Religion at Work: NJ Appellate Court Reinstates Religious Harassment Lawsuit Over Shaving Mandate

The New Jersey Appellate Division has ruled that a lawsuit against the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) can proceed for failure to accommodate a trainee’s religious practice.

Background Facts

In July 2016, Marven Roseus, a member of the Israel United in Christ faith, applied to become a NJDOC corrections officer. While attending an orientation meeting, Roseus informed lieutenants that his religion prohibits him from shaving his head or face. Roseus submitted a religious accommodation request which included a statement from an elder in his church explaining that his religion requires that he not shave either his head or face.

After submitting his request, Roseus arrived for his first day of training, and was told that he was not “properly shaven.”  Even though Roseus explained that his request for a religious accommodation, Roseus was written up and dismissed from training.

On January 9, 2017, Roseus filed a complaint against the State of New Jersey and the NJDOC alleging discriminatory practices and a failure to accommodate a sincerely held religious belief, in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) which prohibits employers from imposing a condition on employees that “would require a person to violate or forego a sincerely held religious practice or observance” unless, “after engaging in bona fide effort, the employer demonstrates that it is unable to reasonably accommodate the employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(q)(1).

The State and NJDOC moved to dismiss Roseus’ complaint, and the trial court dismissed the case on June 30, 2017.

Appellate Court’s Decision

The Appellate Division ruled that Roseus’ complaint should be reinstated finding that there was no evidence the NJDOC acted in “a bona fide effort” or that it is “unable to reasonably accommodate” his religious practice without a “undue hardship.” An “undue hardship”, as defined by the NJLAD, must be one requiring “unreasonable expense or difficulty, unreasonable interference with the safe or efficient operation of the workplace or a violation of a bona fide seniority system or a violation of any provision of a bona fide collective bargaining agreement.” N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(q)(3)(a).

In its decision, the Appellate Division distinguished a 2008 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Valdes v. New Jersey. In Valdes, an applicant sought to become a corrections officer, and sought an accommodation to not shave his beard based upon his religious beliefs. This request was initially denied, but the NJDOC eventually granted an accommodation and allowed the applicant to retain his facial hair so long as it was not longer than one-eighth of an inch. When the applicant did not shave his beard to the agreed upon length, he was terminated. The Appellate Division points out that although seemingly similar to the facts at hand, Valdes was distinguishable in a number of ways, including, most notably, that an accommodation was offered in Valdes, whereas Roseus was offered no such accommodation.

The Appellate Division also noted that because Roseus sufficiently alleged that the NJDOC has previously granted accommodations to its grooming policy, Roseus was entitled to discovery to explore whether there was a bona fide effort made to accommodate his religious beliefs. Moreover, the State and NJDOC did not explain the reasons for the grooming policy, nor did they demonstrate they attempted to accommodate Roseus.

Bottom Line

This case serves as a reminder that employers must engage in the interactive process in order to determine whether or not an employee’s sincerely held religious belief requires an accommodation in the workplace.  Accommodation requests often relate to change in work schedules, exceptions to dress and grooming policies, or time for religious expression or practice while at work.  In many cases, employers who face costly litigation are those where supervisors refuse an accommodation request without exploring other ways to accommodate the employee. Employers should also take pro-active steps to ensure they have the following:

  • A compliant Anti-Harassment Policy that covers religion and creed.
  • An accommodation policy that covers religious beliefs, practices or observances.
  • Train Managers and Supervisors on how to document and respond to requests for a religious accommodation and address complaints about religious harassment.

For more information on what your company can do to ensure compliance with religious accommodations in the workplace, 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.

New Jersey Takes the Lead in Equal Pay Act Legislation

Following up on his January 16, 2018 Executive Order promoting equal pay for equal work, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed a historic and sweeping equal pay law on April 24, 2018. The “Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act” was named after former Republican Senator Diane B. Allen, herself a victim of bias, who was part of the original negotiations surrounding the bill when it was first proposed under former Governor Chris Christie. The new Equal Pay Act applies to all employers in New Jersey regardless of size and is scheduled to take effect on July 1, 2018. The new law combats not only gender pay discrimination but also wage discrimination against those protected by the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD).

Coverage

The Equal Pay Act amends the NJLAD and now makes it illegal for an employer to pay any employees who are members of a protected class recognized under the NJLAD at a lower compensation than other employees who are not members of a protected class, for “substantially similar work,” unless a pay differential is justified by legitimate business necessity. Under the NJLAD, protected classes include race, creed, sex, color, national origin, ancestry, nationality, disability, age, pregnancy or breastfeeding, marital, civil union or domestic partnership status, affectional or sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, military status, and genetic information or atypical hereditary cellular or blood traits. “Substantially similar work” is determined by a combination of the “skill, effort and responsibility” required for that position and is not limited to employees who work within a specific geographic area or region.

Moreover, although the legislation carves out an exception for differential pay based on certain factors like merit, seniority, and education, this exception is only so long as these factors do not perpetuate a sex-based differential in compensation. For example, if one employee has a different title than another employee or even works in a different department, but both employees perform the same types of tasks with similar levels of responsibility, both employees should be paid the same.

An employer may pay a different rate of compensation only if the employer demonstrates that the differential is made pursuant to a seniority system, a merit system, or the employer demonstrates:

  • The differential is based on one or more legitimate, bona fide factors other than the characteristics of members of the protected class (like training, education, experience, or the quantity or quality of production);
  • The factors are not based on, and do not perpetuate, a differential in compensation based on sex or any other characteristic protected under the NJLAD;
  • Each of the factors must be applied reasonably;
  • One or more factors account for the entire wage differential; and
  • The factors are job-related with respect to the position in question and based on a legitimate business necessity.

Prohibitions

The new law also makes it easier for employees to win pay-discrimination cases since all they would need to show is that they were paid unequally for “substantially similar” work, rather than the previous standard of “substantially equal” work. Employers are also not permitted to reduce the rate of compensation of any employee in order to achieve compliance.

The new law also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who (1) oppose any practices or acts forbidden under the Act; (2) seek legal advice regarding rights under the Act; (3) share relevant information with legal counsel or a governmental entity; or (4) file a complaint, testifies or assists in any proceeding.  The Act also forbids coercion, intimidation, threats or interference with any person in the exercise or enjoyment of, or on account of that person having aided or encouraged any other person in the exercise or enjoyment of, any right granted or protected by the Act.

Statute of Limitations

In addition to any other relief authorized by the NJLAD, liability under the new law shall accrue, and an aggrieved person may obtain relief for back pay, for up to 6 years, so long as the violations continue within the 6-year period. The law also makes it unlawful to require employees or prospective employees to consent to a shortened statute of limitations or to waive any of the protections afforded under the NJLAD.

Available Damages

In addition to the damages permitted under the NJLAD, the new law allows victims of discrimination to recover triple damages should a jury, or the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights, determine that the employer is guilty of an unlawful employment practice as defined by the law.

Reporting Obligations

To ensure companies doing business with the state comply, companies that win contracts from public agencies are required to submit reports to the Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development. These reports would need to include the gender and race of employees in every job title or pay band, and the total compensation for each category of employees.

Bottom Line

Employers should carefully analyze their existing pay practices to ensure compliance. Prior to July 1, 2018, employers must review the current job descriptions, employee handbooks and policies to determine which employees perform “substantially similar work” in order to ensure they are being compensated at the same rate. If, after doing this review, there is a pay differential, the employer must be able to show that the difference is not based on sex or any other characteristic of members of a protected class. Existing handbooks and policies must also be revised to prohibit pay discrimination for substantially similar work, and prohibit retaliation against employees who request, discuss or disclose compensation or other job-related information covered by the law. Human resources and benefits personnel should also be trained on the new requirements and managers should also receive updated training.

Employers must also be aware that the provision for back pay damages is much more extensive than federal law, and the possibility of treble damages should a jury find that an employer is guilty of an unlawful employment practice should serve as a powerful deterrent to correct discriminatory pay differentials.  Lastly, employers who work with public entities must ensure that payroll records and other information regarding the “gender, race, job title, occupational category and rate of compensation” of every employee that is part of the project is up to date and sent to the public entity.

For more information regarding the impacts of this legislation and how to implement nondiscriminatory pay practices, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Director of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com or 973-533-0777.

DACA Program Preoccupies Courts and Confounds Congress

Since September 2017 when the Trump Administration announced the termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA), litigation and Congressional inertia have contributed to the creation of an uncertain future for DACA Program enrollees. On January 9, a federal district court enjoined the Administration from ending DACA on March 5, 2018, and at least until the case makes its way through litigation. This decision prompted the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to restart the DACA program, which currently means that DACA program enrollees whose status expired on or after September 5, 2016 may now file a renewal application. Further, DACA program enrollees whose DACA status expired or terminated prior to September 5, 2016 may file new DACA applications. The order does not, however, allow new applications by persons who never had DACA status and does not permit persons in the DACA Program to travel outside the U.S. in advance parole status.

The Department of Justice appealed the federal court’s order, and the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Justice Department’s appeal on an expedited basis, which allows the Court to issue a decision by mid-February. The Court also ruled that the Department of Homeland Security is not required to turn over documents relating to the Administration’s decision to end DACA, at least for now.

Meanwhile, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals is reviewing an order by a federal district court in Brooklyn that allows the court to review the Administration’s decision to terminate the DACA program.

While these DACA program-related cases proceed through the courts, Congress is attempting to legislate a resolution. A bipartisan group of Senators sent a DACA proposal to the President who rejected it, reportedly because it failed to end the family preferences provisions of current immigration law Most recently, 30 Democrats joined their Republican counterparts to end a three-day government shutdown by passing a temporary spending bill, but failed to negotiate a deal on DACA.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell committed to bring a DACA bill to the Senate floor if DACA and border security legislation has not been passed by the Senate by February 8 when the current funding legislation expires.

For questions about the DACA Program and how it could affect your employees and your business, contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq., Partner in the firm’s Immigration Law Practice Group, at pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com, or by phone at 973-535-7129.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy Signs First Executive Order for Equal Pay and Gender Equality

In his first official act as Governor of the State of New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy issued an Executive Order on January 16, 2018 promoting equal pay for equal work in New Jersey. The Executive Order, which is set to take effect February 1, 2018, provides that all New Jersey workers should be compensated based on their work and the services they provide, regardless of gender. The Executive Order further states that currently, women of all ethnicities in New Jersey who hold full-time, year-round jobs are paid less than men in those same positions.

Fulfilling a campaign promise and following in the footsteps of other states and major cities around the country, the Governor’s Office seeks to fix this wage gap in various ways. Since asking for prior compensation information can be part of the application process, the Executive Order directs that no State entity is permitted to ask employment applicants about their current or previous salaries until after a conditional offer of employment has been made. In the event an applicant refuses to volunteer such information, that refusal cannot be considered in employment decisions. If a State entity does have a job applicant’s compensation information, that information cannot be used in an employment decision. Further, the Executive Order provides that State entities can only request and verify current or previous compensation information prior to a conditional offer of employment if such information was voluntarily provided or if verification is required by federal, state, or local law.  A “State entity” is definied in the Executive Order as “any of the principal departments in the Executive Branch of State government and any agency, authority, board, bureau, commission, division, institution, office, or other instrumentality within or created by any such department, and any independent State authority, commission, instrumentality, or agency over which the Governor exercises executive authority, as determined by the Attorney General.”

To enforce this Executive Order, the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations is tasked with overseeing the implementation and training of staff at State entities so that they can comply. For those who are improperly asked about their salary history, such violations can be reported to the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations. Reporting such violations to the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations is the sole remedy, as the Executive Order does not create a private right of action for employees or prospective employees in the event they are improperly asked about their salary history.

Although the Executive Order only impacts State entities, Governor Murphy indicated that he would make it state law if the Legislature presents him with a bill extending these protections to private businesses.  California, Massachusetts, Delaware, Oregon, and several other U.S. cities, including New York City, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, have all enacted policies that prohibit employers from asking about prospective employees’ salary histories.

For more information regarding the potential impacts of this Executive Order and how to implement nondiscriminatory pay practices, please contact Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Director of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com or 973-533-0777.

NJLAD Amendment to Protect Nursing Mothers in the Workplace

Since 2010, the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) requires employers to provide reasonable break times for nursing mothers to express breast milk.  These break times must be provided for up to 1 year after the birth of the child.  On January 8, 2018, New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”) was amended to include a similar requirement.  The NJLAD now requires all New Jersey employers to provide lactation breaks, regardless of the employer’s size and number of employees.

This new amendment to the NJLAD makes it a civil rights violation for an employer to terminate or discriminate against a female employee who breastfeeds or pumps milk on the job. The amendment also imposes a reasonable accommodation requirement, where employers must reasonably accommodate employees with daily break times and a suitable room or other location with privacy so that she can express breast milk for her child. This room must be in close proximity to the employee’s working area. However, it is not required that these breaks be paid, unless the employee is already compensated for breaks. While the FLSA requires that employers allow this accommodation for up to a year after the child’s birth, the new NJLAD amendment does not include any time restriction.

These requirements are effective immediately, unless the employer can demonstrate that providing the accommodation would pose an undue hardship on its operations. Factors to consider when deciding whether providing the accommodation would cause an undue hardship include: the number of employees, the number and type of facilities, the size of the budget, the nature and cost of the accommodation needed, and the extent to which the accommodation would involve waiver of an essential requirement of a job.

For more information about how these new requirements affect your company, please contact Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resource Training & Audit Programs Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.

President Ends DACA Program, Gives Congress Six Month Deadline to Pass Long-Term Fix for Dreamers

On September 5 U.S. Attorney General Sessions announced that the Administration will end the Obama Administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. The program has been in effect since mid-2012 and has allowed individuals brought to the U.S. as children or teens before 2007 to apply for work permits and avoid deportation. To be eligible to apply for DACA, an individual had to be under age 16 upon entry into the U.S. and no older than 31 as of June 15, 2012, must have lived in the U.S. continuously since 2007, either be enrolled in high school or college, or already have a diploma or degree, and have no felony criminal convictions, no significant misdemeanor convictions, no more than three other misdemeanor convictions, and not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety. If granted deferred action, the individual’s deportation would be deferred and received a work permit (EAD) valid for two years and renewable for additional two-year periods. These individuals are known popularly as dreamers.

Under the Trump administration program, anyone whose DACA status is set to expire by no later than March 5, 2018 will be able to apply for a final two-year permit by October 5, 2017, but all DACA program beneficiaries whose permits expire after March 5, 2018 are ineligible for a renewal. No new DACA applications will be processed. Any individual who has an EAD though the DACA program has no obligation to tell his or her employer that it is a DACA EAD. An employee whose EAD expires and is not renewable will be ineligible to work legally in the U.S. It is crucial that employers know when their employees’ EADs expire. Although there are indications that Congressional Democrats and President Trump are nearing a deal to save the DACA program, the official stance of the Administration is that Congress has six months to pass legislation to save the program. If Congress does not pass legislation by early March 2018, then DACA program enrollees whose EADs expire in the meantime will be subject to deportation.

For an employer that knows or believes it has employees with work permits through DACA, there is currently little they can do after the Attorney General’s announcement, other than advising these employees who are eligible to renew their EADs to do so by October 5, 2017. Employers cannot preemptively discharge these employees before their EADs expire. Doing so may expose the employer to claims of national origin discrimination. An employee whose EAD expires must be removed from the employer’s active payroll. Employers that refuse to release the employees who are not authorized to work in the U.S. can be liable for significant monetary penalties.

For questions about DACA and how it could affect your employees and your business, contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq., Partner in the firm’s Immigration Law Practice Group, at pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com, or by phone at 973-535-7129.