ANNAPOLIS – In a case that could affect small businesses statewide, the Maryland Court of Appeals said Tuesday that employees of such firms can sue for discrimination even though they’re not covered under the state’s anti-discrimination law.
Friendship resident Linda Molesworth sued her former employer, Ellicott City veterinarian Randall Brandon, claiming that he declined to renew her contract in 1990 because of her sex.
In 1993, an Anne Arundel County jury ruled in Molesworth’s favor.
On appeal, Brandon argued that Molesworth should not have been able to file suit on sex discrimination grounds, since neither the state nor the federal governments will investigate a complaint from someone at a firm with fewer than 15 employees.
The Court of Special Appeals ruled otherwise, however, and on Tuesday, the state’s highest court concurred.
Any other interpretation “flies in the face” of a U.S. District Court decision in another Maryland case, Chief Judge Robert Murphy wrote on behalf of a unanimous Court of Appeals. In interpreting the state’s anti-discrimination law, the federal court had said the General Assembly did not intend “to grant small businesses in Maryland a license to discriminate.”
E. Alexander Adams, Brandon’s attorney, said the court’s decision will have an “adverse effect” on the state’s business climate.
“What you’ve done now, is you’ve made all protected class members `chief of the union,’ because they have rights that other employees don’t,” he said.
Adams also pointed out that “a suit like this can be potentially bankrupting to a small employer.”
Jay Fries, an attorney for the Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business, said that unlike the state or federal governments, juries can award punitive damages and damages for pain and suffering. Fries called the court’s decision “unfortunate and unfair.”
But a lawyer for the Human Relations Commission, which prosecutes cases of employment discrimination, said the benefit of the right to a jury trial can be overstated.
“It’s not that simple, of walking into an attorney’s office and getting them to take a case,” said Glendora Hughes, the commission’s chief counsel.
Alan Legum, Molesworth’s attorney, said the jury trial advantage, if any, is small.
“This is an avenue of last resort, not some bonus that people were given because they happen to work for small employers,” he said.
The other issue on appeal was whether judges should tell a jury to assume that if the same person did both the hiring and firing, he or she didn’t discriminate.
Hughes said this “would put an almost impossible burden on the complaining party to prove there was discriminatory intent.”
The Court of Appeals agreed, reversing the Court of Special Appeals’ ruling that Anne Arundel Circuit Judge H. Chester Goudy erred when he refused to make such an instruction to the jury.
The high court returned the case to intermediate court, telling it to affirm the original jury award of $39,000 to Molesworth.
Molesworth, who specializes in caring for horses, said she had to start her own business after she was let go, because “there were no jobs at that time in Maryland.” She now practices in Anne Arundel, Calvert and Prince George’s counties.
Brandon called the court’s decision “amazing, totally unbelievable.”
Molesworth’s firing “had nothing to do with her sex, her age, her color, it was just a business decision,” he said in an interview.
He added that seven horse trainers, including four women, complained at the trial about Molesworth’s performance. “I disagree with the decision entirely, but it’s their decision, not mine,” he said. -30-