PUMA Provision Provides Powerful Position for Prospective Employee in Connecticut Medical Marijuana Case

The magical mystery tour of medical marijuana-related employment litigation continued earlier this month with a decision out of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut in the case of Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operating Co. LLC.  In Noffsinger, District Court Judge Jeffrey Alker Meyer has issued two notable opinions since August 2017 – “Noffsinger I” on August 8, 2017 and “Noffsinger II” on September 5, 2018 – on the question of whether an employer violated the anti-discrimination provision of Connecticut’s Palliative Use of Marijuana Act (“PUMA”) when it rescinded a prospective employee’s job offer because she had tested positive for medically prescribed cannabis.  The facts of Noffsinger should sound familiar to those acquainted with a recent article on this blog, “Federal Judge Clears the Haze for New Jersey Employers in the Weeds with Medical Marijuana Users,” regarding the decisions in Cotto v. Ardagh Glass Packing, Inc., et al. (NJ) and Barbuto v. Advantage Sales and Marketing, LLC (MA).  The outcome of Noffsigner, however, proves to be quite unique and reinforces the notion that this is an emerging and unsettled area of the law.

Like many states around the country, Connecticut permits the use of medical marijuana for “qualifying patients” with certain debilitating conditions and affords these patients an exemption from criminal prosecution for such prescribed use.  Connecticut is fairly unique, however, in that PUMA also includes a provision that explicitly prohibits discrimination against qualifying patients, stating in relevant part that “[n]o employer may refuse to hire a person . . . solely on the basis of such person’s . . . status as a qualifying patient . . . .” Conn. Gen. Stat. § 21a-408p(b)(3).   PUMA goes on to state that this provision does not operate to restrict an employer’s ability to prohibit the use of “intoxicating substances” or to discipline an employee for being under the influence of the same during work hours.

In Noffsinger, the plaintiff had accepted a job offer for a director of recreational therapy position at Bride Brook, a nursing facility in Niantic, Connecticut.  During the pre-employment process, the plaintiff told Bride Brook’s administrator that she took prescription marijuana as a registered “qualifying patient” under Connecticut’s PUMA to treat her PTSD.  Pursuant to her prescription, the plaintiff took one capsule of a synthetic form of cannabis each night and had done so while employed as a recreational therapist at her previous employer.  However, following a routine pre-employment drug screening, Bride Brook informed the plaintiff that her offer had been rescinded due to a positive drug test result for cannabis.  Three weeks later, plaintiff filed a complaint in which she asserted that Bride Brook, in rescinding her job offer due to the results of her drug test, had violated PUMA’s anti-discrimination provision.  Therefore, the issue raised in Noffsinger is what role, if any, PUMA’s anti-discrimination provision has for individuals who have suffered adverse employment decisions because of their use of medical marijuana outside of the work place.

As noted above, Judge Meyer addressed this issue in two separate opinions.  The first opinion, Noffsinger I, involved two important questions: 1) does federal law preempt PUMA’s anti-discrimination provision, and, if not, 2) does this provision provide a basis for an individual to sustain a lawsuit against an employer for a claim of discrimination.  Taking on the first question, Judge Meyer found that neither the federal Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”) nor the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) preempt PUMA’s anti-discrimination provision.  The judge found that the CSA does not make it illegal to employ a marijuana user and the ADA does not preclude a state from regulating employers who discriminate against employees who engage in the medicinal use of drugs in compliance with state law.  Turning to the second question, Judge Meyer held that the anti-discrimination provision of PUMA does indeed provide a basis for individuals to sue an employer for a claim of discrimination.  In effect, Noffsinger I cleared the way for the plaintiff to continue her lawsuit against Bride Brook, with the question remaining whether Bride Brook did indeed discriminate against her in violation of PUMA.

This remaining question was resolved in Noffsinger II with Judge Meyer holding that Bride Brook’s conduct in rescinding the plaintiff’s job offer did indeed constitute a violation of PUMA’s non-discrimination provision.  Specifically, the judge found that PUMA protects a qualifying patient for the use of medical marijuana outside working hours and in the absence of any influence during working hours.  In light of this, Bride Brook’s conduct was contrary to the plaintiff’s right not to be the subject of discrimination because of her status as a qualifying patient under PUMA.

Casual onlookers may reasonably wonder what sort of magic pill allowed for the plaintiff to prevail in Noffsinger, while other courts have dismissed employment discrimination complaints involving adverse actions against qualifying medical marijuana patients, as was the case in Cotto (NJ).  A key factor that makes the outcome in Noffsinger distinguishable from Cotto, or even from Barbuto (MA), is the text of Connecticut’s PUMA itself.  That PUMA explicitly states that employers shall not make adverse employment decisions against individuals solely based on their status as qualifying patients, this is a textual commitment to non-discrimination that is notably absent from many other state medical marijuana statutes, such as New Jersey’s Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act (“NJCUMMA”).  Likewise, at the time that the complaint was filed in Barbuto, the medical marijuana statute in Massachusetts also lacked an explicit non-discrimination provision.

Where does this leave the state of the law for employers in New Jersey?  In a word, hazy.  The diverse outcomes of Noffsinger, Cotto, and Barbuto, in addition to the proposals that are currently being debated in the New Jersey Legislature make it clear that this is an emerging and unsettled area of the law.  Employers should be careful to have state-specific drug testing policies.  Furthermore, employers need to proceed very carefully before taking adverse action against medical marijuana users.

To cope with these clouds of uncertainty, any employers dealing with issues involving medical marijuana should consult with their counsel. For more information, please contact Harris S. Freier, Esq. of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at hfreier@nullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.

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.

New York State Releases Draft Sexual Harassment Prevention Policy & Model Training Program

New York State has released a draft Sexual Harassment Prevention Policy and model training program for employers and is seeking comments from the public by September 12, 2018. The model policy and training policy is in follow-up to the legislation passed earlier this year to reduce the prevalence of discrimination and harassment in the workplace.  After the period for public comment, revisions will be considered and final documents will be ultimately released.

The model Sexual Harassment Prevention Policy, available on the State’s website, requires that by October 9, 2018, employers doing business in New York State adopt a policy that meets or exceeds the model policy’s standards and distribute that policy in writing to all of its employees.  Employers who do not adopt the model policy may establish their own policy, but it must meet a set of “minimum standards,” which New York State also recently released.  The new law also requires that an employer’s sexual harassment policy include a complaint form for employees to report alleged incidents of sexual harassment.  The State has also released its model complaint form, linked here. Employers must also:

  • Develop an investigation procedure for complaints that guarantees due process;
  • Provide information about applicable federal, state & local laws on sexual harassment in the workplace, including remedies available to aggrieved employees;
  • Provide examples of behavior that would constitute unlawful sexual harassment.
  • State that sexual harassment is considered a form of employee misconduct and that employees or managers who take part in or knowingly allow such harassment will be disciplined; and
  • Clearly indicate that any form of retaliation is prohibited against employees who either complain about sexual harassment or assist in an investigation.

New York State also released model training program, linked here. Interactive training must be given  annually, starting on October 9, 2018.  Employers may also adopt the model training or may use it as a basis to establish its own. Employers must, however, ensure that their training complies with State-issued minimum standards, which can be accessed here.

Starting January 1, 2019, 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.

As we have previously advised, there are other sweeping changes to workplace sexual harassment laws that New York State and New York City employers must comply with, which are summarized as follows:

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 was 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 took effect on July 11, 2018.
  • 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 took 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 Applies to All Employers – The NYCHRL prohibiting harassment and discrimination in the workplace now applies to all employers, regardless of size.
  • Sexual Harassment Claims are Subject to a Three-Year Statute of Limitations – The statute of limitations to bring a claim under the NYCHRL has been extended from 1 year to 3 years for claims of gender-based harassment.
  • NYC Employers Must Provide Annual Sexual Harassment Training Effective April 1, 2019, New York 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.  We are still awaiting the Commission’s sexual harassment training module.
  • NYC Employers Must Hang a Poster & Distribute a Hand-Out Regarding Sexual Harassment – By September 6, 2018, all employers doing business in New York City must conspicuously post and distribute a poster created by the New York City Commission on Human Rights to all employees, which informs them of their protections from sexual harassment under the New York City Human Rights Law, provides phone numbers to report harassment, and provides information on how to file a Complaint with the Commission and a Charge of Discrimination the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The poster is available on the Commission’s website and it must be at least 8.5 by 14 inches in size, using at least 12-point font, and posted in both English and Spanish. The Commission, however, has only released the English version to date. The Commission has also released a Fact Sheet setting forth employees’ rights regarding workplace sexual harassment, which employers must distribute to all employees at the time of hire.  The Fact Sheet is also available on the Commission’s website and linked here. The information sheet may either be distributed as a separate document or incorporated into the employer’s Employee Handbook no later than September 6, 2018.

Employer To-Do List

We will continue to monitor and update the new developments in both New York State and New York City.  The following is a non-exhaustive list of action items that New York State and New York City employers are strongly encouraged to implement, 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.  However, make sure your policies and training programs comply with the minimum standards released by the State.
  • If you have employees in New York City, post the required sexual harassment poster and implement a system for distributing the required sexual harassment fact sheet to all employees upon hire or incorporate it into your Employee Handbook, no later than September 6, 2018.

For more information on what your company can do to ensure compliance with New York or New York City sexual harassment laws, please contact Harris S. Freier, Esq. of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at hfreier@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 York Legislature Amends Paid Family Leave Act

On June 20, 2018, the New York legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill to give employees up to 12 weeks of partially paid bereavement leave. The bill will still require the approval of Governor Andrew Cuomo. The bill expands the Paid Family Leave Act (the “Act”), which went into effect on January 1, 2018. The Act already provided employees up to 12 weeks of leave paid at a percentage of their salaries for situations including child birth or adoption, a qualifying exigency arising out of a family member’s military service, or the need to care for a sick relative. The Act covers the care of a spouse or domestic partner, child, parent, parent-in-law, grandparent, or grandchild, by blood or marriage. The recent amendment was passed in an effort to explicitly clarify the legislative intent that bereavement leave for the death of such relative would be covered by the Act as well.

The original Act guarantees an employee the same or comparable job when they return from leave, and bars employers from cutting off health insurance. While employees with planned births or adoptions are required to provide 30 days’ notice under the Act, the bereavement amendment will permit employees to give notice “as soon as practicable.” Employees eligible for leave under this amendment will be required to provide a death certificate.

While some employers are concerned that the bill will impose hardship on small businesses, the New York State Assembly justifies the amendment because “[g]rief-related losses cost U.S. companies as much as $75 billion annually.” As such, the legislature purports that the amendment will result in “greater employee loyalty, better outcomes, better quality of life for that person, and an overall healthier workforce that has been given the necessary time to mourn their loss.” The bill is sponsored by State Senator Rich Funke, who suffered the sudden loss of his adult son. If the bill is signed by Governor Cuomo, New York will offer the most generous bereavement leave benefits in the country.

For more information on what your company can do to ensure compliance with New York or New York City employee benefits laws, 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.

Federal Judge Clears the Haze for New Jersey Employers in the Weeds with Medical Marijuana Users

States across the country, including New Jersey, continue to legalize medical marijuana, but it remains an illegal substance under federal law, and employers’ confusion continues to bud.  The complication that employers have – especially in states such as New Jersey with expansive disability protections under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”) – is that any employee who is using marijuana for a medicinal purpose under the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act (“NJCUMMA”), likely would be considered to have a disability and thus be protected under the NJLAD.

One way an employer can be considered under NJLAD to have discriminated against a disabled individual is by failing to offer him/her a reasonable accommodation.  While the NJCUMMA explicitly states that a reasonable accommodation would not include allowing an employee to use marijuana at work, the statute is not so blunt on the topic of workplace drug testing.  Does NJLAD require that employers accommodate a medical marijuana user by waiving the requirement that he/she pass a drug test for federally-prohibited narcotics?  Issuing a dose of relief to employers who feared that NJCUMMA would set their drug test requirements ablaze, a New Jersey federal judge recently ruled that the answer is no.

In Cotto v. Ardagh Glass Packing, Inc., et al., the plaintiff worked for about 5 years as a forklift operator for a glass packaging company.  In 2016, he injured his head on the job and was placed on light duty work.  He was subsequently asked to take a drug test before returning to work as a condition of continued employment.  He informed his employer that he would test positive for medical marijuana, which he was legally prescribed to treat a neck and back injury that occurred in 2007.  Seeking an accommodation, the plaintiff requested that his employer waive the requirement that he pass a drug test for marijuana.  Apparently, the plaintiff had told the employer upon hire that he was prescribed medical marijuana.  After his employer refused to waive the requirement that he pass a drug test before returning to work, he sued for disability discrimination based on a failure to accommodate.

Judge Robert B. Kugler of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey held that the NJCUMMA does not require an employer to waive its requirement that employees pass a drug test for illegal drugs.  Addressing the issue as one of first impression in New Jersey, Judge Kugler relied on the current federal prohibition on marijuana.  He also relied on the express language of the NJCUMMA, which provides that legal medical marijuana users shall not be subject to criminal or civil penalties related to their use of the drug, but expressly excludes employers from its scope, as follows: “Nothing in this act shall be construed to require . . . an employer to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace.”  N.J.S.A. § 24:6I-14.  Judge Kugler also observed that most courts outside New Jersey have concluded that, unless their state statute’s language explicitly provides otherwise, the decriminalization of medical marijuana does not shield employees from adverse employment actions related to their use of the drug.

Last year, in Barbuto v. Advantage Sales and Marketing, LLC, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts was faced with a similar set of facts: an employee suffering from Crohn’s disease who was legally prescribed medical marijuana under Massachusetts’ medical marijuana statute, sought a waiver of her employer’s policy barring from employment those who test positive for marijuana.  Like the NJCUMMA, Massachusetts’ statute also explicitly states that employers are not required to accommodate any on-site medical marijuana use.  The employer in Barbuto argued that because the only accommodation the employee sought – her continued use of medical marijuana – is a federal crime, it was facially unreasonable.  The Barbuto Court disagreed, noting that such an argument respects federal law alone and ignores Massachusetts voters’ and legislators’ recognition of marijuana as an acceptable method to treat debilitating medical conditions.  The Court further held that, even if an accommodation of continued use of medical marijuana were facially unreasonable, the employer still had a duty to engage in the interactive process and explore with the employee whether there was an alternative accommodation that would allow her to work, such as allowing her to use the drug off-site during non-working hours.

Cotto concerned the reasonable accommodation request of waiving a drug test while Barbuto involved the reasonable accommodation request of using marijuana off-site during non-work hours.   The parties and judge in Cotto seem to have gone out of their way not to cite or distinguish Barbuto, so while New Jersey employers now have clarity about drug testing, they remain dazed and confused as to whether allowing an employee to use medicinal marijuana off-site during non-work hours would be a legitimate reasonable accommodation.

In addition, employers should understand that their knowledge that an employee uses the drug almost invariably imputes knowledge that an employee suffers from a protected disability.  The Cotto case concerned employer conduct resulting from an employee’s treatment, not the employee’s disability, as the plaintiff admitted that his employer knew about his disability for years and never discriminated against him until he was asked to take the drug test.  However, in the absence of such favorable facts, employers should take caution not to make employment decisions based solely on their knowledge that an employee is a medical marijuana user.

For more information about the interplay between the decriminalization of medical marijuana and disability discrimination law, please contact Harris S. Freier, Esq. of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at hfreier@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 York City Issues Mandatory Sexual Harassment Poster & Fact Sheet

The New York City Commission on Human Rights (“the Commission”) has issued its mandatory poster and information sheet for distribution to  employees pursuant to the recently enacted Stop Sexual Harassment in New York City Act.  By September 6, 2018, all employers doing business in New York City must conspicuously post and distribute the notice to all employees. The poster, available on the Commission’s website, must be at least 8.5 by 14 inches in size, using at least 12-point font, and posted in both English and Spanish.  The Commission, however, has only released the English version to date.

The Commission has also released a Fact Sheet setting forth employees’ rights regarding workplace sexual harassment, which employers must distribute to all employees at the time of hire.  The Fact Sheet, also available on the Commission’s website, can be accessed by clicking here. The information sheet may either be distributed as a separate document or incorporated into the employer’s Employee Handbook no later than September 6, 2018.

The poster and Fact Sheet advise employees of the protections of the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”), lists examples of sexual harassment and advises that retaliation against employees reporting sexual harassment is illegal.  The poster also provides the Commission’s phone number for employees to report sexual harassment in the workplace and provides information on how to file a Complaint with the Commission and a Charge of Discrimination the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

As we have previously advised, New York State and New York City employers must comply with recent sweeping changes to the laws regarding sexual harassment, summarized as follows:

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 was 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 took 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, 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 took 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 Applies to All Employers – The NYCHRL prohibiting harassment and discrimination in the workplace now applies to all employers, regardless of size.
  • Sexual Harassment Claims are Subject to a Three-Year Statute of Limitations – The statute of limitations to bring a claim under the NYCHRL has been extended from 1 year to 3 years for claims of gender-based harassment.
  • NYC Employers Must Provide Annual Sexual Harassment Training Effective April 1, 2019, New York 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.  We are still awaiting the Commission’s sexual harassment training module.

Employer To-Do List

We will continue to monitor and update the new developments in both New York State and New York City.  The following is a non-exhaustive list of action items that New York State and New York City employers are strongly encouraged to implement, 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.
  • If you have employees in New York City, post the required sexual harassment poster and implement a system for distributing the required sexual harassment fact sheet to all employees upon hire or incorporate it into your Employee Handbook, no later than September 6, 2018.

For more information on what your company can do to ensure compliance with New York or New York City sexual harassment laws, please contact Harris S. Freier, Esq. of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at hfreier@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.

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.

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.