In Joulé, Inc. v. Simmons, the SJC held that a valid arbitration agreement between an employer and employee cannot prohibit the MCAD from investigating or adjudicating discrimination claims, but it can prohibit the employee from being a party to the MCAD proceeding.

Randi Simmons began working for Joulé Technical Staffing, Inc. as a “selling branch manager” in February 2008. After Simmons’s employment commenced, Joulé presented her with a contract requiring arbitration of any employment discrimination claims, which she signed. Joulé later terminated Simmons’s employment. Simmons filed a charge of discrimination with the MCAD, asserting that Joulé subjected her to a hostile work environment and denied her a promotion and salary increases because of its bias against pregnant women and women with children.

Joulé filed a Superior Court action, seeking to compel arbitration and prohibit Simmons from acting as a party to the MCAD proceeding. After the MCAD intervened, the Superior Court held that the parties’ arbitration agreement did not limit the MCAD’s authority to investigate or adjudicate Simmons’s claim, nor did it prohibit Simmons from participating as a party. The Superior Court also stayed the action before it pending resolution of the MCAD proceeding. Joulé appealed the decision directly to the SJC.

The SJC agreed with the Superior Court that the MCAD does not give up its statutory authority to investigate and resolve discrimination complaints because an employer and employee have entered into an arbitration agreement. The SJC reasoned that the MCAD was not a party to the arbitration agreement, and therefore could not be bound by it. The SJC further concluded that the MCAD can resolve the complaint by “granting relief specific to Simmons.”

On the other hand, the SJC concluded that beyond filing an MCAD complaint and cooperating with the MCAD’s proceeding, a party to a valid arbitration agreement cannot participate as a party to an MCAD action. To do so would violate the arbitration agreement. The SJC also held that the Superior Court erred in staying the arbitration, reasoning that a stay would in effect give precedence to the MCAD proceeding over arbitration. Parties to an enforceable arbitration agreement should be able to enforce it, and “[t]here is no legal bar to having an arbitration and the MCAD proceeding continue concurrently, on parallel tracks.” The SJC thus vacated the Superior Court’s order.

This decision affirms the MCAD’s authority to investigate and resolve claims. It also clarifies that where there is an enforceable arbitration agreement, an employer can compel arbitration and prohibit an employee from participating as a party in an MCAD proceeding. Unfortunately, it is unclear from the decision what, if any, impact a determination in one forum will have on a parallel proceeding in the other forum.