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Employment | Discrimination | Maine

Maine Discrimination Q&A

Does Maine have an anti-discrimination law protecting LGBT individuals from discrimination in employment?

Yes. On November 8, 2005, Maine voters agreed to keep in place a law, LD 1196, “An Act to Extend Civil Rights Protections to All People Regardless of Sexual Orientation”, passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor in the spring of 2005. The law went into effect December 28, 2005.

This marks the end of a long struggle in Maine to achieve legal protections for LGBT people. In November 1995, Maine voters rejected an attempt to limit the protected classes to those already included within the non-discrimination law. In May 1997, Maine approved an anti-discrimination law based on sexual orientation, but this law was repealed in a special election in February 1998. Then in November 2000, by the smallest of margins, Maine voters failed to ratify a second anti-discrimination law that had been approved by the legislature.

The law provides protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation which is defined as “… a person’s actual or perceived heterosexuality, bisexuality, homosexuality or gender identity or expression” (5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 4553 (9-C)).

Does it also protect people perceived of as LGBT in employment?

Yes. The non-discrimination law specifically covers people who are perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

To whom does the non-discrimination law apply and what does it forbid?

The non-discrimination law applies to governmental employers (local and state) and private employers with any number of employees (5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 4553 (4) (definition of employer)). It forbids employers from refusing to hire, or discharging, or discriminating against the employee with respect to any employment matter, including hiring, tenure, promotion, transfer, compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment. Nor may an employer use any employment agency that discriminates (5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 4572 (1)(A)). Harassment based on sexual orientation is included within “terms and conditions” of employment.

Employment agencies may not refuse to: classify properly; refer their customers for employment; or otherwise discriminate because of sexual orientation. Labor organizations (e.g. unions) may not deny apprenticeship, membership or any membership rights or otherwise penalize or discriminate against their members because of sexual orientation (5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 4572 (1)(B) & (C)).

The law also forbids any employer, employment agency, or labor organization, prior to employment or membership, from eliciting or recording information about a person’s sexual orientation, printing any advertisement indicating any preference or limitation based on sexual orientation, or having a system of denying or limiting employment or membership opportunities based on sexual orientation (5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 4572 (1)(D)).

Does the law apply to every employer?

No, there is a religious exemption that provides:

“Employer” does not include a religious or fraternal corporation or association, not organized for private profit and in fact not conducted for private profit, with respect to employment of its members of the same religion, sect or fraternity, except for purposes of disability-related discrimination, in which case the corporation or association is considered to be an employer (5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 4553 (4) (definition of “employer”)).

This appears to mean that certain non-profit religious entities (not individuals) are exempt from the law, and a religious organization may require all applicants and employees to conform to the religious tenets of that organization (5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 4573-A (2)). The full scope of this exemption may be sorted out in specific court cases.

Does the non-discrimination law have any impact on my employer’s obligation to provide domestic partner benefits to my partner of the same-sex?

Possibly yes. The non-discrimination law can be a powerful tool to equalizing treatment in compensation, and therefore, valuable “fringe benefits.”  As discussed below in the family section of this booklet, the state and several municipalities have already equalized some benefits like health insurance (this result also conforms with the better view of the law, i.e., that it is discrimination based on sexual orientation to condition benefits on a status (marriage) that only gay people cannot attain. See Alaska Civil Liberties Union v. State of Alaska, 122 P.3d 781 (Alaska 2005); Bedford v. N.H. Cmty. Technical Coll. Sys., Superior Court Order, 04-E-230 (May 3, 2006)).

Private employers in Maine are neither required to offer health insurance to their employees nor to offer spousal or family coverage. However, some employers who provide such coverage may be obligated to provide insurance to same-sex partners to comply with the Maine insurance laws and/or anti-discrimination law. This area of law is complicated and you should feel free to contact GLAD for information specific to your situation.

Does Maine law forbid sexual harassment?

Yes, sexual harassment is expressly prohibited by state law.

“Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when:

  1. submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment;
  2. submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual; or
  3. such conduct has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment” (94-348 Rules of Maine Human Rights Com’n, 3.06 I (1). Available at: http://www.maine.gov/mhrc/laws/index.html).

Although the Maine Law Court has not specifically ruled on the question, it should be as unlawful to sexually harass a gay, lesbian or bisexual person as it is to harass a non-gay person. Some harassment is specifically anti-gay, and may be more fairly characterized as harassment on the basis of sexual orientation, which is discussed below. Other harassment is sexual in nature and more appropriately categorized as “sexual harassment.”  Both types of harassment can happen to the same person, and both are forbidden.

Both the United States Supreme Court and several state courts have found same-sex sexual harassment to violate sexual harassment laws. Compare Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services (9523 U.S. 75 (1998), man can sue for sexual harassment by other men under federal sexual harassment laws)) to Melnychenko v. 84 Lumber Co. (424 Mass. 285, 676 N.E.2d 45 (1997), (same-sex sexual harassment forbidden under Massachusetts state law)).

Are there any protections from sexual orientation harassment?

Yes. In September 2007, the Maine Human Rights Commission (MHRC) adopted amendments to its employment and housing rules that expressly acknowledged the existence of sexual orientation harassment (see generally 94-348 Me. Hum Rights Comm’n Reg. Ch. 3, § 3.12. Available at: http://www.maine.gov/mhrc/laws/index.html). Under these rules, unwelcome comments, jokes, acts, and other verbal or physical conduct on the basis of sexual orientation constitute harassment when:

  1. submission to this conduct is a condition of employment or a term of membership in a union;
  2. submission to or rejection of this conduct is used as a basis for a decision made by unions or employers that effect the individual;
  3. such conduct interferes or attempts to interfere with the individuals work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working or union environment (94-348 Me. Hum Rights Comm’n Reg. Ch. 3, § 3.12 (1) (a) – (c). Available at: http://www.maine.gov/mhrc/laws/index.html).

Employers or labor organizations are responsible for their actions and for those of their employees with respect to sexual orientation harassment (94-348 Me. Hum Rights Comm’n Reg. Ch. 3, § 3.12 (2). Available at: http://www.maine.gov/mhrc/laws/index.html).

How do I file a complaint of discrimination? What happens after I file?

You should contact the Maine Human Rights Commission (MHRC) at (207) 624-6050, or at State House Station #51, Augusta, ME 04333-0051, or on the web at http://www.state.me.us/mhrc/index.shtml. The Commission prefers for people to file complaints in writing. For an overview of this process refer to the MHRC regulations, available at http://www.maine.gov/mhrc/laws/index.html.

The complaint must be under oath, state the name and address of the individual making the complaint as well as the entity he or she is complaining against (called the “respondent”). The complaint must set out the particulars of the alleged unlawful acts and the times they occurred (5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 4611).

Once a complaint is timely filed, a Commissioner or investigator will seek to resolve the matter. If he or she cannot do so, the Commission will proceed with an investigation to determine if there are reasonable grounds to believe that unlawful discrimination has occurred. The Commission has extensive powers during the course of the investigation. Among other things, it can examine persons, places and documents, and require attendance at a factfinding hearing, and issue subpoenas for persons or documents.

If the Commissioner or investigator concludes:

  • there are no reasonable grounds, it will dismiss the case, and the complainant may file a new case in the Superior Court (See generally 5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 4612);
  • there are reasonable grounds, it will try to resolve the matter through settlement (5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 4612).

Once the Commission process is complete, and if settlement has failed, a person can file an action for relief in court. A person may also request a “right to sue” letter from the MHRC if there has been no court action filed and no conciliation agreement in place within 180 days of filing the complaint (5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 4612 (6)). The person may then file an action in the Superior Court (5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 4621). In some situations, the Commission may file an action in court on your behalf (See generally 5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 4612).

Do I need a lawyer?

Not necessarily. The process is designed to allow people to represent themselves. However, GLAD strongly encourages people to find a lawyer to represent them throughout the process. Not only are there many legal rules governing the MHRC process, but employers and other respondents will almost certainly have legal representation. Please call the GLAD Answers for help or for an attorney referral.

What are the deadlines for filing a complaint of discrimination?

A complaint must be filed with the MHRC within 300 days of the discriminatory act or acts (5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 4611). There are virtually no exceptions for lateness, and GLAD encourages people to move promptly in filing claims. Actions filed in Superior Court must generally be filed “not more than 2 years after the act of unlawful discrimination complained of” (5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 4613(2)(C)).

What are the legal remedies for discrimination?

This is a complicated area and depends on a variety of factors, including the type of discrimination and its intersection with federal laws.

As a general matter, the MHRC tries to resolve cases in which reasonable cause is found. It is not empowered to award emotional distress damages or attorney’s fees, but the parties may agree to whatever terms are mutually satisfactory for resolving the issue (94-348 Rules of Maine Human Rights Com’n secs. 2.07, 2.08. 2.09. Available at http://www.maine.gov/mhrc/laws/index.html).

As a general matter, if a person has filed with the MHRC, completed the process there, and later files his or her case in court, then a full range of compensatory and injunctive relief is available (5 Me. Rev. Stat. secs. 4613, 4614). If a discrimination complainant takes his or her case to court without first filing at the MHRC, then only injunctive relief is available in court, such as a cease and desist order, or an order to do training or post notices (5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 4622).

The relief ordered by a court may include: (a) hiring, reinstatement and back pay in employment cases; (b) an order to rent or sell a specified housing accommodation (or one that is substantially identical), along with damages of up to three times any excessive price demanded, and civil penal damages, to the victim in housing cases; and (c) in all cases, where the individual has exhausted the MHRC process, an order for attorney’s fees, civil penal damages, cease and desist orders, and other relief that would fulfill the purposes of the anti-discrimination laws (e.g. training programs, posting of notices).

Can I claim discrimination on a basis other than sexual orientation?

Yes, but only if you are treated differently because of a personal characteristic protected by Maine law.

The present non-discrimination laws for employment forbid taking action against someone because of race, color, sex, physical or mental disability, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, or because a person previously filed a worker’s compensation claim, as well as sexual orientation (5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 4572. 44).

 

Can I also file a complaint a discrimination complaint with a federal agency?

Yes, in many cases. Federal employment non-discrimination law, called Title VII, applies only to employers with at least 15 employees, and complaints must be filed within 180 days of the discriminatory act with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). But if you initially institute your complaint with MHRC and indicate that you wish to have the complaint cross-filed with the EEOC, then the time limit is extended to the earlier of 300 days or 30 days after MHRC has terminated the case (United States Code 42 sec. 2000e-5(e)(1)). (People who work for federal agencies are beyond the scope of this publication.)

Someone who brings a claim of discrimination may sometimes pursue protections under both state and federal law. This is true because there may be overlapping provisions of state and federal law. For example, Title VII forbids employment discrimination based on race, sex, age, religion and disability (which includes HIV status), but does not expressly forbid discrimination based on “sexual orientation” or “gender identity.”

Because a growing number of courts and government agencies have recognized that the root of sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination is sex discrimination, the federal EEOC has recently indicated that it will accept both “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” discrimination complaints in order to investigate whether the complainant may have experienced prohibited “sex” discrimination. For more information go to: http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/upload/GenderStereotyping-LGBT-brochure-OLC.pdf.

GLAD recommends that, where there may be overlapping state and federal jurisdiction, you explore filing with MHRC first but keep in mind the possibility of pursuing a federal claim as well. If you have a sexual orientation or gender identity complaint, you should check off “sex” as well as “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” as the bases for your claim and request that MHRC cross-file your complaint with the EEOC.

Are there other options for filing a complaint for discrimination?

Possibly yes, depending on the facts of your particular situation.

  1. Union: If you are a member of a union, your contract (collective bargaining agreement) may provide additional rights to you in the event of discipline, discharge or other job-related actions. In fact, if you obtain relief under your contract, you may decide not to pursue other remedies. Get and read a copy of your contract and contact a union steward about filing a grievance. Deadlines in contracts are strict. Bear in mind that if your union refuses to assist you with a complaint, you may have a discrimination action against it for its failure to work with you, or for failure of duty of fair representation.
  2. State or Federal Court: After filing with the MHRC or EEOC, a person may decide to remove his or her discrimination case from those agencies and file in court. There are rules about when and how this must be done.

In addition, a person may file a court case to address other claims that are not appropriately handled by discrimination agencies. For example:

  • If a person is fired in violation of a contract, or fired without the progressive discipline promised in a handbook, or fired for doing something the employer doesn’t like but which the law requires, then these matters are beyond the scope of what the agencies can investigate and the matter can be pursued in court.
  • If a person has a claim for a violation of constitutional rights, such as a teacher or other governmental employee who believes his or her free speech or equal protection rights were violated, then those matters must be heard in court.

What can I do if my employer fires me for filing a complaint of discrimination?

It is illegal to retaliate in these circumstances, and the employee could file an additional complaint against the employer for retaliation. “Retaliation” protections cover those who participate in MHRC proceedings or otherwise oppose unlawful conduct, whether as a complainant or as a witness. If the employer takes action against an employee because of that conduct, then the employee can state a claim of retaliation (5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 4572 (1)(E). See also Provencher v. CVS Pharmacy, 76 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. (BNA) 1569 (1st Cir.(N.H.) 1998) (upholding federal retaliation claim of gay man)).

What can I do to prepare myself before filing a complaint of discrimination?

In evaluating your potential claims, you have the right to request a complete copy of your personnel file at any time (5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 7071 (Employee right to request personnel file)). Personnel files are the official record of your employment and are an invaluable source of information (5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 7070 (Definition of personnel record)).

Whether you leave a job voluntarily or not, be cautious about signing any documents admitting to wrongdoing, or that waive your legal rights, or that are a supposed summary of what you said in an exit interview. Sometimes employees are upset or scared at the time they are terminating employment, but the documents will likely be enforceable against you later. Please be cautious.

As a general matter, people who are still working under discriminatory conditions have to evaluate how filing a case will affect their job or housing, and if they are willing to assume those possible consequences. Of course, even if a person has been fired, he or she may decide it is not worth it to pursue a discrimination claim. This is an individual choice which should be made after gathering enough information and advice to make an informed decision.

Some people prefer to meet with an attorney to evaluate the strength of their claims before filing a case. It is always helpful if you bring to your attorney an outline or diary of what happened on the job that you are complaining about. It is best if the information is organized by date and explains who the various players are (and how to get in touch with them), as well as what happened, who said what, and who was present for any important conversations or incidents. Try to obtain and bring copies of your employee handbooks or personnel manuals, any contracts, job evaluations, memos, discharge letters and the like.