Small firms held to sex bias firing law Court says those hiring fewer than 15 can be sued, too, raising fears

March 09, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Dr. Linda Molesworth had one question on the day six years ago that she was fired from her job treating thoroughbreds at the Laurel and Bowie racetracks. Was she being terminated, she asked, because she was a woman?

Her boss responded with a barely perceptible nod of acknowledgment, she later told an Anne Arundel County jury.

The 32-year-old veterinarian won a $32,000 verdict and touched off a legal challenge that ended this week with a decision by the state's highest court that experts say effectively has rewritten Maryland's employment discrimination law.

The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that workers at businesses with fewer than 15 employees have the same right to sue as those employed by larger companies if they are fired solely on the basis of their gender.

Legal experts say the decision opens the courthouse door to an estimated 420,000 Maryland employees -- roughly one-fifth of the state's work force -- who work for small businesses. The ruling, they say, guarantees the same civil rights to a segment of the work force left unprotected by state statutes.

"What this case means is that as workers go from big companies to small companies, they now have the same rights," said Andrew D. Freeman, a labor lawyer.

The decision was sharply criticized by representatives of Maryland's business community, who say it will add to the number of frivolous suits in the courts and hit merchants with litigation by disgruntled, former employees.

"We're just astounded by this," said W. Miles Cole, director of business affairs for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, which filed memos with the Court of Appeals arguing that the General Assembly meant to exempt small businesses from such litigation.

In Maryland, complaints against employers must be filed with either the state Human Relations Commission or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but, until last week, neither could accept complaints about businesses with fewer than 15 workers.

Glendora C. Hughes, general counsel for the Human Relations Commission, said 150 to 200 inquiries were rejected each year for that reason.

The Court of Appeals said the loophole that prevented the commission from acting was not meant to encourage small firms to violate the laws.

"The General Assembly did not intend to permit small employers discriminate against their employees, but rather intended to promote a policy of ending sex discrimination statewide," Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy wrote in a unanimous, 29-page decision.

James P. Goeden, director of governmental relations for the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents small businesses, said his group may seek some type of legislation in the General Assembly this year to reverse the effect of the decision.

Mr. Goeden acknowledged it will be a difficult task, given that Maryland's legislative session ends in a month.

Kathleen M. Cahill, chairwoman of the Maryland Employment Lawyers Association, dismissed fears of increased lawsuits, pointing out that the ruling only affects dismissals. "I don't think it's going to open up any floodgate of litigants," she said.

Ms. Hughes agreed, noting that many people who have just been fired cannot afford a lawyer and are more concerned about making ends meet.

"Most people in that position are likely to be more concerned about finding another job," Ms. Hughes said.

HTC For Dr. Molesworth, her income dropped from $35,000 in 1990, the year she was fired, to $22,000 in 1991.

She said she struggled to start her veterinary practice, Bay Equine Service, working out of her truck and her Friendship home.

"It was difficult. I'd spend 12, 14 hours a day, just driving around looking for horses," she said last week.

Dr. Randall Brandon, the Ellicott City veterinarian who hired and fired her, said he did not terminate her because of her sex but because he was losing business at the two racetracks.

He said he had hired several women before Dr. Molesworth and several since.

"It was just a business decision," he said.

Pub Date: 3/09/96

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