What is a “place of public accommodation”?

A place that holds itself open to, and accepts the patronage of the general public is a place of public accommodation subject to Massachusetts non-discrimination laws (Mass. Gen. Laws, chap. 272, sec. 92A). This definition is intentionally broad and may include a motel, restaurant, rest area, highway or hospital, as just a few examples.

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

Such places may not discriminate, or make any distinctions, or impose any restrictions because of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. “[W]hoever aides or incites” such discriminatory treatment may also be penalized under the law (Mass. Gen. Laws, chap. 272, sec. 98).

Example: women, who were attacked by a used car dealer when he realized they were lesbians, stated a claim under the law and were awarded damages in a settlement.

Example: two women who kissed on a bus and were then forced off of the bus by the driver were protected by the law because the driver did not order off of the bus a heterosexual couple who were kissing were awarded damages (Rome v. Transit Express, 19 Mass. Discrim. Law Rptr. (M.D.L.R.) 159 (1997), affirmed, 22 M.D.L.R. 88 (2000)).

Example: couples who were forcibly ejected from a night club because customers were uncomfortable with their being physically affectionate were awarded damages (Stoll et al. v. State Street Stock Exchange, Inc., 18 M.D.L.R. 141 (1996)).

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

Yes. Since 1990, Massachusetts has prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in public and private employment, housing, public accommodations, credit, and services (see generally Mass. Gen. Laws, chap. 151B). Other areas of the law (e.g. education and insurance) also prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Do the laws also protect people perceived to be LGBTQ+ in places of public accommodation?

Yes. Massachusetts non-discrimination law defines “sexual orientation” as “having an orientation for or being identified as having an orientation for heterosexuality, bisexuality or homosexuality” (Mass. Gen. Laws, chap. 151B, sec. 3(6)). This language has been interpreted to include discrimination based on perception. For example, if a person is fired because they are perceived to be gay, they may invoke the protection of the anti-discrimination law regardless of their actual orientation.

Similarly, the law defines “gender identity” as:

[A] person’s gender-related identity, appearance or behavior, whether or not that gender-related identity, appearance or behavior is different from that traditionally associated with the person’s physiology or assigned sex at birth… (Mass. Gen. Laws, chap. 4, sec. 7(59) (emphasis added)).

What protections exist for transgender people in places of public accommodation?

In 2016, Massachusetts passed the transgender public accommodations law, making gender identity an explicitly protected class. This means that transgender people are protected against discrimination in public accommodations, and may file a complaint against any person or entity perpetuating said discrimination.

How do I file a complaint of discrimination under Massachusetts law?

You may file in person or in writing at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). The MCAD prefers for people to file in person, unless an attorney has prepared the complaint for them. Call in advance to set up an appointment and find out what you need to bring.

Boston: (617) 994-6000, One Ashburton Place, Room 601.

Springfield: (413) 739-2145.

Worcester: (508) 799-8010.

The complaint must be under oath, state the name and address of the individual making the complaint (“the complainant’) as well as the name and address of the entity he or she is complaining against (“the respondent”). The complaint must set out the particulars of the alleged unlawful acts and (preferably) the times they occurred.

Do I need a lawyer?

No. The process is designed to allow people to represent themselves. However, GLAD strongly encourages people to find lawyers to represent them throughout the process. Not only are there many legal rules governing the MCAD process, but employers and other defendants are likely to have legal representation.

What are the deadlines for filing a complaint of discrimination?

Complaints of discrimination must be filed at the MCAD within 300 days of the last discriminatory act or acts. There are very few exceptions for lateness, and GLAD encourages people to move promptly in filing claims.

What happens after a complaint is filed with the MCAD?

The MCAD assigns an investigator to look into your case. The parties may engage in limited “discovery” – a legal process which allows the other side to examine the basis of your claim and allows you to examine their justifications and defenses. This is conducted through written questions (interrogatories), requests for documents, and depositions. Ultimately, if the case is not dismissed for technical reasons, a Commissioner will decide if there is probable cause to credit your allegations.

If probable cause is found in an employment, credit, services, or public accommodations case, the case will be sent for “conciliation” or settlement proceedings. If negotiations fail to produce a settlement agreeable to all parties, the case proceeds further with more discovery and possibly a trial type hearing.

Even before probable cause is determined in a housing case, the MCAD may go to court to seek an order forbidding the respondent from selling, renting, or otherwise disposing of the property at issue while the case is pending. Once probable cause is found, the respondent must be notified of its right to have its case heard in court rather than at the MCAD (33 Mass. Gen. Laws, chap. 151B, sec. 5).

If probable cause is found lacking, the case is over unless you appeal the “lack of probable cause” finding. There are special rules and
time constraints on appeals within the MCAD that must be observed strictly.

What are the legal remedies the MCAD may award for discrimination if an individual wins their case there?

The remedies for a successful complainant may include, for employment cases, hiring, reinstatement or upgrading, backpay, restoration in a labor organization, and front pay. In housing cases, remedies may include damages (expenses actually incurred because of unlawful action related to moving, storage, or obtaining alternate housing) and civil fines to be paid to the state. In public accommodations cases, the MCAD may order civil fines to be paid to the state. In all cases, the remedies may also include emotional distress damages, attorneys’ fees, cease and desist orders, and other relief that would fulfill the purposes of the anti-discrimination laws (e.g. training programs, posting of notices, allowing person to apply for credit on nondiscriminatory terms, allowing person non-discriminatory access to and use of services).

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 to employers with at least 15 employees. Complaints must be filed within 180 days of the discriminatory act with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). However, if you initially institute your complaint with MCAD 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 MCAD 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.”

Recently, however, a growing number of courts and government agencies have taken the position that Title VII’s proscription against sex discrimination encompasses discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity (See, e.g., United States & Dr. Rachel Tudor v. Southeastern Oklahoma State University, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89547 (2015) (denying motion to dismiss professor’s Title VII complaint that school had subjected her to a hostile work environment based on her gender identity)). In two separate decisions in 2012 and 2016, the EEOC itself concluded that sexual orientation discrimination, gender identity discrimination, and sex discrimination are one and the same, since the latter two are based on preferences, assumptions, expectations, stereotypes, and norms associated with masculinity and femininity (See Macy v. Holder, EEOC Appeal No. 0120120821 (Apr. 20, 2012); Baldwin v. Foxx, EEOC Appeal No. 0120133080 (July 15, 2015)). Although the EEOC’s decisions are not binding on the courts, many have used similar reasoning in affirming Title VII’s applicability to discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation (See, e.g., Smith v. City of Salem, 378 F.3d 566 (6th Cir. 2004) (holding that Title VII prohibits discrimination against transgender people based on gender stereotyping); Videckis v. Pepperdine Univ., 150 F. Supp. 3d 1151, 1160 (C.D. Cal. 2015) (holding “sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex or gender discrimination”)).

GLAD recommends that, where there may be overlapping state and federal jurisdiction, you explore filing with MCAD 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 MCAD 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. Local Agencies: Several cities and towns have their own local non-discrimination laws and agencies with which you can file a complaint in addition to filing at the MCAD. Sometimes the MCAD allows the local agency to investigate the case instead of the MCAD, which might produce advantages in time and accessibility of staff. Cambridge and Boston have the most developed local agencies, although Newton, Somerville, Worcester and Springfield also have some staff for certain kinds of complaints. Even if you file with the local agency, you must still file with the MCAD within 300 days of the last act of discrimination in order for your case to be processed at all.
  2. State or Federal Court: After filing with the MCAD or EEOC, or both, as discussed above, a person may decide to remove their discrimination case from those agencies and file the case in court. There are rules about when and how this must be done (See e.g., Mass. Gen. Laws, chap. 151B, sec. 9).

In addition, you may wish to file a court case to address other claims which cannot be appropriately handled by discrimination agencies. For example, if you are 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, these matters are beyond the scope of what the agencies can investigate and instead the matter should be pursued in court. Similarly, if your claim involves a violation of constitutional rights—for instance, if you are a teacher or governmental employee who believes your free speech or equal protection rights were violated—then those matters must also be heard in court.

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

As a general matter, people who are still working with or residing under discriminatory conditions have to evaluate how filing a case will affect their job or housing, and if they will be able to handle those possible consequences. Of course, even if a person has been fired or evicted, they 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 to bring the attorney an outline of what happened, organized by date and with an explanation of who the various players are (and how to get in touch with them).