The First Circuit Court of Appeals entered a decision on February 23, 2009 in the case of Marianne J. Fantini v. Salem State College which assists employers and employees alike understanding certain parameters of employment discrimination claims in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The First Circuit Court of Appeals hears appeals from the federal trial courts in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts and therefore its interpretation of federal law has legal precedence in both of those states.
This case was brought by Fantini, a former state employee of Salem State College, employed as the Director of Accounting from November 1999 through November 11, 2001. Fantini, after having been a temporary employee, was hired in a full-time position as the Director of General Accounting under the supervision of Matilda DelVecchio. On November 11, 2001, Fantini involuntarily left work because her supervisor DelVecchio allegedly created a hostile work environment which caused Fantini to suffer a nervous breakdown. Fantini alleges that the hostile work environment arose after she had notified DelVecchio of certain problems and errors with the financial information that was being provided by Edward Manning, a male employee which Fantini believed violated state regulations. Fantini alleged that DelVecchio, rather than disciplining Manning, discriminated against her because of her gender and retaliated against her for her continuous complaints. Fantini further alleged that DelVecchio denigrated her abilities to perform her job and unfavorably compared her clothing to that of a male employee. Fantini stated that DelVecchio’s alleged, continuous verbal attacks led to her mental breakdown on November 8, 2001. One month after Fantini was out on leave under the FMLA due to her nervous breakdown, Salem State College hired an independent accounting firm to audit the College’s cash reconciliations and general ledger accounts which had previously handled by Fantini. As a consequence of that audit, Fantini was accused of an unsatisfactory work performance including calculating “incomplete or incorrect” cash reconciliations and accused of misconduct. While on leave, Fantini was fired.
Fantini, among other things, alleged sexual discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act; a federal law prohibiting gender employment discrimination. She sought liability not only as to her employer, Salem State College, but also as to two individual employees. The Court clarified that such Title VII claims can only be brought against employers and not the individual employees. That Court’s decision was consistent with several New Hampshire and Massachusetts District Court decisions and other circuit courts of appeal.
Another allegation raised was that Fantini failed to provide enough specified detail in her initial Charge with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and the EEOC to bring forward the claims of sex discrimination. The Court found that there were enough factual descriptions of sex discrimination in the Charge of Discrimination clarifying that the Charge does not have to be as specific as a Complaint filed in court. The Court noted that an administrative charge is not held to the high standard of a Court Complaint.
Lastly, the retaliation claim under Title VII was dismissed. Under Title VII, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee because she opposed any practice that is illegal under Title VII or made a charge under Title VII. In this case, Fantini stated she was retaliated against for reporting her male co-employee’s, Edward Manning, errors in financial information which she stated violated state regulations. While Fantini might have been protected as a whistleblower, she could not assert a claim of retaliation under Title VII because her claim was not that she reporting that Manning was discriminating against her, but that Manning violated state regulations relating to certain problems and errors in the financial information he was providing.
J. Daniel Marr is a Director and Shareholder at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. His legal practice includes counseling businesses and individuals on a variety of legal issues and advocating on their behalf. Attorney Marr is licensed and practices in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Attorney Marr can be reached at [email protected].