the court’s decision in the Buntin case which held that “a plaintiff may not bring claims for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 against state actors, including defendants sued in their official capacities as government officials.”

The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling. The asserted that MBTA did not make the appropriate objections and offers of proof. The Court of Appeals did agree that the trial judge committed an error in imposing the default sanction order. However, they did not agree with MBTA’s claim that the trial judge was prejudiced by either the default sanction order or the late hostile work environment charge. They also waived MBTA’s argument on the Buntin case regarding no plaintiff claims for damages for state actors and officials.

Employee Takeaways

For those employees who feel they were wrongfully terminated or who feel that an unfair termination is a risk, this case provides some valuable lessons.

These include:

  • Know the laws—The more you know about legal processes involved in termination cases, different types of discrimination, sexual harassment, and other personnel-related issues, the better off you will be. This case is particularly instructive because of the many legal and administrative concepts involved including employer policies on termination, the process of filing suit in court, what can qualify as racial discrimination, the defendant’s responsibility to file a timely answer to a court serving, default, sanctions, the role of witnesses, compensatory and punitive damages, the referencing of prior cases, and the appeal process. Studying recent cases of wrongful termination can be helpful. Become familiar with the legal concepts and lexicon.
  • Make your complaints and document everything—If you feel that as an employee something has been done to you unfairly by the employer of a co-worker, follow the due process of the complaint procedure. This creates a record no matter if the complaint goes unheeded. Also, document these cases of unfair treatment and discrimination. Include the names of the offenders and the dates they happened. You will likely need all of this information if your employment situation becomes more serious.
  • Gather your witnesses—In this case, Dimanche was able to really on testimony from two former co-workers and her treating psychiatrist. It is very possible that their testimony may have made the difference in the rulings of this case.

There is no question that employers can be unfair in their dealings with employees. History is rife with examples of employer unfair treatment, discrimination, and harassment. However, this does not mean that you are powerless in these situations. What can help you is your knowledge of company policy, legal issues involved in wrongful termination cases, your following of due process with any complaints, and your accurate documentation of events?

Got a question? Call us, we can help.


SJC Clarifies when a Landlord Owes A Tenant Trebles Damages in a Security Deposit Case

By | Real Estate Law, Renting, Security Deposit, Uncategorized | No Comments

Let us help you get your deposit back

When a tenant vacates an apartment, the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law permits a landlord to deduct the price of repairs from the security deposit, as long as the landlord gives the tenant a statement of itemized damages along with repair quotes within 30 days of the tenant vacating the apartment.

Many landlords have a hard time complying with this requirement for one reason or another. Often, landlords have not been able to get quotes for repairs before the 30-day period has elapsed.

The failure of the landlord to provide the itemized list of repairs within 30 days often leads tenants to believe that their landlord now owes them three times the deposit as per the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law. However, the Supreme Judicial Court disagrees.

In Phillips v. Equity Residential Management LLC, the landlord deducted $968.08 in carpet and other cleaning fees from a tenant’s security deposit. While the landlord did give a list of repairs to the tenant, it wasn’t sworn to under pains and penalties of perjury, within 30 days of termination of occupancy. The statement listed charges totaling $968.08 and stated that Phillips owed a balance of $ 218.02. The tenant filed a class action lawsuit seeking the return of their deposit, triple damages, and attorneys’ fees under the statute.

A guarantor of the lease, Phillips’s father, notified Equity that it was in violation of the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law.

On August 6, 2013, Phillips filed a class action complaint in the Superior Court, alleging that Equity had violated the law by

(1) The statement and attached document were not correctly signed and guaranteed to under the pains and penalties of perjury,

(2) Fund failed to offer adequate documentation to support the fees which were deducted from the deposition,

(3) Equity impermissibly deducted cleaning charges from the deposit, and

(4) Equity failed to return the deposit within 30 days after the conclusion of this tenancy.

The landlord removed the case to the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, citing the Federal Class Action Fairness Act of 2005.

The Massachusetts Security Deposit Law requires that a landlord must provide the tenant with an itemized record, signed under the pains and penalties of perjury, in addition to written proof of the price of repairs. Violations of this second obligation, like violations of the first, also lead to forfeiture of the entire security deposit. There are a few violations of this statue, including the taking of deductions that are prohibited by the law that lead to a tenant being entitled to treble damages, interest, court costs, and attorney’s fees.

In this case, the landlord delivered an itemized list of damages to the tenant within 30 days, but the list was not signed under pains and penalties of perjury, wasn’t sufficiently comprehensive and was unsupported by written proof of the expenses of repairs.  All these failings lead to the forfeiture of its right to keep any part of Phillips’s safety deposit.

SJC held that the Legislature when drafting the Security Deposit Law, did not intend for the treble damages provision to apply to a landlord’s violation of the requirements for an itemized list. Further, it stated that the treble damages provision would only apply to deductions that were not the following:

(i) any unpaid rent or water charges which have not been validly withheld or deducted pursuant to any general or special law,

(ii) any unpaid increase in real estate taxes which the tenant is obligated to pay pursuant to a tax escalation clause; and,

(iii) a reasonable amount necessary to repair any damage caused to the dwelling unit by the tenant

It’s important to note that a landlord that does not deposit a security deposit into an escrow account would be liable for treble damages if the landlord fails to return the deposit after the tenant makes a demand.

Also, note that the law requires landlords to provide a “statement of condition” at the beginning of the tenancy. Failure to do so will require the landlord to return the deposit upon demand.

Adverse Possession in Massachusetts

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Adverse Possession in Massachusetts

Many people have that one neighbor who puts up a new fence six inches to a foot over the known property line.  They smile and assure you they know that the fence isn’t the real property line, but no harm, no foul, right?  Well, maybe not. Under Massachusetts law, that neighbor may be able to claim your slice of property as their own in the future.  The legal term for this kind of lawsuit is adverse possession.

Most property owners are not aware of adverse possession laws.  Many people might think that these are new laws passed by liberals to protect the rights of squatters, but that is not the case. Massachusetts case law exists dating back to 1853, dealing with adverse possession (Cook v. Babcock).  This case involved a man that decided to cut down some trees that happened to be on his neighbor’s property.  At trial, the jury awarded damages to the neighbor when the man could not support his defense of adverse possession.

What is Adverse Possession?

So what exactly is adverse possession? Adverse possession is a way to obtain the title to a  property by physically occupying it for a long period of time. This means that you can acquire property without the owner’s consent if you possess it for long enough.  In Massachusetts, the property being claimed must be possessed continuously for at least 20 years.  In addition, claimants must also show:

  1. They are the only possessor and have physically entered the property.
  2. Possession is open and notorious.  This means that it is generally well-known in the community that they live there.  Building houses, cabins, or outbuildings and paying taxes on them also establishes a claim on the land.
  3. They must possess the land without the owner’s consent.  If they have permission to be on the land from the owner, then they cannot claim the property under adverse possession.
  4. They must possess the property in question continuously for the 20-year period.  Occasionally living on the property does not meet the requirement.

Different Owners can Combine Years

Property owners should also know that subsequent possessors can add years together and make a claim on the property.  For example, if one person lived there for 10 years, then a second person lived there for another 10, they can add them together to show 20 years of possession.

So why do these laws exist?  It seems unfair to property owners that someone can simply move onto their property and claim it as their own.  Law scholars argue that adverse possession protects the rights of both the trespasser and the property owner.  If someone occupies a property for a long time, builds a home and outbuildings, and plants crops, they have invested a lot of time and money into the property.  Loss of the property would be a serious blow to these people.  Adverse possession laws provide a way for these people to claim the property as their own. At the same time, the property owner who is completely unaware of their presence would stand to gain a large amount of money if the possessors were removed.  The long period required to file a claim (20 years) protects the property owner’s interests.  As you can imagine, it is very difficult for someone to live on somebody else’s property for 20 years without the owner taking notice.  This gives the property owner plenty of time to eject unwanted possessors.  Owners who fail to do so clearly care very little about what their property is being used for.

How to Prevent Adverse Possession of Your Property

Adverse possession law in Massachusetts shows a policy of encouraging property owners to actively protect their land.  But what should landowners do to prevent adverse possession claims?

  1. Be sure where your property boundaries are.  Hire a surveyor to confirm actual property lines.  Surveyors will mark property lines with stakes.  Remember it is illegal to remove survey stakes in the state of Massachusetts.  Don’t rely on plot plans.
  2. Physically mark property lines with fences.  A physical barrier prevents unwanted people from ever accessing your property.
  3. Post no trespassing signs.  Post signs outward to notify people approaching your property to stay out.
  4. Give written permission to encroaching neighbors.  Remember, possessors can’t claim your property if they have permission to be there.  Documentation is key.
  5. Make sure your title is clear.  Review purchase paperwork to determine if any other parties have a claim on the property.  File a lawsuit if necessary.
  6. Register your property with the Massachusetts Land Court.  All properties registered with the Land Court are exempt from adverse possession claims.

Adverse Possession laws in Massachusetts were created to protect the rights of property owners and squatters alike.  The key to preventing an adverse possession claim is to actively defend your property.  Adverse possession cases can be very complex and expensive to litigate.  If you find yourself in an adverse possession case, please get in contact with Doubleday Law today.

If you have concerns with the Adverse Possession law or are in a similar situation, please contact us.

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Sriracha Factory

Lesson in Massachusetts Public vs. Private Nuisance Law: That Smells! Judge Orders Sriracha Plant Closed Due to Pungent Smell

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Sriracha Factory

Judge orders Sriracha Factory closed citing public nuisance law.

Judge Robert H. O’Brien ordered a Sriracha Factory to cease all operations due to the owner’s activity affecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public in general. In this case, the public nuisance is a factory emitting painfully smelly odors.

The judge had initially denied the city’s request for a temporary restraining order in October of 2013. However, only a few short weeks later, the judge granted injunctive relief requested by the city of Irwindale, citing California’s Public Nuisance Law. Read More