The SJC ordered a new trial in Pelletier v. Town of Somerset after concluding that the trial court erred by admitting evidence of harassment claims that the plaintiff failed to raise at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). The SJC found that the trial court violated the “scope of investigation” rule, which prohibits plaintiffs from introducing claims at trial that “the MCAD investigation could not have reasonably been expected to uncover.”
Kim Pelletier, a truck driver, began working for the Somerset highway department in 1984. With the exception of a few summer interns, Pelletier was the only female in the department throughout her entire sixteen-year tenure. In 1998, Pelletier was assigned a new supervisor, Antone Cabral. In 2000, Pelletier filed a charge of discrimination with the MCAD, alleging that Cabral had discriminated against her on the basis of her gender and sexual orientation. After investigating the complaint, the Commission issued a lack of probable cause finding.
Pelletier then filed a complaint in Massachusetts Superior Court. At trial, Pelletier advanced a new theory—that the discrimination she suffered while Cabral was her supervisor (from 1998 to 2000) was actually the culmination of years of discriminatory treatment dating back to 1984. The trial court allowed Pelletier to introduce evidence of discrimination and harassment that allegedly occurred throughout her tenure, including sexual touching, displays of pornographic material in the workplace, and repeated verbal abuse by her male coworkers. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Pelletier for $1.8 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
The town of Somerset moved for a new trial or, alternatively, for remitter to reduce the jury award. The trial court reduced the award to $600,000 on the grounds that a substantial portion of the evidence presented at trial was not within the scope of Pelletier’s MCAD complaint or the Commission’s subsequent investigation into her claims. Both parties appealed the decision and the case reached the SJC.
In analyzing the “scope of the investigation” rule and the admissibility of discrimination claims at trial, the SJC explained that “a claim that is not explicitly stated in the administrative complaint may be asserted in the subsequent Superior Court action so long as it is based on the acts of discrimination that the MCAD investigation could reasonably be expected to uncover.” Here, however, the SJC found that Pelletier’s allegations of harassment that predated her assignment to supervisor Cabral were not related to her MCAD complaint and that she had effectively withheld notice of the scope of her complaint until the time of trial. Such conduct, the Court found, violated the “scope of the investigation” rule.
This decision should help employers narrow the scope of discrimination claims at trial and prevent employees from raising any new claims that they failed to bring at the MCAD.