Employers should not be intimidated by class action allegations just because the initial odds may seem stacked against them. In a recent case, Prince Lobel successfully defended the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail Company (MBCR) against class claims brought by a group of employees who sought to represent all black and Hispanic employees who were denied promotions at the commuter rail. Prince Lobel attorneys proved that, with the right facts and a thorough understanding of the complex law governing discrimination class actions, employers can convince courts to rule in their favor.
In the case, decided on March 17, 2010, Judge Mark L. Wolf, U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, ruled in favor of MBCR, finding that blacks, Hispanics and whites have succeeded equally in securing promotions at MBCR, and therefore, refused to certify a class action. Prince Lobel attorneys argued the case on behalf of MBCR.
The four plaintiffs, employees at MBCR, claimed that black and Hispanic employees do not secure promotions at the same rate as white employees, stating the MBCR has no "system or method" for promotions. The plaintiffs asked the court to certify a sweeping class action, challenging not just a handful of promotional decisions that directly affected them, but also every other aspect of the many promotional decisions MBCR has made since 2005.
After many months of factual discovery, extensive legal briefing, and a lengthy oral argument to the court, Judge Wolf refused to certify the class, emphasizing that "statistical evidence is significant, if not essential," in deciding whether to certify a class. In this case, the plaintiffs complained that minorities were denied promotions and that the promotion process at MBCR left managers too much leeway in deciding whom to pick. Judge Wolf found that the evidence "affirmatively and persuasively refute[d] plaintiffs’ allegations." He concluded that generally "blacks and Hispanics across the spectrum at the MBCR have not faced difficulties" in securing promotions.
A Landmark Decision
This is a significant ruling because this is the first time that a court in Massachusetts has considered whether a few employees could stitch together a discrimination class action on allegations that the company allowed managers too much discretion in deciding whom to promote.
"I’m very proud of our work on behalf of MBCR," said Prince Lobel Partner Daniel Tarlow. "We’re pleased that MBCR was able to refute the plaintiffs’ class claims with strong evidence that showed its promotions were fair and nondiscriminatory. Amtrak, the previous operator of the commuter rail, had a troubled history of discrimination suits and was under a consent decree. Since taking over the operation in 2003, MBCR has worked hard to create an environment that promotes equal employment opportunities. The decision was a major vindication of MBCR’s efforts."
Tarlow added that this case is important for other large employers in Massachusetts. "On the one hand, it shows that any large employer could become the target of a potential class action claim. On the other hand, it points to a roadmap of how employers can successfully defeat these claims."
For more information about this important MBCR decision, or for any employment law questions or concerns, please contact Daniel S. Tarlow, the author of this alert, at 617 456 8013 or firstname.lastname@example.org.