The state’s high court broke new legal ground Tuesday, ruling that a retired State Police lieutenant who is Chinese-American may have been discriminated against when seven white men were transferred to Troop F, one of the most lucrative assignments in the department — but he was not.
In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court for the first time held that the state’s workplace discrimination law covers management decisions to move employees laterally within a company or government agency.
“We hold that where there are material differences between two positions in the opportunity to earn compensation, or in the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, the failure to grant a lateral transfer to the preferred position may constitute an adverse employment action,’’ Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants wrote.
The decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed by then-Lieutenant Warren Yee, who asked to be sent to Troop F, which is based at Logan International Airport, each year between 2008 and 2012, but was denied each time. Yee, who retired after his last request was denied, wanted the change to earn more overtime and more money from details, according to court records.
Instead, State Police commanders installed seven white men as lieutenants at Troop F, five of whom were younger than Yee, who began his law enforcement career in 1980 with the Metropolitan District Commission police force, which merged with the State Police in 1992. He has held the rank of lieutenant since 1998.
One of the men, Shawn Lydon, was assigned to Troop F even though he did not request it, according to the ruling, and earned $30,000 more annually than he did at Troop H in Boston. The court ruled that increase showed that an assignment to Troop F represented a substantial benefit. The Globe reported that the 140 members of Troop F collected $9.5 million in overtime in 2017 alone.
Yee’s lawyer, Jonathan J. Margolis, said that he had not had a chance to discuss the legal victory with his client, but that they were pleased by the outcome.
State Police spokesman David Procopio said in an e-mail the agency looks forward to “presenting evidence that will make clear that personnel transfers are based solely on applicants’ ability to meet the qualifications required for open positions.” Yee was determined by Troop F commanders “to not satisfy the requirements” of the lieutenant’s position, he added.
The court also ruled that Yee and the State Police must face each other in court again if Yee renews his accusation that he was discriminated against based on his race, national origin, or age. The SJC said that Yee has already cleared the first of three stages required under Massachusetts law to prove illegal workplace discrimination.
At the next stage, State Police will have to defend its refusal to transfer Yee, the court said. “Even if the reasons given are arguably suspect, so long as the State Police has produced a lawful reason backed by some credible evidence, it has satisfied this burden,” Gants wrote.
The burden of proof then shifts to Yee, who must generate evidence “sufficient to convince a reasonable jury that the reasons the State Police offered for transferring Lydon instead of him were not the real reasons, thereby inviting the inference that discrimination was the motivating reason,’’ he held.
The SJC ruling comes after a 17-member commission issued a report on ways to improve diversity and equity at the State Police, where eight in 10 troopers are white men and no minorities hold high-ranking jobs.
John R. Ellement can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.