New harassment enforcement guidelines

February 3, 2017:- The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is soliciting public comment on its proposed new Unlawful Harassment Enforcement Guidelines. You can read the guidelines and comment on them here.

One item that employers should note: Harassment of a “transgender individual ” can include “using a name or pronoun inconsistent with the individual’s gender identity in a persistent or offensive manner.”

The word “or” means that the use of the pronoun/name need only be offensive, and not necessarily persistent, in order to qualify as harassment under these enforcement guidelines.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

 

 

Hospital settles with flu vaccine refuseniks

May a hospital fire employees who refuse the flu vaccine on religious grounds? Saint Vincent Health Center in Erie, Pennsylvania, must have thought so back in 2014 when it terminated the employment of six vaccine refuseniks, but now that it has agreed to shell out $300,000 in back-pay and compensatory damages it probably realizes that the short answer is no. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) press release states:

“While Title VII does not prohibit health care employers from adopting seasonal flu vaccination requirements for their workers, those requirements, like any other employment rules, are subject to the employer’s Title VII duty to provide reasonable accommodation for religion… In that context, reasonable accommodation means granting religious exemptions to employees with sincerely held religious beliefs against vaccination when such exemptions do not create an undue hardship on the employer’s operations.”

Last year I wrote an article about Boston Children’s Hospital fending off a discrimination complaint after it fired an employee who had refused the flu vaccine on religious grounds. The judge found that the hospital had offered reasonable accommodations and the accommodation that the employee requested would have imposed an undue hardship on the hospital.

The lesson for health-care providers?  If employees object to the vaccine on religious grounds, work hard with them to devise some reasonable accommodations and document those efforts carefully and thoroughly.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.
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Marijuana and small businesses

November 29, 2016:- In the general election the voters of Massachusetts approved a law to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana. It was a convincing eight-point win for the legalization campaign: 54% to 46%. In my home town, Amherst, the margin was dramatically larger: 75% to 25%.

How the new law will affect Amherst and the surrounding communities was the focus of a forum I moderated recently for BLAAST (Business Leadership for Amherst Area Strategies) a joint program of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and the Amherst Business Improvement District. To watch the video, click here. To read the related article in Business West, click here.

Given the nature of my practice, a few people have asked me about the effect of legalization  on trademarks, e.g. will marijuana sellers be able to register their trademarks?  Two facts are relevant.

The first is that there trademark owners can protect their marks via state law and federal law. Registering a mark with the state only protects it within that state, of course. For example, I have registered my mark (the flying-V logo) in Massachusetts, the state where I am admitted to practice law. If some lawyer started using the same mark in California and I sued for trademark infringement, my Massachusetts certificate of registration would not be sufficient evidence to afford me an automatic courtroom victory. To have the presumptive exclusive right to use my mark nationwide I would need to register it federally with the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO).

The second important fact is that on the subject of marijuana there is now a clear tension between federal law and state law. In 1970 Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which prohibits the cultivation, possession, and distribution of marijuana. The Supreme Court of the United States upheld the statute in 2005, ruling that Congress had the necessary constitutional authority under the Commerce Clause. And although the People of Massachusetts have enacted the Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act, Congress has not repealed the Controlled Substances Act.

Nor has Congress amended the federal trademark statute, the Lanham Act. This matters because the Lanham Act only allows the registration of trademarks that are used in connection with lawful activities, which excludes the sale of marijuana (a federal crime). For so long as the Controlled Substances Act and the unamended Lanham Act remain the law of the land, it seems highly likely that the USPTO will carry on refusing to register marks used in connection with the sale of marijuana.

As a result of this federal-state tension, a few constitutional questions come to mind. For example, doesn’t the Supremacy Clause mean that the Controlled Substances Act preempts state law in this field? No. Why not? Because the statute itself expressly says so (section 903, if you’re interested). Nevertheless, couldn’t the federal government compel Massachusetts to enforce the Controlled Substances Act? No. Why not? Because of the Tenth Amendment.

So could the trademark section in the Corporations Division of the Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth allow marijuana sellers to register their marks at the state level? My answer to this question is forthright and unequivocal: it depends.

On the one hand, the applicable state statute prohibits the registration of marks that consist of or comprise “immoral… or scandalous matter.” In view of the voters’ decision to legalize marijuana it seems unlikely that a judge would find that the drug qualifies as immoral or scandalous any more. Under Massachusetts trademark law, therefore, marijuana trademarks are beginning to look registrable.

On the other hand, there is a big difference between not enforcing the federal Controlled Substances Act and positively aiding and abetting its violation, a criminal offense under Section 846. This means that state trademark officials in Boston who register a mark that the applicant expressly uses in connection with the sale of marijuana could face federal criminal charges.

Would that happen? I doubt it? Could it happen? Yes. Some future U.S. District Attorney for the District of Massachusetts prosecuting Secretary of the Commonwealth William F. Galvin for issuing a certificate of trademark registration to owners of, say, BUDS-U-LIKE is not beyond the realm of possibility. At the very least, the idea could serve as the basis for a book, albeit one with very limited appeal destined for rapid remaindered status.

But, more realistically, what if an applicant uses the mark in connection with other products, not just marijuana, and makes no mention of marijuana in the state trademark application? Now that is a much more practical area of inquiry. Stay tuned.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.
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Tick, tock: Justice delayed

Invidious discrimination does occur, and we are fortunate to have an agency tailor-made to address it, namely the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). But the current four-year backlog of cases at the MCAD is hurting litigants on both sides, employers and employees alike. Justice delayed is justice denied, as the saying goes. And most reasonable people would agree that the MCAD should not handle cases outside its jurisdiction.

So what should we do about the problem? Check out my article in the current edition of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Lawyers Journal by clicking here.

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Attorney Peter Vickery
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Another campaign finance rule. KA CHING!

As if they needed it this presidential-campaign season, here’s some good news for political consultants. The Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) is generating more business for them.

The latest state regulation aimed at controlling the funding of political speech  means that candidate committees and independent expenditure political action committees (IE PACs) will face penalties if they share consultants. How will they likely avoid that? By employing separate consultants, of course.

Massachusetts law prohibits IE PACS from coordinating with candidate committees. But proving coordination can be difficult, so the regulations create presumptions that put the onus on the PACs and candidate committees to prove they did not coordinate. Readers with backgrounds in criminal law, constitutional law, high-school civics, or cop shows may be familiar with the presumption of innocence: These presumptions are not like that presumption.

Under the new state regulation, there will be a presumption that the IE PAC and the candidate committee are coordinating expenditures if they use the same “political, media, or legal consultant, or polling firm.” They can rebut the presumption, i.e. prove their innocence, by demonstrating that they adhered to a written firewall policy, the sort of document lawyers and political consultants are good at drafting. Those who would prefer to avoid any entanglements in the first place should bear in mind the words of Han Solo on the subject: “That’s the real trick, isn’t it. And it’s gonna cost you something extra.” An extra consultant, that is.

Another provision states that there will be a presumption of coordination if an IE PAC republishes in whole or in part “a communication relating to a candidate that is posted on the candidate’s Internet or social media site.” So no mere copying from now on. This rule should encourage even greater creativity (a billable quality) by requiring IE PAC consultants to make their clients’ communications look and sound distinct from those on the candidates’ site. Whoever said red tape stifles business?

Somewhere in the Caribbean, I suspect, there floats a yacht named OCPF.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.
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Free speech wins (four years after judge banned candidate from mentioning opponent’s name)

March 31, 2016:- Yesterday the Supreme Judicial Court issued its decision in Van Liew v. Stansfield, a case I wrote about here involving two Chelmsford politicians. What a relief that the Court ruled that politicians should not use the anti-harassment laws to shut up their critics, and what a disgrace that the question even came up in Massachusetts in the Twenty-first Century.

By way of a reminder: When one politician (Van Liew) referred to the other (Stansfield) as corrupt and a liar, called her uneducated and stupid during a phone conversation, and allegedly said during the course of a meet-and-greet event at the local library “I’m coming after you,” Ms. Stansfield sought a civil harassment-prevention order. The judge not only granted the order, but even prohibited Mr. Van Liew from using Ms. Stansfield’s name online and in print, an order that brings to mind the 1982 Zimbabwean law that forbade jokes about the name of the president, Canaan Banana.

After the election, Mr. Van Liew sued Ms. Stansfield for malicious prosecution and abuse of process, and Ms. Stansfield brought a special motion to dismiss the case under the anti-SLAPP statute. Yesterday’s decision from the Supreme Judicial Court means that Mr. Van Liew’s case can go forward (four years after a judge banned him from uttering his opponent’s name during a political campaign). A welcome vindication of the rights of the citizen, to be sure, but how unfortunate that a candidate for public office would ask a judge for a gag order and how much more unfortunate that a judge would issue one.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.
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Lopsided landlord law (plus quiz)

Lopsided laws are annoying. But here in Massachusetts we have the right to require that our legislators observe the principles of justice and moderation in formulating our laws. It says so in the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights (article 18, to be precise). So immoderate, unjust laws do more than annoy; they flout some fundamental constitutional principles.

Which prompts me to ask, Why do we put up with the dramatically different burdens that the law places on landlords who hold security deposits vis-à-vis tenants who withhold rent?

If you are a Massachusetts landlord you are free to ask for a security deposit to insure against the tenants damaging your property. But if you do, you had better comply with every jot and tittle of the security-deposit law, M.G.L. c. 186, §15B. The amount of the security deposit must not exceed one month’s rent (not by so much as a dollar), you have to place the deposit it in a separate, interest-bearing account in a Massachusetts bank — not a New Hampshire bank or a Connecticut bank — and give the tenant (1) a detailed receipt within 30 days, and (2) annual statements showing the interest that the deposit has earned. The law goes into great detail about what you must and must not do with the security deposit at the end of the tenancy. Innocent mistakes can prove as costly as deliberate violations. Landlords who are curious about the kind of oversights that could trigger multiple damages and attorney’s fees should watch this short slide-show video by tenants’ lawyer Arthur Hardy-Doubleday, Esq.  If pushed for time start watching at the 3:45-minute mark.

In contrast, if you are a Massachusetts tenant and you wish to withhold rent from the landlord (i.e. go on rent strike) the list of legal formalities you have to comply with is considerably shorter. Here is a short video on the subject.

Rent withholding has a reasonable purpose. Tenants are allowed to withhold rent if the conditions in the dwelling are unsanitary, which encourages landlords to make repairs promptly upon request. Fair enough. Mind you, just try that rationale in the realm of workplace relations.

Employer: “Your performance is inadequate.”

Employee: “Are you going to fire me?”

Employer: “No, and you can’t quit either. You have to keep working for us. But we’re going to stop paying you.”

Any employers desiring an insightful predictive analysis of the likely outcome of such an interaction should click here.

If tenants withhold rent, do they have to set the money aside?  After all, if — many months, or even years, after the rent strike started — the Housing Court judge decides that the landlord is entitled to some or all of the bank-rent, it could be difficult for the tenants to come up with money. It takes above-average self discipline to save the money rather than spend it on all the other pressing day-to-day demands, especially in a culture that actively discourages thrift (have you looked at interest rates lately?).

But no, the law does not require that tenants place the withheld rent in escrow, so nor do tenants have to provide the landlord with documentary evidence stating the name of the bank and the number of the account.

To recap, landlords holding security deposits have to comply with a long list of legal requirements whereas tenants withholding rent have to comply with none. Landlords who fail to give tenants a detailed statement within 30 days face the prospect of paying treble damages and the tenants’ legal fees. Tenants who withhold rent even if a judge concludes that the withholding was not justified do not have to pay a penalty of any kind.

If you think of tenants as wards of the state and your image of landlords conforms to popular Dickensian stereotypes, or this, or this, this imbalance in the law may not bother you much. If so, I urge to watch a real landlord, Garth Meikle, argue a real case in front of the Supreme Judicial Court. To see and hear Mr. Meikle click here, and start at minute 18:38.  Mr. Meikle simply wanted his apartment back so that one of his children could move in, but the tenant alleged that Mr. Meikle had made a mistake with the security deposit.  By the way, the tenant received pro bono representation from a Harvard Law School clinic; the landlord had to represent himself.

On the other hand, if you think that the provision of affordable homes is a social good that we should encourage or at least not discourage, and that it might be time to restore some balance to landlord-tenant law, there is hope. Recently I went to the State House to listen to testimony about a proposal to amend the rent-withholding law  by requiring tenants to deposit the withheld rent into escrow. Will it pass? I shall keep you posted.

Now for the quiz that I promised in the headline.

If I had to choose one word to describe the current security-deposit law it would be persnickety, an adjective (possibly related to the Scottish pernickety or pernicky) that boasts the highest jurisprudential imprimatur available on this side of the Atlantic, namely a 2011 decision of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Question: Which justice penned the opinion?

Email your answer to peter@petervickery.com with the word persnickety in the subject line. There will be a prize for the first correct answer.* But, please, no pre-quiz use of Google, LexisNexis, etc. We use the honor system around here.

* A warm glow.**

** Subject to availability, satisfaction not guaranteed, and no warranties as to fitness for general or particular purpose. Some glow-feelers may experience side effects so before winning this quiz talk to your primary care physician, pharmacist, and faith-community leader.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.