What is a place of public accommodation?

A place of public accommodation means a facility operated by a private or public entity whose operations fall into categories such as lodging, restaurants, entertainment, public gathering, retail stores, service establishments, transportation, museums, libraries, recreation facilities, exercise or health facilities, schools and educational institutions, social service establishments, or government buildings. Generally, any establishment that caters to, or offers its goods, facilities or services to, or solicits or accepts patronage from the general public is a place of public accommodation (5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 4553 (8) (definition of “public accommodation”)).

Does Maine have an anti-discrimination law protecting LGBTQ+ individuals from discrimination in places of public accommodation?

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 LGBTQ+ 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 In May 1997, Maine approved an anti-discrimination law based on sexual orientation, but this law was repealed in a special election in February 1998.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 LGBTQ+ in places of public accommodation?

Yes. The non-discrimination law specifically covers people who are perceived to be LGBTQ+.

What does the law say about discrimination in places of public accommodation?

The law makes it illegal for places of public accommodation to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or “… in any manner withhold from or deny the full and equal enjoyment … of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, services or privileges of public accommodation.”  The law also makes it illegal to advertise that any place of public accommodation is restricted to people of a particular sexual orientation (5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 4592 (1)).

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

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 their 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 their 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.

In public accommodations, it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex, physical or mental disability, religion, ancestry or national origin, as well as sexual orientation (5 Me. Rev. Stat. sec. 4553 (8) (definition), 4592 (prohibition)).

Are there other options for filing a complaint for discrimination?

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

State or Federal Court: After filing with the MHRC or EEOC, a person may decide to remove their 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 their free speech or equal protection rights were violated, then those matters must be heard in court.

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. 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.