A federal judge has ruled that a former office manager can move forward with his lawsuit alleging that the university he worked at unlawfully refused to rehire him in retaliation for his complaints of wage violations and age discrimination.
The case tests the boundaries of retaliation law and highlights the limits of confidentiality in settlement talks.
Thomas Cafarella worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for over 14 years before his position was abruptly eliminated in early 2022, according to court records. The next month, MIT posted an opening similar to Cafarella’s old job. Later, he learned of another matching vacancy that MIT filled without posting it publicly per its usual protocol.
Shortly after his termination, Cafarella filed a Wage Act complaint over unpaid wages. But after learning of the newly posted position, he withdrew his Wage Act claim and notified MIT he believed he had been terminated due to age discrimination.
During subsequent discussions, Cafarella and MIT discussed the new position. At that point Cafarella was told he was likely not suited for the role. Settlement talks fell apart after MIT insisted on a provision that would have barred Cafarella from seeking reemployment with the school and Cafarella refused to sign an agreement with that condition.
In 2023, Cafarella sued MIT for retaliation under state and federal law. He argues the school declined to rehire him because he filed a wage claim and accused them of age bias when he was terminated. MIT moved to dismiss the retaliation claims, insisting Cafarella couldn’t prove retaliation because he never actually applied for the open positions.
But U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani denied the motion, finding Cafarella’s allegations sufficient to establish a retaliation claim even absent a formal job application. She noted that courts have recognized exceptions to the general application requirement when seeking a job would be obviously pointless.
Here, Cafarella claimed MIT indicated he would not be considered for rehire, rendering an application unnecessary to proceed with his lawsuit.
The court also denied MIT’s attempt to strike paragraphs in Cafarella’s complaint referencing confidential settlement talks between the parties and the non-rehire stipulation. Though settlement communications are typically inadmissible, the judge found MIT’s alleged statements discouraging Cafarella’s reemployment could help prove unlawful retaliation.
Warning to employers
Employment attorneys say the decision highlights growing acceptance of failure-to-hire retaliation claims without a rejected job application.
It also serves as a warning to employers to carefully guard statements made during settlement discussions, which aren’t immune from scrutiny if they point to separate misconduct.
Also in question is whether it is wise for employers to request the non-rehire terms that are common in settlement agreements and severance packages.
With his retaliation claims intact, Cafarella’s suit against MIT can now move to discovery and further litigation. The university maintains that it did nothing wrong by eliminating his position and choosing not to rehire him subsequently.
But the court’s ruling keeps alive Cafarella’s allegations that MIT improperly blacklisted him for asserting his workplace rights.
The case puts all employers on notice to think twice before taking adverse action against vocal employees. It also reinforces the power of retaliation lawsuits to challenge perceived blacklisting, even without tangible proof like a denied job application. Both sides still have many legal and factual arguments left to make. But thus far, MIT’s effort to dismiss the case outright has failed.