Welcome to The Garden State: NJ’s Law Against Discrimination Grows to Protect Non-Resident Employees

A New Jersey appellate court recently held that a non-resident employee who telecommuted to her New Jersey employer from her home in Massachusetts may be covered by the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD).

Facts

The employer, Legal Cost Control, Inc. (LCC), was a corporation located in Haddonfield, New Jersey.  The employee, Susan Trevejo, lived in Massachusetts, paid property taxes in Massachusetts, and held a Massachusetts driver’s license.  She never lived in New Jersey, and she never worked in LCC’s New Jersey office.  Trevejo received health insurance benefits from LCC’s insurance provider, Amerihealth New Jersey, but the plan did not condition coverage on New Jersey residency.  Trevejo’s sole connection to New Jersey was using a company-issued computer to remotely connect to LCC’s network and a company-issued phone to engage in conference calls.  After twelve years with the company, LCC terminated Trevejo’s employment.  In turn, she filed a lawsuit alleging age discrimination in violation of the NJLAD.

Lower Court’s Decision

LCC moved to dismiss the case, arguing that Trevejo was not an “inhabitant” of New Jersey, and thus, could not pursue a claim under NJLAD.  The trial court allowed for limited discovery over whether Trevejo was an “inhabitant” of New Jersey; the parties were barred from engaging in discovery over Trevejo’s other connections to the state.  The trial court ultimately dismissed the case, finding that Trevejo was not an “inhabitant” of New Jersey covered by NJLAD.

Appellate Court’s Decision

Trevejo appealed, arguing that the trial court overly restricted discovery and that she needed to engage in discovery regarding the nature and substance of her daily “virtual” connection to LCC’s New Jersey office.  The Appellate Division agreed, reversing the trial court’s decision and sending the case back to the trial court for more discovery.

In deciding that NJLAD’s coverage is not limited to inhabitants of New Jersey, the Appellate Division relied on the text of NJLAD itself.  The statute expressly prohibits discrimination against “any individual” and repeatedly uses the term “person” to identify who is protected from discrimination.  The term “person” is used throughout the statute, whereas the word “inhabitant” appears only in the legislation’s preamble.  Accordingly, the court concluded that NJLAD’s coverage is not limited to inhabitants of New Jersey.  This was, as the Appellate Division reasoned, consistent with the overarching goal and strong public policy behind NJLAD, to eradicate discrimination from the workplace entirely.  The trial court’s restricting discovery to whether Trevejo was a New Jersey inhabitant could not be reconciled with that principle.

Rather than Trevejo’s place of residency, the Appellate Division directed that discovery focus on where the discriminatory conduct took place and whether Trevejo was employed in New Jersey or Massachusetts.  The scope of discovery should extend to:

  • Where plaintiff’s co-employees worked;
  • Whether those co-employees worked from home;
  • The nature of the software used by plaintiff and other LCC employees to conduct business on behalf of LCC;
  • The location of the server used to connect plaintiff and other employees to LCC’s office in New Jersey;
  • The location of the internet service provider allowing plaintiff and other employees to connect to LCC’s office in New Jersey;
  • The individual or individuals who made the decision to terminate plaintiff and the basis for the decision; and
  • Any other issues relevant to plaintiff’s contacts with New Jersey and her work for LLC that may demonstrate her entitlement to protection under the NJLAD.

Facts Matter

The New Jersey Appellate Division has consistently applied this type of fact-sensitive approach to deciding whether non-resident telecommuters are covered by New Jersey laws, even outside the discrimination context.  But this fact-sensitive approach often produces seemingly inconsistent results.  For example, in one case, an employee who telecommuted to her New Jersey employer from her home in North Carolina was denied New Jersey unemployment benefits based on a finding that she performed all of her work in North Carolina.  This seems to contradict the holding in Trevejo’s case, where the court was unconvinced by the fact that Trevejo performed all of her work in Massachusetts.  As if you were not already confused enough by the muddle of laws and regulations governing the workplace, this case illustrates the importance of facts, rather than bright line rules, in making decisions about your employees.

Bottom Line

Beware that all of your employees, regardless of where they perform their work, may be entitled to claim protection from discrimination under NJLAD.  The issue will come down to a factual inquiry over whether they have sufficient contacts with the state.  Be mindful that NJLAD is one of the most employee-protective state anti-discrimination statutes in the country.  In light of that fact, and the absence of any bright line rule regarding NJLAD’s applicability to out-of-state employees, you may want to consider executing, where available by law, a written agreement with your non-resident telecommuters delineating which state’s law applies in the event of a legal dispute (“choice of law” clause), and in which court those disputes are to be filed (“forum selection” clause).

For more information about the potential impacts of this ruling or what steps your company can take to effectively prevent and address complaints of discrimination, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.

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