The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently held that an employee’s failure to plead a specific claim in his MCAD charge did not constitute a failure to exhaust administrative remedies. In Windross v. Village Automotive Group, the Appeals Court upheld a Superior Court jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff on a hostile work environment claim— even though the plaintiff did not explicitly plead it—because he alleged sufficient facts for the MCAD to uncover the claim.
Markdale Windross, a black male of Jamaican descent, worked as a salesperson for the defendant for two months before he was terminated for poor performance. Following his termination, Windross filed a charge with the MCAD alleging discrimination based on race, color, and national origin. In his charge, he alleged that during his employment with the defendant, his managers and coworkers subjected him to racially-abusive conduct and comments, which were so pervasive that they interfered with his work performance. However, he did not specifically plead a hostile work environment claim. Windross subsequently removed the MCAD complaint to Superior Court.
The case proceeded to a jury trial on both claims for hostile work environment and wrongful termination. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Windross with respect to his hostile work environment claim, but found for the defendant on the wrongful termination claim. Village Automotive appealed the jury’s verdict on the hostile work environment claim, arguing that the claim should have been barred for failure to exhaust administrative remedies because Windross did not specifically plead the claim in his MCAD charge. The Appeals Court disagreed, holding that a claim that is not explicitly stated in an administrative complaint may be asserted in a subsequent Superior Court action as long as it is based on acts of discrimination that the agency investigation could reasonably be expected to uncover. The Appeals Court concluded that although Windross did not use the words “hostile work environment” in his MCAD charge, he described being persistently subjected to racially discriminatory conduct with sufficient specificity for the MCAD to uncover the existence of additional facts that would support a claim for racial harassment. Accordingly, the Appeals Court affirmed the judgment of the trial court.
This decision demonstrates that employers should be prepared to defend against a broader range of claims than those specifically pleaded in an employee’s MCAD charge. If an employee alleges sufficient facts to put the MCAD (and the employer) on notice of a potential claim, the employer must be prepared to defend against that claim.