How It Works

When an individual files a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) that case is given to a field representative in one of the agency's regional offices. The representative conducts an investigation, interviewing those involved and trying to ascertain what actually happened, and reports to one of three commissioners.

The three commissioners are chosen by the governor for three-year stints, and appointments are staggered so there is a new commissioner each May. Although commissioners are traditionally former attorneys, they sometimes come from different backgrounds. In fact, the current chairman of the commission is a social worker.

The commissioner in charge of an investigation reviews the findings of the field officer and then makes a decision known as a cause determination. The commissioner considers if the case lies within MCAD's bounds and if preliminary evidence warrants a charge of discrimination, and decides whether there is "probable cause." But, says MCAD Deputy Director for Administration Terrence P. Morris, "A cause finding doesn't mean that a violation has occurred."

If the commission does not find probable cause, the complainant can appeal. And often, a case will reach a settlement before such a determination.

Under a program called the Early Resolution Process, a fact-finding conference is scheduled by MCAD within a week after the filing. MCAD documents say the agency often uses this technique in cases "where the act complained of may be unfair rather than illegal."

Once probable cause has been established, a case goes through a layer of legal review, after which MCAD seeks conciliation to "secure your rights and to eliminate any unlawful discrimination." And if things still do not work out, the agency holds a public hearing on the case, at which both parties are represented by lawyers.

The hearing functions like the proceedings of most lower courts. A commissioner acts as a judge at the hearing and can issue a "cease and desist" order and award money to the complainant.

This decision can be appealed to the full commission. If the complainant is still not satisfied, he or she can file a civil suit. And the respondent--the group or person against whom the complaint has been filed--can appeal to the courts if it finds MCAD's decision unfair. But legal experts say that the courts rarely overturn a decision.