Discrimination settlement can violate union agreement

The MBTA offered a job to a man who wears a hearing aid, conditioned on his ability to pass a physical examination.

During the exam, he wasn’t allowed to wear his hearing aid, and he flunked.

The man sued, claiming he was discriminated against because of his disability. Five years later, the MBTA settled the case by hiring the man and giving him five years of retroactive seniority.

However, the union objected. It said the MBTA violated its collective bargaining agreement by giving five years of seniority to someone who hadn’t worked there for five years. This would mean that the newly-hired man would have more seniority than a fellow employee who had put in four years of service.

Who was right? The state Supreme Judicial Court sided with the MBTA. It said retroactive seniority is a standard remedy in discrimination cases, and the public policy behind the discrimination laws trumps the public policy behind the collective bargaining laws.

Interestingly, although the MBTA agreed to settle the case, it never admitted that it violated the discrimination laws, but the court said that didn’t matter in this case.