New Jersey Courts Double-Down on Arbitration Enforcement

In late June 2018, New Jersey state and federal courts issued opinions on arbitration agreements that effectively reinforced the state’s rocky pro-arbitration bearings. The first opinion came from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals on June 20, 2018, in a case called Ace American Insurance Co. v. Guerriero. In Ace, the Third Circuit held that an employee must arbitrate his employment-related claims, despite his allegations that the company never provided him a full copy of the arbitration agreement. Only one day later, in Victory Entertainment, Inc., et al. v. Schibell, et al., the New Jersey Appellate Division held that strip club owner/managers must arbitrate an ownership dispute despite the employee’s argument that the arbitration agreement lacked clear and unambiguous language to do so.

An “Ace” In the Pocket for Arbitration Agreements In Federal Court

In Ace, after the employee and his counsel refused to arbitrate the employee’s employment claims, Ace filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Newark, New Jersey, to compel arbitration under the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”). One day later, the employee filed a whistle-blower suit in New Jersey state court claiming that his employer illegally fired him after he reported to his supervisors that the company was destroying documents it was required to preserve in violation of the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”). The employee alleged that he was never provided the company’s full three-page Employee Dispute Arbitration Policy and instead was only provided the signature page. The employer produced the signed acknowledgment page, which at the top read “Arbitration Agreement.” Moreover, the employee’s offer letter, which expressly referenced the Employment Dispute Arbitration Policy, was also signed by the employee.  Employees could also access the Employee Dispute Arbitration Policy using the company’s intranet site. The U.S. District Court enjoined the employee from pursuing his state court case and ruled in ACE’s favor, which was upheld on appeal to the Third Circuit.

Reinforcing the FAA’s “strong federal policy” of resolving parties’ disputes through arbitration by enforcing the parties’ arbitration agreements, the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s finding that the arbitration agreement was still enforceable, whether or not the employee actually read the agreement. The court found that the Employee Dispute Arbitration Policy unambiguously stated that the employee would “submit any employment-related legal claims to final and binding neutral third-party arbitration …” and specifically mentioned CEPA.  This decision confirms New Jersey’s strong pro-arbitration stance in federal court.

A “Victory” In State Court

In Victory Entertainment, employers also enjoyed a victory in the Appellate Division. The plaintiff was a manager part-owner of The Den, holding company for Delilah’s Den strip clubs throughout the state. His two business partners certified that plaintiff suffered spells of delusion that led him to mismanage the company, including brandishing a gun in the workplace, refusing to remit payment to vendors, and sexually harassing entertainers. After plaintiff was hospitalized for mental health issues, his two business partners, along with plaintiff and plaintiff’s counsel, executed a Sales Agreement whereby plaintiff’s trusted associate, as plaintiff’s agent, would purchase the two other owner’s shares of The Den over a 10-year period. The parties also drafted a separate Shareholder/Stakeholder (Deadlock) Agreement to resolve impasses between the shareholders and stakeholders, which created a 1/3 voting right between plaintiff’s agent/associate and the two part-owners. This Deadlock Agreement contained a binding arbitration clause. Although the shares in The Den were expressly subject to the terms and conditions of the Sales Agreement and the Deadlock Agreement, plaintiff and his trusted agent/associate were the only parties to the Deadlock Agreement.

When plaintiff’s mismanagement issues re-arose, the two part-owners executed their authority to remove plaintiff from managing the business. Plaintiff filed suit, claiming he was improperly removed.  The trial court dismissed his complaint and ordered that the parties arbitrate the dispute. Plaintiff appealed. In affirming the trial court’s decision, the Appellate Division found that although only the plaintiff and his trusted associate were parties to the arbitration clause, the two owners could enforce the arbitration clause since the Sales Agreement and the Deadlock Agreement arose from the same transaction. The two agreements were executed on the same day, pertain to the control and management of the same company, and contain numerous cross-references. Further, the Appellate Division determined the two part-owners could enforce the arbitration provision as either third-party beneficiaries or the trusted associate’s agents. Finally, the Appellate Division held the plaintiff claims were within the scope of the arbitration provision because they implicated the Deadlock Agreement explicitly or the alleged conduct occurred after the parties executed the agreement or related to the execution of the Deadlock Agreement.

Bottom Line

Unlike New York, and arguably contrary to the Federal Arbitration Act, New Jersey state courts have historically imposed a higher standard to enforce an arbitration agreement. The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that arbitration agreements in the state must provide “clear and unambiguous” terms that the parties are waiving the right to a jury trial. Although federal courts staunchly enforce arbitration agreements in favor of employers, employees sometimes reap the benefits of this state court hurdle for employers. Together, these recent opinions stand for the proposition that arbitration agreements may be strictly enforced in New Jersey.

While these opinions are triumphs for the enforcement of arbitration agreements, it is still imperative to include explicit language that your employees waive the right to a jury trial for all employment-related claims. Likewise, the law surrounding arbitration agreements is constantly shifting and all arbitration agreements should be carefully reviewed with counsel.

If you have questions on drafting arbitration agreements or arbitration disputes, 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.

Be Reasonable: Employees May Not be Able to Request a “Few Weeks or a Few Months” of Leave as an Accommodation Under the ADA

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently determined that a request for indefinite leave is not a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

Facts

Stanley Kieffer worked for CPR Restoration & Cleaning Service, LLC (“CPR LLC”) in a supervisory role, until he injured his shoulder in August 2013. Kieffer applied for, and received worker’s compensation and also requested, as a reasonable accommodation, a driver because he could not drive on the job with his injured shoulder. This request was denied. Kieffer then requested, and was granted leave beginning in September 2013. Kieffer told his employer that he would return to work on November 13, 2013. When Kieffer unexpectedly returned to work on November 4, 2013, he was subsequently terminated.

Kieffer filed a Charge of Discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), and then began to work for CPR Restoration, Inc. (“CPR, Inc.”), which is owned by the same individual as CPR LLC. This new position required Kieffer to commute from Pennsylvania to Northern New Jersey every day. Due to a disagreement over whether his relocation to New Jersey would be paid for, Kieffer claimed that the decision to not pay for his move amounted to a constructive discharge and retaliation, and he quit the company in June 2014.

District Court’s Decision

Kieffer filed suit in the District Court against both CPR LLC and CPR, Inc., alleging violations of the ADA, the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), and applicable state law. Finding for CPR LLC and CPR, Inc., the District Court found that the companies were not joint/integrated employers under the FMLA, and that Kieffer was not a “qualified individual” under the ADA because he could not show that he could perform the “essential functions” of his positions with or without reasonable accommodations. The District Court also determined that neither company retaliated against Kieffer under the ADA, FMLA, or applicable state law.

Third Circuit’s Decision

The Third Circuit found that CPR LLC’s denial of a driver was proper because even with such an accommodation, Kieffer could not perform any physical labor, which was an essential function of his job. The Third Circuit reiterated that whether a task is an essential function is generally a fact-intensive inquiry. Factors used to determine whether a function is essential include the 1) employer’s judgment, 2) written job descriptions, 3) time spent on the job performing the function, 4) consequences of not requiring a worker to perform the function, 5) terms of a collective-bargaining agreement, 6) work experience of past employees in the job, and 7) work experience of current employees in similar jobs.

On appeal, Kieffer also argued that the leave of absence he requested would have allowed him to perform his essential functions after he returned from leave. However, there was no evidence that the leave was requested for a definite, rather than an open-ended, period of time. Following other circuits, the Third Circuit found that Kieffer’s request for leave was considered to be indefinite, because testimony showed that his request for leave was “worded loosely as being for a few weeks or a few months.” Upholding the District Court’s decision, the Third Circuit stated, “The basis for such a holding reflects the fact that an accommodation of a short period of definite leave would enable an employee to perform his essential job functions in the near future … The request for leave here specified neither a leave for a definite period, nor a return in the future.”

The Third Circuit also found that Kieffer was not retaliated against for requesting a leave of absence two months before his termination. The Third Circuit noted that it had previously ruled that over two months between protected activity and adverse employment activity—without more—is insufficient to prove that his request for a break “was the likely reason for h[is] termination.”

Finally, the Third Circuit found that even assuming that CPR Inc. reneged on its promise to relocate Kieffer, there was no evidence to suggest any hostility or antagonism between the filing of his EEOC claim and the denial of moving costs. Thus, Kieffer’s constructive discharge claim was also dismissed.

Bottom Line

Proceed with caution when employees request leave under the ADA. Vague requests for unspecified amounts of leave are not “reasonable accommodations” under the ADA and employers must work with employees to guarantee that the employee’s request for leave is for a definite amount of time so that the employee can recover and perform the essential functions of their job. Be mindful, however, that the EEOC may consider the request a request of up to “a few months” of leave, as a leave for a definite amount rather than an open-ended (i.e. “indefinite”) leave.

For more information about ADA accommodations and requests for leave, 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.

Supreme Court Bids Farewell to Mandatory Public-Sector Union Agency Fees in Janus Ruling

On June 27, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 opinion in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, Dkt. No 16-1466, holding that compulsory payment of public-sector union fees by non-union members violates First Amendment free speech rights.

The petitioner in Janus, challenged the constitutionality of an Illinois law requiring public employees to pay union agency fees, despite an employee’s choice not to join the union and his strong objection to the union’s positions in collective negotiations. The petitioner argued that the payment of mandatory agency fees by nonmembers in connection with collective negotiations for government employees is inherently political and violates the First Amendment. Siding with the petitioner and striking down the Illinois law, the Supreme Court overturned its prior 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977).

In Abood, the Supreme Court held that a union could constitutionally collect from dissenting employees financial support for collective negotiations so long as the fees were not used for ideological or political causes not germane to the union’s duties as the collective negotiations agent. In the Janus opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that “Abood was wrongly decided and is now overruled,” concluding that the mandatory payment of public-sector agency fees violates the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech. Under Janus, “States and public-sector unions may no longer extract agency fees from nonconsenting employees.” However, the Court stated that unions could require payment from nonmembers for union representation in disciplinary matters and grievances.

The Janus decision leaves open the specific timeframe by which an employee may revoke compulsory payment of public-sector union fees.

For New Jersey public employers, the Janus decision must be applied in light of the requirements of the recently enacted Workplace Democracy Enhancement Act (“WDEA”). The WDEA includes requirements regarding an employee’s withdrawal of consent for the union to collect fees. Additionally, the WDEA prohibits public employers from encouraging employees to revoke their union fee deductions and from discouraging employees to join, form or assist a union. Public employers should be prepared to receive employees’ withdrawals of consent and should continue to follow the current statutory WDEA requirements.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss how the Janus decision or the WDEA affects you, please contact Joseph M. Hannon, Esq. at 973-535-7105 or jhannon@nullgenovaburns.com, or Jennifer Roselle, Esq. at 973-646-3324 or jroselle@nullgenovaburns.com.

Putting Employees in the “Penalty Box” Could Have Courts Blowing the Whistle on You

While the National Hockey League’s Capitals are in Washington D.C. celebrating their Stanley Cup win, a Prosecutor’s Office in New Jersey may be in hot water for putting an employee in the penalty box following complaints about department misconduct.

Last month, the Appellate Division held that the transfer of an employee to a “less desirable” position can be considered an act of retaliation that violates the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA). This is true even if the employee’s primary terms and conditions of employment – compensation, hours, and physical location – remain unchanged after the transfer.

Jeffrey Scozzafava, a detective with the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office, had been assigned to the forensic Crime Scene Investigation Unit since his hire in 2007.  In 2015, after he complained about the mishandling of evidence and deficient casework in his unit, he was transferred to the fugitive squad. Scozzafava brought a claim for retaliation against his employer. The Prosecutor’s Office argued that he did not suffer an adverse employment action because Scozzafava’s rank, position, pay and benefits remained the same, and it arguably improved his scheduled working hours.  Therefore, the Prosecutor’s Office argued, the move was a lateral transfer and not a demotion.

The Appellate Division disagreed and held that there was more to the analysis than merely ensuring that an employee is not terminated, suspended, or demoted after making a complaint, and that all of the attendant circumstances surrounding the employment action will be closely examined.

Scozzafava had previously been a forensic detective with the New Jersey State Police, and had 12 years of extensive training and experience in the forensic field prior to his employment with the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office. He was a member of numerous forensic professional associations, devoted time as an instructor, and was qualified as an expert in various courts.  His abrupt transfer to the fugitive squad deprived him of using and building upon his twenty years of expertise in the forensic field.

The Court acknowledged that “not every employment action that makes an employee unhappy constitutes an actionable adverse action,” but held that under the circumstances of this case, the transfer was “objectively demeaning” to Scozzafava. It certainly did not strengthen the employer’s argument that when asked for the reasoning behind the transfer, Scozzafava’s lieutenant told him “everybody does time in the penalty box.”

Scozzafava also claimed that his transfer to the fugitive squad offered fewer opportunities to earn overtime pay. While the lower court found that the potential for overtime was “too nebulous” to be considered as part of an employee’s compensation, the higher court suggested that this could be independent grounds for the finding of a retaliatory act.  It has already been established by the New Jersey Supreme Court that “any reduction in an employee’s compensation” is considered an adverse employment action, and the Appellate Division suggests that reduced opportunities for overtime, standing alone, would qualify as a reduction in pay.

Bottom Line:  Here, the employer was well aware that its transfer of Scozzafava was not neutral, and the purpose was admittedly to put Scozzafava “in the penalty box.”  The new standard emerging from this decision expands the inquiry into the type of employment action that is considered retaliatory.  In addition to a review of the standard terms and conditions of employment – compensation, benefits, hours, and job title, the employee’s skills, training, and job history will be examined to determine whether the transfer is truly lateral, or whether it instead could be considered “objectively demeaning” – a phrase the Court twice repeated in its decision.  If it can be, and it comes on the heels of an employee objection or complaint about conduct that the employee reasonably believes is unlawful, the employer could face exposure for an act of retaliation. It is important to carefully review any management decision that could appear as if the purpose of the employment action is to bench an employee for not being a team player. A job transfer intended to be punishing will likely be flagged by the courts.

“Burn Files” and Employee Self-Help: Effective Policies Protect Documents Wrongfully Taken by Former Employee

A New Jersey appellate court recently upheld the disqualification of a former employee’s attorneys in a whistleblower claim against his former employer, because the employee had improperly taken documents containing privileged attorney-client communications to use against the employer “when they try to get him.”

Facts

The defendant, Maquet Getinge Group (“Maquet”), a German pharmaceutical company, designs, develops, manufactures, and distributes medical devices.  Because of the medical and technological focus of defendant’s business, Maquest maintains sensitive research and development data, new products, quality processes and procedures and protocols for the preparation of inspections by the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) on its computer systems.  Maquet had in place comprehensive policies designed to protect its confidential, proprietary information, including a “Standards of Conduct” policy, an “End User Acceptable Use Policy.”  Plaintiff, Oscar Sanchez (“Sanchez”), was employed by Maquet as the Chief Quality and Compliance Officer for approximately 18 months, until he was terminated in April 2015.  As a condition of his employment, Sanchez and other similarly situated employees had to sign a “Confidential Information, Invention Assignment, and Non-Compete Agreement.”  This agreement contained, inter alia, a “Covenant Not to Disclose” and a provision on “Return of Company Documents.”  Two months prior to his termination, Sanchez was disciplined after an investigation into numerous complaints about his conduct and deportment involving employees who reported to him.  After receiving the complaints, Sanchez informed a Senior Vice President of Marketing at Maquet that “he had personally retained copies of all kinds of Maquet-owned documentation – which he referred to as his ‘burn files’ and which included copies of . . . two executives’ hard drives and a binder full of emails and documents,” which he allegedly told his co-worker he “would use the ‘burn files’ to “f***” Maquet ‘when they tried to get him.’”

On July 2, 2015, Sanchez filed a complaint against Maquet alleging he had been wrongfully terminated for whistleblowing activities, in violation of the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”).  Maquet served Sanchez with its First Request for the Production of Documents in October 2015, to which plaintiff responded on February 1, 2016.  Upon receipt of the documents, Maquet claimed the documents plaintiff’s counsel had produced were owned by Maquet and had been improperly taken by Sanchez without Maquet’s knowledge or consent. Further, Maquet claimed the documents produced contained privileged attorney-client communications between Maquet’s staff and its attorneys, including correspondence regarding FDA compliance issues, results of third-party audits, budgeting issues, research and development, quality processes and procedures, and FDA findings.

Lower Court Decision

Defendant moved to preclude plaintiff from using these documents against defendant, and to remove plaintiff’s chosen counsel and his firm from continuing to represent plaintiff in the case.  In its decision, the lower court rejected plaintiff’s argument that Maquet had waived the attorney-client privilege. The Judge then found that Plaintiff’s chosen counsel “knew or should have known the material was privileged” yet failed “to promptly notify the opposing side that they had received privileged information” until nine (9) months after the case had been initiated. In disqualifying chosen counsel from serving as plaintiff’s counsel, the Judge found he would neither be harmed in the prosecution of the case nor that he would be unable to secure competent substitute counsel, as the case was still in its early stages.

Appellate Court’s Decision

Sanchez appealed arguing that the motion judge erred in reaching her decision to disqualify his chosen counsel without conducting an evidentiary hearing and that the judge misapplied the multi-factor analysis the NJ Supreme Court established in the seminal case, Quinlan v. Curtiss-Wright Corp. The Appellate Division rejected these arguments and affirmed the lower court’s decision.

The Appellate Division concluded the motion judge properly found the documents in question to be covered by the attorney-client privilege, particularly finding that the motion judge had noted the documents in dispute contained communications between Sanchez, Maquet’s Global Chief Quality Assurance & Regulatory Officer, and Maquet’s General Counsel. The record also indicated the documents included emails labeled “ATTORNEY CLIENT PRIVILEGE” by plaintiff. The Appellate Division found no legal basis to question the motion judge’s conclusion that Maquet’s counsel was included in the communications to offer legal advice and guidance if he so chose.

The Appellate Division then rejected as untimely and legally unnecessary, plaintiff’s argument that the motion judge should have conducted an evidentiary hearing to consider the Quinlan factors.  Quinlan set forth seven (7) factors to consider when an employee may take or use documents belonging to his or her employer. The first consideration a judge must make is “how the employee came to have possession of, or access to, the document.” In reviewing the record, the court found that Sanchez removed the documents at issue in direct violation of Maquet’s policies related to confidential documents containing proprietary information in an act that was outside of his ordinary duties because he wanted to [get] the company when they tried to get him.  The court also noted that Sanchez copied the documents to share with his attorneys for the purpose of evaluating whether he had “a viable cause of action” against Maquet and conversely, that Maquet had a strong interest in keeping the materials confidential.

Finally, while recognizing that the disqualification of counsel is a harsh discretionary remedy that must be used sparingly, the Appellate Division concluded that Sanchez’ extra-judicial self-help measures deprived Maquet of the opportunity to prevent the disclosure of the privileged information and that plaintiff’s counsel’s unreasonable delay in disclosing this information rendered futile any attempt to mitigate this harm.

Bottom Line

Employers need to maintain robust policies related to maintaining and access to proprietary and confidential information, and in appropriate circumstances, agreements like those used by Maquet. These policies should: (1) set forth what materials are confidential or proprietary; (2) specify who within the company is permitted access to the proprietary and confidential information, whether by job title, level, need to know basis, etc.; and (3) set forth the purpose for which the employee is granted access and any limitations on access to the proprietary and confidential information. These policies and agreements will be critical in allowing a court to determine the employee was unauthorized in taking the documents and acted outside their ordinary duties of employment.

For more information about the potential impacts of this ruling or what steps your company can take to effectively prevent and address whistleblower complaints, 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.

U.S. Supreme Court’s Epic Decision Validates Class Action Waivers

On May 21 the U.S. Supreme Court resolved the question whether the National Labor Relations Act prevents an employer from enforcing an employee’s contractual waiver of the right to sue the employer on a class or collective basis. In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that arbitration agreements requiring the processing of claims one-by-one and prohibiting class actions must be enforced, and neither the Federal Arbitration Act’s saving clause nor the National Labor Relations Act “permits this Court to declare the parties’ agreements unlawful.”  Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis; Ernst & Young v. Morris; NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc.

In each of these three cases, the employee signed a contract mandating the resolution of workplace disputes through arbitration on an individualized basis, and later brought collective action claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act for unpaid wages.  In seeking to void their class action waivers, the employees relied on the NLRB’s 2012 decision in D. R. Horton, Inc. and also argued that the FAA’s savings clause allowed the Court to deny enforcement of the arbitration agreements “upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.”

In the D. R. Horton case, the NLRB ruled that the NLRA effectively nullified the FAA in cases where an employer seeks to compel arbitration of employee claims on an individual basis only, by expanding the definition of “concerted activity” to include the right to bring a class or collective action. The NLRB ruled that an agreement not to bring a class or collective action is unenforceable as violative of the NLRA, even though waivers of other NLRA rights are enforceable.

The Court majority rejected the NLRB’s holding and held that the NLRA focuses on the rights to organize unions and bargain collectively. The Court commented that it “has never read a right to class actions into the NLRA – and for three quarters of a century neither did the [NLRB].” Justice Gorsuch, writing for the majority, reasoned that it is “pretty unlikely” that the NLRA was intended to protect the right to bring class or collective actions, especially since the NLRA makes no mention of them, and as recently as 2010 the NLRB’s General Counsel opined that the NLRA does not protect these rights.

The Court also relied on the FAA’s policy favoring arbitration agreements and legal precedent acknowledging the “unmistakably clear congressional purpose that the arbitration procedure, when selected by the parties to a contract, be speedy and not subject to delay and obstruction in the courts.” To hold all such provisions unenforceable, the Court stated, would cause arbitration to “wind up looking like the litigation it was meant to displace.”

This sweeping decision will likely eliminate some of the reservations and indecision that the employer community has had regarding including in their new employee orientation paperwork agreements requiring arbitration of employment-related claims on an individual basis only.

For more information regarding the value that mandatory arbitration agreements and class action waivers may add to your organization and how to design and roll out arbitration procedures that will survive legal challenge, please contact one of the Partners in the firm’s Labor Law Practice Group: James J. McGovern III, Esq., at jmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com, Patrick W. McGovern, Esq., at pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com, Douglas E. Solomon, Esq. at dsolomon@nullgenovaburns.com, or John R. Vreeland, Esq., at jvreeland@nullgenovaburns.com  — or call us at 973.533.0777.

Public Employer Obligations Under the Workplace Democracy Enhancement Act

Governor Murphy has signed the Workplace Democracy Enhancement Act (“WDEA”) into law. The WDEA takes immediate effect and creates new obligations of which public employers must be aware.

First, the WDEA extends the negotiations unit to include all full and part time employees who perform negotiation unit work. For example, employees who were not included in the unit because they had not met the threshold number of hours or percent of time worked, must be included in the unit within 90 calendar days from the law’s signing.

In addition, the WDEA requires public employers to provide “access” to organization members, and grants the exclusive representative employee organization specific rights, including, but not limited to:

  • The right to meet with members on the premises of a public employer during the workday to investigate and discuss grievances or other workplace related complaints, or to address any other workplace issue;
  • The right to conduct worksite meetings on the employer’s premises during lunch and other non-work breaks, as well as before and after the workday, in order to discuss workplace issues, collective negotiations, administration of a collective negotiation agreements, and other matters related to the organization’s duties and internal union matters;
  • The right for representatives to meet with new employees for a minimum of 30 minutes within 30 calendar days from that employee’s date of hire, without charge for such time against the employee’s pay or leave time;
  • The right to certain employee contact information, to be produced in a specific timeframe;
  • The right of email use, for matters such as collective negotiation agreements administration, the investigation of grievance, other workplace related complaints or concerns, and internal union matters; and
  • The right to demand negotiations over rights of access, subject to binding arbitration.

The WDEA furthermore prohibits public employers from encouraging employees to resign or relinquish membership in a union, and from encouraging them to revoke their authorization of fee deductions. Public employers likewise are prohibited from either encouraging or discouraging employees from joining, forming, or assisting a union. An employer who violates these provisions will be deemed to have engaged in an unfair labor practice, and the WDEA requires the Public Employment Relations Comission to order the employer to make the union whole for any harm that may result from such actions.

Finally, the WDEA amends existing law to provide that union fee deductions may be authorized by means of electronic communication and electronic signatures. In addition, employees of a public employer that have previously authorized deductions must give written notice to the employer “during the 10 days following each anniversary date of their employment” if they wish to revoke their authorization. Upon receipt of an employee’s revocation, the public employer is required to provide notice to the union within five days. The revocation takes effect on the 30th day after the anniversary date of employment.

For further information, please contact Joseph M. Hannon, Esq.,  or Jennifer Roselle, Esq., Counsel with the Labor Law Practice Group.

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.

UPDATED: New Laws in New York State & City on Workplace Sexual Harassment

Governor Andrew Cuomo recently signed several new laws imposing requirements on employers in New York State regarding sexual harassment.  New York City employers will be subject to additional requirements, as Mayor Bill de Blasio just signed a package of bills, collectively called the “Stop Sexual Harassment in New York City Act.”.  New York State and City employers should prepare for these changes and their varying effective dates summarized below.

New York State

  • Employers Cannot Mandate Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Claims – Employers can no longer mandate that employees arbitrate sexual harassment claims unless that prohibition is inconsistent with (a) federal law or (b) a collective bargaining agreement. This provision is sure to be challenged based on preemption under the Federal Arbitration Act, however, unless or until a court rules otherwise, the law will be effective as of July 11, 2018.
  • Most Nondisclosure Agreements are Banned from Sexual Harassment Settlements Unless Sufficient Consent and Notice – Employers who settle sexual harassment claims can no longer include provisions in their settlement agreements preventing the disclosure of facts underlying the claims, unless the complaining party consents to it. He/she must be given 21 days to consider the nondisclosure language and 7 days thereafter to revoke it.  He/she cannot waive this right.  This law takes effect on July 11, 2018.
  • Employers Must Adopt a Policy and Provide Annual Training on Sexual Harassment – The state will establish a model sexual harassment policy and training program that will address specific topics, including information related to what laws workplace sexual harassment violates, remedies available to victims, complaint and investigation procedures, and the additional obligations imposed on supervisory employees to address sexual harassment. Effective October 9, 2018, employers will be required to adopt a policy that meets or exceeds the model policy’s standards, distribute that policy in writing to all of its employees, and implement an annual training program that meets or exceeds the model training program’s standards.  Effective January 1, 2019, most companies bidding for a state contract will be required to accompany their bids with a certification stating that they have a written policy and training program that meets or exceeds the models.
  • Employers Are Now Liable to Non-Employees for Sexual Harassment – Employers will be held liable for sexual harassment committed against contractors, subcontractors, vendors, and others providing services under a contract, where it can be shown that the employer (a) knew or should have known that such non-employee was being harassed but did nothing about it, and (b) has sufficient control and “legal responsibility” with respect to the conduct of the harasser. This law takes effect immediately.
  • Government Employees Must Refund any Taxpayer-Funded Payouts for Sexual Harassment Awards – Effective immediately, employees of the state, political subdivisions or other public entities (including elected officials), who have been found personally liable for sexual harassment in the workplace, must refund to the state/other public entity any payments it made to the plaintiff on that employee’s behalf, within 90 days.

New York City

  • NYC’s Anti-Harassment Statute Will Apply to All Employers – The NYC Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”), which governs harassment in the workplace, previously applied to employers with 4 or more employees. Effective immediately, the NYCHRL applies to all employers, regardless of size, with respect to liability for sexual harassment.
  • Sexual Harassment Claims Will be Subject to a Three-Year Statute of Limitations – In its prior form, the NYCHRL imposed a one-year statute of limitations on claims of discrimination and harassment. Effective immediately, that limitations period is extended to three years for claims of gender-based harassment.
  • NYC Employers Must Provide Annual Sexual Harassment Training – The City will establish a model sexual harassment training program designed to explain what sexual harassment is and what laws it violates, and inform employees about the complaint processes and legal remedies available to them, that retaliation is prohibited, and the heightened duties imposed on supervisory employees to address sexual harassment. Effective April 1, 2019, private City employers with 15 or more employees will be required to provide all employees annual sexual harassment training that meets or exceeds the model program’s standards.  New employees must receive the training within 90 days of hire.  The program must be interactive, but it need not be live.  Employers will be required to maintain records of trainings, including acknowledgement forms.
  • NYC Employers Must Hang a Poster & Distribute a Hand-Out Regarding Sexual Harassment – The City will create a poster and hand-out setting forth employees’ rights regarding workplace sexual harassment. Effective September 6, 2018, all employers will be required to mount the poster in a conspicuous place and distribute the handout to all employees.  The poster must be at least 8.5 by 14 inches in size, using at least 12-point font, and posted in both English and Spanish.

Employer To-Do List

The following is a non-exhaustive list of some action items that New York State and City employers are strongly encouraged to follow, in consultation with legal counsel:

  • Review and revise your existing policies, practices, procedures, and training programs, as well as employment contracts, severance agreements, and other contracts to ensure compliance with these new state and city laws.
  • Even if your existing harassment policies comply with the new laws, best practice suggests that you redistribute them.
  • Now that contractors and other non-employees are protected from sexual harassment, you should consider providing training to them if you have not done so already.
  • Do not blindly adopt the state and/or city’s model policies or training programs. These are designed to provide minimum thresholds that you should adjust and build upon based upon the needs of your company.

For more information on what your company can do to ensure compliance with the many new sexual harassment laws imposed on New York State and New York City employers, please contact Harris S. Freier, Esq., Partner in the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at hfreier@nullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Partner and Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.

N.J. Governor Orders Fresh Focus On Worker Misclassification

On May 3, 2018 New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed Executive Order No. 25 which authorizes a 12-person task force to review misclassification of workers as independent contractors in New Jersey, with a focus on the construction industry.  The Employee Misclassification Task Force will be responsible for examining misclassification enforcement, developing practices to improve enforcement of current law, making recommendations to encourage compliance with the law, and reviewing existing state law and applicable procedures related to worker misclassification.

The reasons advanced by the Governor for launching the Task Force are that misclassification as an independent contractor results in workers’ losing legal rights and employment related benefits, harms the State’s economy by non-payment of State and federal payroll taxes, serves as a barrier to union organizing, and provides non-compliant employers with an unfair competitive advantage over employers that properly classify their workers.

The Task Force will include three representatives of the State Department of Labor and Workforce Development, three representatives of the Department of the Treasury, one representative each of the Departments of Law and Public Safety, Agriculture, Banking and Insurance, Human Services, and Transportation, and a representative of the Economic Development Authority. Notably, the Task Force will have no representation from the plaintiffs’ or defense bars, at least at the outset.

In light of the State’s renewed crackdown, employers must be cognizant that the designation of a worker as an independent contractor in New Jersey is not a matter of semantics but must be defensible under legal precedent. Specifically, New Jersey adheres to the “ABC” test in distinguishing an independent contractor from an employee. This test presumes that a worker is an employee of the service recipient and places the burden on the service recipient to establish otherwise.

To meet this burden, an employer must show that:

  • The worker has been and will continue to be free from control or direction of the performance of the service, both in the service contract and in fact;
  • The worker’s service is either outside the usual course of business for the service recipient, or is performed outside of all the places of the business of the service recipient; and
  • The worker is engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business.

If any of these three criteria is not met, the worker is properly classified as an employee.  Accordingly, a New Jersey employer must carefully assess the status of its workforce in light of the heightened attention to misclassification at the state level.

For more information about Executive Order No. 25 and guidance as to what your organization should be doing in anticipation of this new enforcement priority, please contact one of the partners in the firm’s Labor Law Practice GroupJames J. McGovern III, Esq., at jmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com, Patrick W. McGovern, Esq., at pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com, Douglas E. Solomon, Esq. at dsolomon@nullgenovaburns.com, or John R. Vreeland, Esq., at jvreeland@nullgenovaburns.com  — or call us at 973-533-0777.