In Robinson v. City of Boston, the Massachusetts Appeals Court recently upheld a trial court’s dismissal of an employment discrimination claim for failure to promote, finding that the claim did not survive the plaintiff’s death. In doing so, the Appeals Court interpreted very narrowly a 2006 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decision in which the SJC held that a claim for discriminatory wrongful termination survived the death of the employee.
In 2003, Hubert Robinson filed a charge with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) against the City of Boston, alleging age, race, and color discrimination, after he unsuccessfully applied for a promotion to a supervisory position. While his charge was pending, Robinson died, and his wife moved to substitute herself as her husband’s representative. Thereafter, the MCAD issued a lack of probable cause finding, and the wife filed a complaint in the Massachusetts Superior Court, alleging discrimination as well as common law breach of contract based on the discriminatory acts. The Superior Court dismissed the claims—based in part on the Court’s determination that Robinson’s claims did not survive his death—and Robinson’s wife appealed.
On appeal, the wife relied solely on the SJC’s holding in Gasior v. Massachusetts General Hospital to support her argument that her husband’s employment discrimination claim survived his death. In Gasior, the SJC analogized the plaintiff’s employment discrimination claim to one for breach of contract, and found that because contract claims survive the death of a party, Gasior’s claim for wrongful termination survived his death.
In this case, Robinson’s wife argued that the SJC’s holding in Gasior applied to all discrimination claims, including a claim for failure to promote. The Appeals Court disagreed, finding that Gasior addressed only the survivability of claims for discriminatory termination and that a claim for discriminatory failure to promote fell outside the narrow scope of that case. According to the Appeals Court, the decedent’s wife failed to explain sufficiently why the court should extend the SJC’s reasoning in Gasior to other types of discriminatory conduct. The Appeals Court specifically stated, however, that its holding does not preclude survival of failure to promote claims where a plaintiff sets forth an argument sufficient to support such a finding.
This case demonstrates the willingness of the courts to limit Gasior to the specific circumstances of a case. In recent years, many plaintiffs’ attorneys have relied on Gasior in arguing that a variety of employment statutes are implied terms of agreements between employers and their employees. This has been problematic for employers, in part because breach of contract claims have a much longer statute of limitations than, for example, claims for discrimination or non-payment of wages. While the Robinson decision provides a strong defense against such claims, the Gasior decision remains problematic to employers’ efforts to defeat contract claims which are based on statutory obligations.