419 Mass. 356 (1995), Tate v. Department of Mental Health

Citation:419 Mass. 356, 645 N.E.2d 1159
Party Name:Barbara TATE v. DEPARTMENT OF MENTAL HEALTH & others. [ 1]
Case Date:January 24, 1995
Court:Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

Page 356

419 Mass. 356 (1995)

645 N.E.2d 1159

Barbara TATE



Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk.

January 24, 1995

       Submitted Oct. 3, 1994.

        [645 N.E.2d 1161] Paul H. Merry, Boston, for the plaintiff.

       Catherine C. Ziehl, Asst. Atty. Gen., for Dept. of Mental Health & another.

       Kay H. Hodge, Boston, for North Suffolk Mental Health Ass'n, Inc.

       Before LIACOS, C.J., and WILKINS, NOLAN, LYNCH and GREANEY, JJ.

Page 357

        LYNCH, Justice.

       The plaintiff brought an action alleging handicap discrimination and retaliatory discharge pursuant to § 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794 (1982 & Supp. IV 1986); the Massachusetts employment discrimination statute, G.L. c. 151B (1992 ed.); the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, G.L. c. 12, § 11I (1992 ed.); and art. 114 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution. The allowance of summary judgments in favor of the Department of Mental Health (department), the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (commission), and North Suffolk Mental Health Association, Inc. (Association), is the basis for the plaintiff's appeal. We transferred the case here on our own motion. We affirm.

       The following facts are undisputed for the purpose of summary judgment. The plaintiff, who has been deaf since birth, is a licensed independent clinical social worker. From 1979 until March of 1985, she was employed by the Vinfen Corporation (Vinfen) as a social worker and eventually as the program director of the deaf outpatient mental health services program (program). Vinfen is a private company which operated this clinical program under a contract with the department. In early 1985, Vinfen terminated the contract prior to its expiration. The department then approached the Association and requested that it assume Vinfen's role of operating the program. On March 27, 1985, the department executed a contract with the Association to provide clinical services to deaf and hearing-impaired clients through the Association's Freedom Trail Clinic (clinic).

       In March, 1985, the Association offered the plaintiff the position of social work supervisor. Her responsibilities would include hiring and supervising a sign-language interpreter

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and a social worker for deaf clients, and providing direct clinical services for these clients. In this position, the plaintiff was under the supervision of the clinic unit chief, Dr. Robert Abernethy, III. Before she accepted this position, the plaintiff had several discussions with James Cassetta, the assistant executive director (director) of the Association, concerning her dissatisfaction with her job description and her lines of supervision. The plaintiff submitted her own proposed job description to the director. He told the plaintiff that her "proposal was unacceptable and that the Association would not hire her unless she accepted its job description and lines of supervision." Additionally, as an employee of the Association, the plaintiff would be required to submit to all of the Association's policies and procedures. She agreed to these provisions and accepted the position. She commenced work on April 9, 1985.

       On April 16, 1985, the plaintiff sent a memorandum to the director expressing her concerns about the clinic's administrative structure, policies, and procedure. In addition, she asked to renegotiate her job title. The plaintiff's complaints concerning the structure and policies of the program continued over the next several weeks.

       During June and July the plaintiff made additional complaints to the director. She insisted on changing her title to "program director" and refused to recognize the unit chief as her supervisor.

       On July 31, 1985, the director sent a memorandum to the plaintiff addressing these issues, which the plaintiff had been raising since the beginning of her employment. The director stated that these administrative policies and the clinic's services would not be altered until after the program had been in operation for six months. The director strongly urged the plaintiff to postpone discussion about these organizational issues and [645 N.E.2d 1162] to focus on her responsibilities of the recruitment of staff and delivery of services to the clients.

       In the beginning of August, the plaintiff sent a memorandum, to Barbara Ferguson, the clinic's administrative coordinator. In this memorandum she directed the administrative

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coordinator to "suspend" her duty to supervise the secretary's work at the clinic. She further stated that the secretary was to work exclusively for the program. In addition, on August 14, 1985, the plaintiff sent another memorandum to the director stating that the administrative coordinator did not have the authority to supervise or to delegate work to any member of the deaf services staff, including the secretary. The plaintiff further argued that keeping the original staffing pattern, which dated back to the prior contractor, Vinfen, served the original intent of the program.

       On August 30, 1985, the unit chief sent a memorandum to the plaintiff concerning her persistent resistance to the Association's authority and structure. In this memorandum, the unit chief stated that the plaintiff would be terminated if she did not explicitly agree to accept the Association's managerial prerogatives. Specifically, the memorandum warned the plaintiff that she must "accept the fact that the Association, not you personally, has the right to manage the [p]rogram.... Your response on the secretarial issue reveals either an unwillingness or an inability to meet these obligations." The unit chief requested that she sign the memorandum to signify her understanding of her obligations. The plaintiff refused to sign the memorandum after receiving advice from the Massachusetts State Association for the Deaf.

       On September 18, 1985, the Association sent a letter to the plaintiff terminating her employment, effective October 18, 1985. After receiving this letter, the plaintiff informed the unit chief, "You can't fire me," and stated that she would not terminate her relationships with her clients. In light of the plaintiff's response, on September 19, 1985, the Association made the plaintiff's termination effective immediately.

       After her dismissal, the plaintiff filed complaints with the Massachusetts Commission...

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