Fourth and Ninth Circuits Sink Trump Travel Ban as Prelude to High Court Review

In the most recent judicial setbacks to President Trump’s Executive Order earlier this year suspending the U.S. entry of aliens from six Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen), reducing the number of refugees allowed entry in 2017 to 50,000, indefinitely and then temporarily barring the admission of Syrian refugees, and suspending the Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, on May 25 the Fourth Circuit en banc enjoined nationally enforcement of the Executive Order. Although the Justice Department argued that the Order’s primary purpose is advancing national security, the court, with three of the 14 judges dissenting, remained unconvinced that the travel ban had “more to do with national security than it does with effectuating the President’s promised Muslim ban.” The Fourth Circuit found that the Order “speaks with vague words of national security, but in context drips with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination.” The opinion referenced statements that President Trump made in 2016 while on the campaign trail, which the court found supported its finding that the Executive Order was religiously motivated and violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. However, the court vacated the lower court’s injunction to the extent it enjoined the President. International Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump.

On June 12 the Ninth Circuit in a per curiam decision by a three-judge panel, also upheld a lower court’s nationwide injunction against enforcement of the travel ban, but on the separate grounds that the Executive Order violated U.S. immigration law. The court stated that the revised travel ban “exceeded the scope of authority delegated to [the President] by Congress.” The panel held that by broadly prohibiting entry by all persons from the listed countries, the Executive Order is too broad and ignores important factors, such as the alien’s working arrangements, family matters and access to U.S. medical care. The Ninth Circuit did not address Establishment Clause issues, as the Fourth Circuit did. Instead, its major concern was that “the order does not provide a rationale explaining why permitting entry of nationals from the six designated countries under current protocols would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.” However, the court vacated the injunction against the President and against the Government’s conducting internal reviews of security risks posed by nationals of the listed countries and the refugee program. Hawaii v. Trump.

The Supreme Court must now decide whether to hear the Administration’s appeal from the Courts of Appeals decisions this term. Most recently, in view of the current non-enforcement of the travel ban, on June 14 the President revised the 90-day ban on travelers and the 120-day ban on refugees to ensure they do not expire in the interim and will take effect 72 hours if and after the Administration prevails in having the injunctions lifted.

If you would like to discuss the implications of the Executive Order and these court decisions for your employees, your hiring plans, and your business, please contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq., Partner in the Firm’s Immigration Law Practice at 973-535-7129 or at pmcgovern@nulllgenovaburns.com.

High Court Agrees Pension Plans Sponsored by Church-Affiliated Hospitals Are ERISA-Exempt and Upholds Decades of IRS, PBGC and DOL Guidance

In a much-anticipated decision, on June 5 the U.S. Supreme Court held that a pension plan sponsored by a religious affiliated nonprofit hospital qualifies as an ERISA-exempt church plan even though the plan was not initially established by a church. In this decision the Court reversed three consolidated decisions by the Third, Seventh and Ninth Circuits holding that defined benefit pension plans initially established and sponsored by church affiliated nonprofit hospitals and healthcare facilities were not ERISA-exempt church plans specifically because they were not initially established by a church.  These courts held that since the church plan exemption did not apply, the plans must comply with ERISA’s funding, participation, vesting, reporting and disclosure rules.  In doing so, the Court affirmed long-standing guidance by the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Labor, and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation that ERISA’s church-plan exemption applies to plans sponsored and maintained by religious affiliated nonprofit hospitals regardless of whether a church initially established the plans.  Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton.

The Court focused on the plain meaning of ERISA’s church plan exemption and noted that while the term “church plan” was initially defined in ERISA to include only those plans “established and maintained . . . for its employees . . . by a church or by a convention or association of churches,” the definition was later amended to include additional plans.  The Court found that Congress specified that “for purposes of the church-plan definition, an ‘employee of a church’ would include an employee of a church-affiliated organization (like the hospitals here)” which the Court referred to as principal-purpose organizations. The Court found that Congress supplemented ERISA’s definition of church plan with the following provision: “A plan established and maintained for its employees . . . by a church or by a convention or association of churches includes a plan maintained by an organization . . . the principal purpose or function of which is the administration or funding of a plan or program for the provision of retirement benefits or welfare benefits, or both, for the employees of a church or a convention or association of churches, if such organization is controlled by or associated with a church or a convention or association of churches.”  In effect, the Court held, “The church-establishment condition thus drops out of the picture.”

While the benefit plans at issue in this case were defined benefit pension plans, this holding has broad application to all benefit plans that are established by a principal-purpose organization and would otherwise be subject to ERISA’s funding, participation, vesting, reporting and disclosure rules.

For more information about this decision and its impact on your organization and your employee benefit plans, please contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq., pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com or Gina M. Schneider, Esq., gmschneider@nullgenovaburns.com in the Firm’s Employee Benefits Practice Group.

Third Circuit Stymies Employer’s Attempt to Force FLSA Overtime and Meal Break Pay Claims into Collectively Bargained Arbitration

Earlier this month, in a 2-1 decision, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that certified nursing assistants covered by a collective bargaining agreement are not required to arbitrate their FLSA claims before seeking court relief despite a mandatory arbitration clause in their labor agreement. The assistants claimed that their shift differentials should be included in the calculation of their overtime pay and challenged the deductions from their pay for meal breaks they did not take. The Third Circuit held that resolution of the assistants’ FLSA claims did not depend on an interpretation of language in the labor agreement and, therefore, the assistants were not required to arbitrate their claims. Jones v. SCO Silver Care Operations LLC (May 18, 2017).

The Court of Appeals explained that a court may compel arbitration of an FLSA claim when (1) the arbitration provision clearly and unmistakably waives the employee’s ability to vindicate federal statutory rights in court; and (2) the statute does not exclude arbitration as an appropriate forum. Here, the labor agreement’s grievance-arbitration provision did not expressly refer to FLSA or wage-hour claims, so there was no effective waiver of the right to go to court. Nonetheless, the Third Circuit recognized that even where a labor agreement’s arbitration clause fails to refer to the FLSA, the FLSA claimant may be forced to arbitrate disputes over an interpretation of a labor agreement if the FLSA claims are “inevitably intertwined with the interpretation or application” of the labor agreement.

On the issue of shift differentials, SCO Silver Care argued that the FLSA claim alleging miscalculation of the overtime rate consisted of a dispute over an implicit term of the labor agreement and whether shift differentials already include an overtime pay component. The Court rejected this argument and held that the overtime claim was governed by the FLSA, no analysis of the labor agreement’s treatment of shift differentials was required, and the Court should determine only whether the shift differentials at issue are remuneration that the FLSA requires to be included in the calculation of an employee’s regular hourly pay rate.

On the question whether the assistants’ meal breaks must be treated as hours worked, the employer argued that resolution of this issue depends on determining various meal break practices that occurred while the labor agreement was in effect and that this determination should be made by an arbitrator. The Court rejected this argument as well and found that the alleged meal break practices raised factual issues as to what work was performed during meal breaks and did not require a review of language in the labor agreement. The Court stated that the employer could not “transform these factual disputes inherent to any FLSA claim into disputes over provisions of the CBA subject to arbitration.”

If you would like to discuss how the Third Circuit’s decision affects your pay policies, arbitration clauses, wage and hour compliance program, and your business, please contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq., Partner in the Firm’s Wage and Hour Compliance Practice Group at 973-535-7129 or at pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com.

 

 

 

Fate Uncertain for HHS’s Extension of ACA Discrimination Protections to Abortion & Gender Transition

In May 2016 HHS issued a final rule implementing the Affordable Care Act’s Section 1557 nondiscrimination provision, which applies to recipients of funding from HHS. The rule prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity and termination of pregnancy, as well as race, color, national origin, sex, age, and disability. The new rule has been interpreted to require covered entities to perform and provide insurance coverage for gender transitions and abortions, regardless of their contrary religious beliefs or medical judgment.

The HHS rule has been challenged in court at least twice. On December 31, 2016, the U.S. District Court in Wichita Falls, Texas enjoined nationally the portions of the rule prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity and termination of pregnancy. Franciscan Alliance, Inc. v. Burwell, Civil Action No. 16-cv-00108. The Order was appealed by the ACLU and the River City Gender Alliance and the appeals remain pending.

The Trump Administration has not indicated whether it will challenge the Court’s injunction and enforce the rule. The current Administration position favoring repeal of ACA in its entirety is consistent with the policy changes already made by the Trump administration. On February 22 the Departments of Education and Justice withdrew agency guidance that mandated transgender student access to restrooms consistent with gender identity. In late March President Trump appointed Roger Severino to head HHS’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) which is charged with enforcing the HHS rule. Although Severino’s appointment has been controversial, as yet there is no indication from the OCR as to its enforcement position under new HHS leadership.

In the only other reported case brought under the rule’s prohibition of discrimination based on gender identity, on December 6, 2016 the U.S. District Court in Oakland, California stayed further proceedings in a case challenging an employer’s denial of gender transition health coverage. Robinson v. Dignity Health, Civil Action No. 16-cv-3035. The stay was granted pending the outcome of Gloucester County School Bd. v. G.G., a case scheduled for hearing before the Supreme Court. However, on March 6 the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Court of Appeals for further consideration in light of Justice’s and Education’s withdrawal of guidance on February 22.  The California court has continued the stay in the Robinson v. Dignity Health case based on the pending bankruptcy of the plaintiff and scheduled the next hearing for May 19.

The Supreme Court’s action suggests that courts across the country may be taking a “kick the can down the road” approach on the Section 1557 rule as the Trump Administration has promised to repeal and replace ACA, or alternatively that the Court prefers to review the case only when the Court is back to full strength. Currently, the HHS rule’s provisions relating to gender identity and termination of pregnancy remain enjoined nationally.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss how the Section 1557 rule affects you or your business, please contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq. at 973-535-7129 or pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com, Gina M. Schneider, Esq. at 973-535-7134 or gmschneider@nullgenovaburns.com or Ryann M. Aaron, Esq. at 973-387-7812 or raaron@nullgenovaburns.com.

Virginia Federal Judge Upholds Trump Immigration Executive Order Signalling Possible Split in Circuits

On March 24 President Trump’s revised immigration ban which took effect March 16, 2017 (March Order) was found to be enforceable for the first time. U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga in Alexandria, Va., denied an emergency request for a temporary restraining order (“TRO”) to suspend enforcement of the March Order. Judge Trenga diverged from his counterparts in Hawaii and Maryland who granted temporary restraints against the March Order. On March 15 U.S. District Court Judge Derrick Watson in Honolulu issued a TRO pending further order of the Court and blocked core provisions of the March Order on the basis that the Order is an unconstitutional establishment of religion and inflicts immediate harm on Hawaii’s economy, education and tourism; this order is on appeal to the Ninth Circuit. Specifically, Judge Watson blocked the 90-day ban on entry of foreign nationals from the six Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen and Somalia) and the 120-day ban on U.S. entry by all refugees. The next day U.S. District Court Judge Theodore D. Chuang in Greenbelt, Maryland issued a nationwide preliminary injunction blocking the part of the March Order that suspended the issuance of visas to citizens of the six banned countries; Judge Chuang’s decision is on appeal to the Fourth Circuit which will hear arguments on May 8. Judge Chuang and Judge Watson both found that the March Order was intended to discriminate against Muslims. On March 29, Judge Watson converted the TRO into a nationwide preliminary injunction blocking provisions of the March Order indefinitely.

The Virginia lawsuit was brought by Linda Sarsour, national co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington and a Muslim activist. Ms. Sarsour relied on Trump’s public remarks and argued that the “long and unbroken stream of anti-Muslim statements made by both candidate Trump and President Trump, as well as his close advisors, which, taken together, makes clear that [Trump’s January and March Orders] are nothing more than subterfuges for religious discrimination against Muslims.” In deciding not to enjoin the March Order, Judge Trenga reasoned that the March Order was “explicitly revised in response to judicial decisions that identified problematic aspects of EO-1 [Trump’s January Order]…” and cited that part of the March Order that “expressly excludes from the suspensions categories of aliens that have prompted judicial concerns and which clarifies or refines the approach to certain other issues or categories of affected aliens.” Judge Trenga found no violation of the Establishment Clause on the grounds that the March Order “clearly has a stated secular purpose: the ‘protect[ion of United States] citizens from terrorist attacks, including those committed by foreign nationals.’” Judge Trenga also concluded that the substantive revisions reflected in the March Order precluded findings that the predominant purpose of the March Order is religious discrimination against Muslims and that the March Order is a pretext for this purpose. Judge Trenga wrote that to proceed otherwise required his “extending [the] Establishment Clause jurisprudence to national security judgments in an unprecedented way.”

Judge Trenga’s March 24 decision is not immediately appealable; Sansour’s court challenge will proceed and the Administration must answer the complaint. If Judge Trenga dismisses the complaint, an appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is expected and may then be consolidated with the pending appeal of Judge Chuang’s preliminary injunction. Given the increased likelihood of a split in the Circuits, the March Order may ultimately be reviewed by a fully constituted Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Judge Watson’s national injunction remains in effect and the attorneys general for California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Oregon have joined Washington in filing another complaint challenging both the January and the March Orders.

If you would like to discuss how the March Executive Order or these court decisions affect your employees and your business, please contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq., Partner in the Firm’s Immigration Law Practice at 973-535-7129 or at pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com.

9th Circuit Refuses to Stay Nationwide Injunction Against Enforcement of Trump Immigration Order While Government Appeals

On February 9, 2017, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the U.S. District Court’s Temporary Restraining Order prohibiting nationwide enforcement of key portions of the immigration Executive Order issued on January 27. A unanimous three-judge panel, consisting of two Democratic appointees and one Republican appointee, in a per curiam opinion, ruled that “the Government has not shown a likelihood of success on the merits of its appeal, nor has it shown that failure to enter a stay would cause irreparable injury, and we therefore deny its emergency motion for a stay.” As a result, the TRO stands and aliens from the seven listed countries (Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Yemen), including those with immigrant and non-immigrant visas, may continue normal processes for entry into the U.S. and refugees from the seven countries, including Syria, may resume their proceedings to relocate to the U.S. State of Washington v. Trump, (February 9, 2017).

Washington State and Minnesota argued that the Executive Order violated the Establishment and Equal Protection Clauses because it disfavored Muslims and that the TRO merely returned the nation temporarily to the status quo in effect for many years. The Government submitted no evidence to rebut the States’ arguments. The Government, the judges observed, was hard pressed to point to a single recent example of an entrant from one of the seven listed countries who was arrested for terrorist activities. Regarding the argument that the Executive Order violates the Establishment Clause, the court withheld judgment for the time being, pending a decision on the merits, explaining, “The States’ claims raise serious allegations and present significant constitutional questions.”

The Ninth Circuit decision to maintain the nationwide TRO of the Trump immigration Order is immediately appealable to the Supreme Court. The President’s immediate tweet — “See You In Court, The Security Of Our Nation Is At Stake!” – anticipates that the Supreme Court will ultimately review the constitutionality of the Executive Order.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss how the Executive Order affects your employees and your business, please contact  Patrick W. McGovern, Esq., Partner in the Firm’s Immigration Law Practice at 973-535-7129 or at pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com.

Key 2017 Legal Changes that Employers and Federal Contractors Must Know About

Ready or not, 2017 is upon us and with it come many regulatory changes and important deadlines for employers and individuals. Make sure your New Year’s resolutions include compliance with the following changes and deadlines pertinent to employers and federal contractors.

Affordable Care Act

Employer Reporting. In November, the IRS extended the deadline for employers to meet their ACA reporting requirements. Employers required to furnish employees with Forms 1095 now have until March 2, 2017 to do so. The deadline to submit the Forms to the IRS remains February 28, 2017 for paper returns or March 31, 2017 for electronically-filed returns.

Marketplace Insurance. The deadline for individuals to obtain marketplace insurance coverage beginning January 1, 2017 expired on December 15, 2016. Individuals who want to enroll in marketplace insurance coverage for the balance of 2017 must do so by January 31, 2017. After the January 31 deadline, individuals may enroll in marketplace coverage only if they qualify for a Special Enrollment Period.

Required Contribution Percentages. For tax years and plan years beginning on and after January 1, 2017, the IRS increased to 9.69% of employee household income the maximum cost of coverage the employer can charge the employee for purposes of the employer mandate penalty. The IRS also increased to 8.16% of the employee’s household income the maximum cost of coverage the employer can charge the employee for purposes of determining whether the employee is eligible for an affordability exemption from the individual mandate.

IRS 2017 Contribution Limits for Retirement Plans and IRAs

The following are the IRS contribution limits for 2017:

  • 401(k) and 403(b) employee contribution limit: $18,000.
  • 401(k) and 403(b) catch-up contribution limit: $6,000.
  • IRA employee contribution limit: $5,500.
  • IRA employee catch-up contribution limit: $1,000.
  • 401(a)(17) compensation limit: $270,000.

Benefit Plan Changes

In May, the HHS Office of Civil Rights issued final rules implementing Section 1557 of ACA. Health programs must comply with these nondiscrimination rules effective January 1, 2017. Additionally, in May, the EEOC issued rules implementing Title I of the ADA and Title II of GINA as they relate to employer wellness programs. Employers must conform their wellness programs with these rules effective January 1, 2017. Plan sponsors that made material modifications to their benefit plans in the past plan year must provide participants with a Summary of Material Modifications within 210 days after the end of the plan year of the modification. For plan years ending on December 31, 2016, the SMM must be provided by July 30, 2017.

New York Minimum Wage and Overtime Salary Exemption Increase

Effective December 31, 2016, the N.Y. minimum wage and salary threshold exemption for time-and-a-half overtime pay increase based on the employer’s size and region as follows:

Minimum Wage Increase

  • New York City: Large Employer (11 or more employees): $11.00 per hour.
  • New York City: Small Employer (10 or fewer employees): $10.50 per hour.
  • Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester Counties: $10.00 per hour.
  • Remainder of New York: $9.70 per hour.

Overtime Salary Exemption Increase

  • New York City: Large Employer (11 or more employees): $825.00 per week.
  • New York City: Small Employer (10 or fewer employees): $787.50 per week.
  • Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester Counties: $750.00 per week.
  • Remainder of New York: $727.50 per week.

New Jersey Minimum Wage Increase

Effective January 1, 2017, the New Jersey minimum wage increases to $8.44 per hour.

EEO-1 Report

During 2017, no federal contractor or subcontractor is required to file an EEO-1 Report with the EEOC or DOL Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. The next filing date is March 31, 2018. For the March 31, 2018 filing and all future filings, EEOC and DOL will not accept paper filings. All filings must be done online. Finally, the snapshot pay period for the EEO-1 Report due on March 31, 2018 will be from October 1 to December 31, 2017 instead of July 1 to September 30.

Pay Transparency

Beginning January 1, 2017, pursuant to E.O. 13673 and the DOL Final Rule, a federal contractor or subcontractor must furnish a wage statement to each individual performing work under the federal contract if the individual is subject to the wage requirements of the FLSA, the Davis Bacon Act or the Service Contract Act. The wage statement must be provided each pay period and must include 1) the number of straight time hours worked; 2) the number of overtime hours worked; 3) the rate of pay; 4) gross pay; and 5) itemized additions to or deductions from gross pay. The federal contractor or subcontractor must inform an overtime-exempt individual in writing of the exempt status. For individuals treated as independent contractors, the federal contractor or subcontractor must provide a written notice that the individual is classified as an independent contractor.

Paid Sick Leave

Beginning January 1, 2017, pursuant to E.O. 13706 and the DOL Final Rule, a federal contractor or subcontractor must provide an employee with at least 56 hours per year of paid sick leave or permit an employee to accrue not less than one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked under a covered federal contract.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss how these changes and dates affect you or your business, please contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq. at 973-535-7129 or pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com, or Nicole L. Leitner, Esq. at 973-387-7897 or nleitner@nullgenovaburns.com.

Third Circuit Deals Blow to Jersey City Ordinance Requiring PLAs on Privately Funded Projects in Exchange for Tax Abatements

Jersey City’s Municipal Code offers real estate developers generous tax exemptions that are designed to spur the City’s economic growth, but the tax incentives have strings attached. Specifically, to receive a tax exemption, even on a privately funded project, the developer must agree to use the City-approved project labor agreement (“PLA”), which is a pre-hire agreement that favors unionized contractors and subcontractors. On September 12, 2016, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated claims against Jersey City that its tax exemption ordinance mandating PLAs is preempted by the National Labor Relations Act and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, and violates the dormant Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Now the case returns to the District Court for a determination whether Jersey City’s PLA requirement is unlawful. The Court was careful to explain that its ruling has nothing to do with public construction projects, and is limited to the City’s attempted regulation of privately funded projects. Associated Builders and Contractors v. City of Jersey City, No. 15-3166 (3rd Cir. Sept. 12, 2016).

By imposing the PLA requirement on privately funded projects that sought tax abatements, the Third Circuit found that Jersey City “require[d] that an employer negotiate with a labor union and that all employees be represented by that labor union as part of the negotiations— even if the developers, contractors, and subcontractors do not ordinarily employ unionized labor and the employees are not union members.” In addition, the City’s standard PLA requires that employers and unions agree not to strike or lock-out during construction, and agree to sponsor or participate in apprenticeship programs.

The Court of Appeals found that the three laws allegedly violated by Jersey City’s ordinance — the NLRA, ERISA and the Commerce Clause — “share the same threshold requirement before their constraints are triggered: that the allegedly unlawful act by the state or local government be regulatory in nature,” as opposed to action by a market participant. The Court determined that Jersey City is not a market participant because the City “is not selling or providing any goods or services with respect to Tax Abated Projects, nor acting as an investor, owner, or financier with respect to those projects.” Invoking Supreme Court precedent, the Court rejected the City’s claim that offering tax abatements gives the City a proprietary interest in the project. The Court found that the City acted instead as a market regulator and since the ordinance strips employers and employees of the economic weapons of strikes and lockouts, and relates to employee benefit plans, the City’s ordinance may indeed be preempted by the NLRA and by ERISA. Finally, by enacting “regulatory measures designed to benefit in-state economic interests by burdening out of state competitors,” the ordinance arguably violates the dormant Commerce Clause.

Absent a request for rehearing or a petition for rehearing en banc, this case will return to the District Court for a determination whether the PLA requirements in the City’s tax exemption ordinance are enforceable. The larger questions are whether PLAs now in place on privately funded projects in Jersey City will remain in effect and, if not, whether this affects developers’ tax exemptions. Also an open question is whether the Third Circuit’s decision affects similar tax exemption ordinances in other municipalities that impose PLA requirements. Questions relating to this important decision and the path forward for developers in Jersey City and elsewhere in the state may be directed to any partner in our firm’s Labor Law Practice Group – James McGovern III, Patrick McGovern, Douglas Solomon, and John Vreeland.

Immigration Law Violations Occurring After November 2, 2015 Carry Heavier Penalties

Effective August 1, 2016 the Department of Justice is assessing higher penalties for employers that violate immigration laws. These penalties cover violations that occurred after November 2, 2015.  Specifically, the DOJ’s interim final rule increases penalties for a myriad of violations, including penalties for employing unauthorized workers and for technical Form I-9 paperwork violations. These increases are driven by the Civil Monetary Penalties Inflation Adjustment Final Rule which directs federal agencies periodically to increase their administrative penalties to account for inflation. With this increase, the minimum penalty for unlawfully employing a single unauthorized worker will increase from $375 to $539, and the maximum increases from $3,200 to $4,313. These fines apply to the employer’s first offense. For each additional offense, the penalty increases significantly and tops out at $21,563 per unauthorized worker.

The increases in penalties for Form I-9 paperwork violations are similarly stiff. The interim final rule increases the minimum fine from $110 to $216 per I-9 violation, and the maximum penalty increases from $1,100 to $2,156 for a single violation. Fines for I-9 paperwork violations are independent of any unlawful hiring violation. Since the I-9 fines apply to each discrete technical violation and increase with each additional offense, a growing business whose I-9 compliance process is out of compliance could face tens of thousands of dollars in fines if audited by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

In addition, the U.S. Department of Labor will also increase penalties for H-1B visa related violations. For example, misrepresenting material facts on the Labor Condition Application now carries a maximum penalty per violation of $1,782. In addition, an employer that displaces a U.S. employee in the period starting 90 days before and ending 90 days after it files an H-1B visa petition faces a maximum penalty of $35,000 to $50,758 per violation, if it does so in conjunction with certain willful violations.

Although these increases are touted as merely keeping pace with inflation, they are problematic for employers that have a poor track record of either ensuring their new hires are authorized to work in the U.S. or completing I-9 paperwork accurately for their new hires. Since these new penalties apply to violations that occurred as far back as November 2015, many in the employer community suspect that ICE has been delaying issuing fines for older violations until now, to recover the higher penalties. Also it is reasonable to anticipate that workplace audits will increase in number since ICE now has greater financial incentives to find employers out of compliance.

An audit with the assistance of counsel allows employers to detect and potentially correct any I-9 or other immigration compliance issues. It can also help to train the personnel responsible for immigration compliance, preventing errors in the future. For further information regarding how the ICE regulatory environment affects your business, recruiting, and hiring, and assistance with auditing your Form I-9 process, please contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq., the Director of our Immigration Law Practice Group, at 973-535-7129 or pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com.

Allison Benz, a recent summer associate at Genova Burns LLC, assisted in the preparation of this blog post.

N.J. Supreme Court Rejects Defense of Federal Labor Law Preemption of CEPA Claim in Underlying Unpaid Wage Action

On August 16, 2016 the N.J. Supreme Court held, in a 6-0 opinion, that neither the federal Labor Management Relations Act nor the National Labor Relations Act preempts a claim under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) by a private sector employee who is covered by a collective bargaining agreement.  Puglia v. Elk Pipeline, Inc. (Case No. A-38-14).

Elk Pipeline employed Mr. Puglia, a union member, on a construction project in Camden. The project was subject to N.J. prevailing wage law and apparently as a cost savings measure, Elk reduced severely the wages of several laborers on the project, claiming that the employees were re-classified as apprentices.  Puglia complained to his supervisor and to Elk’s project manager that with the wage reduction, he was not being paid correct prevailing wages. An unhelpful fact for Elk was that its project manager commented to the project engineer that “the owner wanted to [f**k] with [Puglia] and wants to get rid of him.” In fact, no more than 11 months after Puglia first complained to Elk about his wages, Elk laid Puglia off, ahead of two less senior employees who were not laid off. Elk explained that the two less senior employees had relevant certifications that Puglia lacked. Puglia’s CEPA claim alleged that, by complaining internally about Elk’s failure to pay him proper prevailing wages, he engaged in protected whistleblowing activity, for which he lost his job. Elk moved for summary judgment, arguing that Puglia’s CEPA claim was preempted by federal labor law.

The trial court concluded that Puglia’s CEPA claim was preempted, by both the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA), and based on Garmon preemption, a U.S. Supreme Court-based doctrine that holds that state-law claims that involve conduct arguably subject to Section 7 or Section 8 of the NLRA are preempted. The Appellate Division affirmed, holding that Puglia’s claim was preempted by the LMRA, and by the NLRA under Garmon. The Appellate Division reasoned that the issues of Puglia’s contract seniority and Elk’s assertion that the Camden project was winding down required evaluation of the terms of Elk’s labor agreement.

The Supreme Court reversed and held that Puglia’s CEPA claim was not preempted by federal labor law. The issue the Court teed up for analysis and foreshadowed the Court’s conclusion was “whether complaints about violations of that minimum labor standard [of prevailing wages], and the concomitant State interest in curbing retaliation for such complaints, invoke preemption concerns.”  The Court analyzed Puglia’s CEPA complaint to determine whether it required an interpretation of the CBA and found that it did not. “Whether Puglia performed a whistleblowing activity in reporting the alleged failure by Elk to abide by Prevailing Wage Act requirements, and whether Elk retaliated against Puglia for doing so are factual questions, untied to any interpretation of the CBA.” The Court dismissed Elk’s best argument — that Puglia’s complaint depended on interpreting the labor agreement — and strained to find no contract issue. “It is far from clear that Puglia claimed a violation of the CBA in [his complaint]. He was making a factual allegation: He was more senior than other employees who were not let go. … That Puglia mentioned seniority in his deposition does not alter the substance of his claim. Nor does it inject a question of CBA interpretation into the factual questions at the heart of a CEPA claim. … Having a claim under the CBA does not void state-law remedies that are independent of the CBA. The employer’s attorney cannot change that by the course of his questioning at a deposition.” Despite Puglia’s claim that he was laid off out of seniority order, the Court still determined that it was “unclear” that he was claiming a contract violation. The Court gave no weight to Elk’s argument that the labor contract permitted Elk to lay Puglia off ahead of more junior employees and therefore Puglia’s layoff was dictated by the labor contract, and not retaliatory. Turning to Garmon preemption, the Court agreed with Elk “that Puglia’s conduct was at least arguably protected under Section 7” of the NLRA.  However, the Court determined it could not find that “Puglia’s CEPA claim is identical to the claim that he could have, but did not, present to the Board.” The Court explained, “[W]e believe that when the State’s interests in enforcing CEPA in a factual setting like this one — whistleblowing activity arising out of a prevailing wage dispute — are balanced against any potential interference with the federal labor scheme, the State’s interests win out. New Jersey’s interest in enforcing CEPA runs deep.” The Court concluded with this syllogism: “If an employee can allege a violation of those state minimum labor standards without being preempted by federal law, then it follows that allegations of retaliatory discharge based on whistleblower conduct in response to a violation of those standards should not be preempted.”

This decision indicates that rarely if ever will this Court find that a CEPA claim based on an alleged violation of N.J. wage laws is preempted by federal labor law, no matter how many labor contract issues are pled or implicated. A major concern for N.J. businesses flowing from this decision is the proliferation of claims and litigation, since this holding confirms that union-represented employees like Mr. Puglia can prosecute claims of retaliatory discharge and get three bites at the apple — in the contractual grievance-arbitration procedure, before the NLRB, and in state court under CEPA.

Questions relating to this important decision may be directed to any partner in our firm’s Labor Law Practice Group. Our Group’s attorney roster can be accessed at http://www.genovaburns.com/attorney-search-results.