#MeToo Movement Insufficient to Revive Dismissed Case

The U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey denied an employee’s request to reopen her case based on alleged changed attitudes “post-Weinstein.”  The Court also denied the employer’s request for sanctions but cautioned the employee’s attorney that the employee’s motion “bordered on frivolous.” 

Background Facts

Taylor Ballard worked as a retail sales consultant at a New Jersey store operated by AT&T Mobility Services LLC (AT&T).  In her lawsuit against AT&T, Ballard contended that one of her coworkers made lewd comments to her about her physical appearance and took unsolicited photographs of her on his Google Glasses.  Ballard reported the incident to her immediate supervisor.  Ballard’s supervisor spoke to the coworker (who denied the allegations) and ultimately warned him about inappropriate conduct.  Ballard claimed during litigation that coworkers would regularly discuss sexual activities, but she made no other reports to management.

After someone flagged the incident to AT&T’s Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) hotline, AT&T’s EEO office conducted a full investigation, interviewing several witnesses.  The EEO office could not corroborate the story but ordered all of the employees and managers at the store to participate in training sessions about appropriate workplace conduct.

After the alleged incident, Ballard only attended work 3 out of her 16 scheduled shifts.  During her penultimate shift, Ballard arrived out of uniform and told her supervisor she was turning in her company phone.  After a final warning, Ballard’s employment was terminated.

Court Awards Summary Judgment to AT&T

Ballard asserted hostile work environment, constructive discharge and retaliation claims under federal and state law.  On August 25, 2017, the District Court granted AT&T’s motion for summary judgment on all claims and dismissed her complaint.

Even viewing all of the facts favorably to Ballard, the Court found that Ballard had not demonstrated the existence of a “hostile work environment” under federal and state law.  The single incident that Ballard reported, the Court held, was not “severe” or “pervasive” and so it did not rise to the level required to show a hostile work environment claim.  Ballard’s generalized allegations of other sexual comments were not specific enough and did not rescue her claim.

The Court dismissed Ballard’s constructive discharge claim both because she could not show that she voluntarily resigned – she was fired – and because a constructive discharge claim requires a showing of even more severe or pervasive conduct than a hostile work environment claim.  Since Ballard’s hostile work environment claim was legally insufficient, so was her constructive discharge claim.

On her retaliation claim, Ballard contended that AT&T fired her because she reported her coworker’s conduct.  The Court found the evidence demonstrated Ballard was fired because of her persistent failure to attend work, not because of her report of the conduct, precluding a retaliation claim.

Court Denies Request To Reopen Case Due to “Post-Weinstein” Change in Attitudes

Ballard did not appeal the summary judgment decision to the Court of Appeals.  Instead, four months later, in December 2017, Ballard filed a motion to “set aside” the Court’s summary judgment in AT&T’s favor and revive her case.

Ballard’s argued that the highly publicized allegations against Harvey Weinstein and resulting #Metoo movement have changed “common sense” and “industry standards.”  Based on these new standards, Ballard urged the Court to revisit its decision as to what constitutes a hostile work environment.

Rejecting Ballard’s argument, the Court noted that it was not based on new evidence and that all of the current events Ballard discussed bore no relation to AT&T or to her specifically.  The Court refused to draw any inferences or conclusions from other allegations of sexual harassment against different companies, all unaffiliated with AT&T, about Ballard’s case.

Ballard also cited to a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issued less than two weeks after the summary judgment decision.  But that decision, the Court concluded, did not change the law and, even if it had changed the law, Ballard’s time to appeal had not run when the Third Circuit issued the decision, so she should have filed a motion for reconsideration with the district court at that time.

“Close Call” For Sanctions

In response to Ballard’s motion, AT&T requested that the Court sanction Ballard because the motion lacked any basis in current law and was frivolous.  The Court denied this request but noted that it was not an “easy decision” since the motion “bordered on frivolous, considering the relevant case law and the circumstances of the litigation.”  That being said, the Court did not want to deter attorneys from making creative or novel arguments.  Thus, the Court declined to sanction Ballard or her attorney but cautioned “counsel to carefully consider future filings.”

Bottom Line

Employers should take comfort that the court will not be influenced by the ebb and flow of public opinion. The #Metoo movement has empowered individuals to come forward to report abuses and misconduct that legitimately should be remedied.  But Courts hearing sexual harassment claims will only look to evidence that directly relates to the employee/employer in that specific case, not general anecdotes about the state of corporations overall and the vicissitudes of public opinion.

For more information on hostile work environment claims and motions for relief from judgment, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com or Lawrence Bluestone, Esq., Counsel, at lbluestone@nullgenovaburns.com.

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.

“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.

New Jersey Passes Mandatory Paid Sick Leave

On May 2, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed a law mandating all private and public New Jersey employers, regardless of size, offer paid sick leave. This makes New Jersey the 10th state to adopt mandatory paid sick leave legislation. The Paid Sick Leave Act (“the Act”) also permits employees to use the leave for their own care or for the care of a family member and expands how paid sick leave can be used, encompassing protections beyond the federal Family Leave and Medical Act, the New Jersey Family Leave Act as well as other leave laws. The new law also fully pre-empts the 13 municipalities in New Jersey with local paid sick leave ordinances, allowing employers to adopt a state-wide uniform paid sick leave policy.

Coverage

Permissible use of sick leave includes the following:

(i) Diagnosis, care, treatment, recovery and/or preventive care for the employee’s own mental or physical illness or injury or the employee’s family member’s mental or physical illness or injury;

(ii) Absence due to a public health emergency declared by a public official that causes the closure of the employee’s workplace or the school or childcare facility of the employee’s child or requires the employee or an employee’s family member to seek care;

(iii) A necessary absence for medical, legal or other victim services because of domestic or sexual violence perpetrated on the employee or the employee’s family member; or

(iv) To attend a school-conferences, meetings, or any event requested or required by a child’s school administrator, teacher, or other professional staff member responsible for the child’s education, or to attend a meeting regarding a child’s health or disability.

The Act also broadly defines “family members” to include an employee’s child, spouse, domestic partner, civil union partner, parent (including adoptive, foster or step-parent, or legal guardian), sibling (including foster or adoptive siblings), grandparent or grandchild, and the parent, grandparent or sibling of the employee’s spouse, domestic partner or civil union partner. Notably, an employee has the opportunity to use their sick leave for the care of a non-related individual whose close association with the employee is the “equivalent” of a family relationship.

Exemptions & Employees Covered by a CBA

Per diem healthcare employees, construction workers subject to a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), and public employees who are provided with sick leave with full payment pursuant to any other law, rule or regulation are exempt from the new law. Non-construction employees covered by a CBA at the time the law goes into effect are also not effect, but will apply once the agreement expires. Further, employees and their representatives may waive the rights available under the law and address paid leave in collective bargaining.

Accrual of Paid Sick Leave

Under the new law, employees accrue 1 hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. Employees may accrue up to 40 hours of paid sick leave per benefit year.  Employers are also permitted to designate the “benefit year” as any 12-month period but may not modify it without notifying the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development (NJDOL).

Employees become eligible to use earned sick leave beginning on the 120th day after they are hired, and may use their earned sick leave as it is accrued. Employers are also permitted to offer, or “frontload” 40 hours of paid sick time or utilize a paid-time-off (“PTO”) policy as long as it provides equal or greater benefits and accrue benefits at an equal or greater rate than the benefits provided under the Act. There is no requirement to payout accrued and unused sick leave upon termination absent a company policy to the contrary.

Upon the mutual consent of the employee and employer, an employee may voluntarily choose to work additional hours or shifts during the same or following pay period, in lieu of hours or shifts missed, but shall not be required to work additional hours or shifts or use accrued earned sick leave. In addition, an employer may not require, as a condition of an employee’s using earned sick leave, that the employee search for or find a replacement worker to cover the hours during which the employee is using earned sick leave.

Notice

Employers are entitled to 7 days advance notice of “foreseeable” absences and can restrict employee’s use of “foreseeable” paid sick leave on certain dates.  Where the need is unforeseeable, an employer may only require notice “as soon as practicable,” if the employer has notified the employee of this requirement.  In addition, employers are only permitted to ask the employee for documentation to substantiate the sick leave if the employee is absent for 3 or more consecutive days.

Compliance

Employers will be required to maintain records documenting the hours worked and earned sick leave used by employees. Records must be maintained for 5 years and made available for inspection by the NJDOL. If an employee claims an employer violated the Act, and that employer that has failed to maintain adequate records, then there is a presumption that the employer failed to provide paid sick leave.

Employers must also post a notification and distribute a written notification alerting employees of their rights within 30 days of the notice being issued by the NJDOL and provide the notification to all new employees at the time of hiring.

Anti-Retaliation

Employers are prohibited from retaliating or discriminating against employees under the Act. The Act broadly defines retaliation to include not only retaliatory personnel action like suspension, demotion, or refusal to promote, but also includes threatening to report the immigrant status of an employee or family member of the employee. Employers are also prohibited from retaliating or discriminating against an employee who files a complaint with the commissioner or a court alleging the employer’s violation of the Act, or informs any other person of their rights under the Act.

There is a rebuttable presumption of unlawful retaliatory action whenever an employer takes adverse action against an employee within 90 days of when that employee opposes any violation of the Act, informs any person about the employer’s alleged violation of the Act, files a complaint alleging a violation of the Act, or cooperates in an investigation into an alleged violation of the Act.

Penalties

Any failure of an employer to make available or pay earned sick leave as required by the new law, or any other violation of the law, shall be regarded as a failure to meet the wage payment requirements of the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law.  Employers will also be subject to the penalties and remedies contained in the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law, including fines and possible imprisonment, reinstatement of a discharged employee to correct any discriminatory action and payment of all lost wages in full.

Bottom Line

The New Jersey Paid Sick Leave Act takes effect in 180 days, on October 29, 2018. Employers in New Jersey, in consultation with legal counsel, must review and revise existing policies, practices and procedures related to calculating employee’s sick leave to ensure compliance with the Act.  Human Resources and Benefits personnel should also be trained on the new paid sick leave law requirements and Managers should also receive updated training to ensure that internal recordkeeping processes are sufficient to keep track of time taken under the new law.

For more information about the potential impacts of the Paid Sick Leave Act or what steps your company can take to effectively ensure compliance with wage and hour 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.

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.

New York City Employers Will Soon Be Required To Approve Work Schedule Changes At Their Employees’ Request

On December 19, 2017, the New York City Council passed a bill requiring employers to grant employee requests for “temporary changes” to work schedules for “personal events.”  This bill takes effect on July 18, 2018.

What qualifies as a “personal event” triggering a mandatory schedule change? – “Personal events” requiring a schedule change include:

  • When the employee is a caregiver who provides direct and ongoing care to a “care recipient,” and needs a temporary schedule change to provide this care. A “care recipient” under the bill is defined as a minor child or a disabled family or household member who relies on the employee for medical care or to meet the needs of daily living;
  • When the employee needs the temporary schedule change to attend a legal proceeding or a hearing for government assistance benefits, to which the employee, the employee’s family member or a “care recipient” is a party; or
  • Circumstances that qualify for sick time use under the New York City’s Earned Sick Time Act.

How many “temporary changes” are employees entitled to? – Eligible employees are entitled to two “temporary changes” to their work schedules in a calendar year, for up to one business day per request.  The employer may allow the employee to use two business days for one request, in which case it need not grant a second request.

What constitutes a “temporary change”? – A “temporary change” is defined as “a limited alteration in the hours or times that or locations where an employee is expected to work.”  A temporary change can include paid or unpaid time off, working from home, or changing work hours.

Who is eligible? – All non-government employees who work full time or part time within New York City for 80 or more hours per calendar year, and who have worked for the employer for more than 120 days.

Who is not eligible?

  • Employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement that expressly waives the provisions of the bill and addresses temporary work schedule changes; and/or
  • Certain employees whose jobs and whose employer’s primary business involves the development, creation or distribution of movies, TV programs or live entertainment presentations. Exceptions to this category apply.

What are the employee’s notice requirements? – To properly request a “temporary change” to his or her work schedule, an eligible employee must:

  • Notify his employer or direct supervisor immediately upon learning of the employee’s need for the change;
  • Propose a temporary change, unless the employee seeks unpaid leave; and
  • Reduce his notification and proposal (if required) to writing no later than the second business day after he returns to work. The employer may permit the employee to satisfy this writing requirement by any electronic means (g., email or text message) commonly used by employees to request and manage time off or schedule changes.

What are the employer’s obligations? The employer must respond immediately to a request for a temporary schedule change by indicating:

  • Whether the employer will grant the proposed temporary change, or, alternatively, will grant the change as unpaid leave;
  • The reason for denying the request; and
  • How many temporary change requests and business days to fulfill such requests the employee has left in the calendar year.

The employer’s response must be reduced to writing no later than 14 days following the request.

How does NYC’s temporary work schedule change bill interact with the New York City Earned Sick Time Act? – The New York City Earned Sick Time Act generally provides employees up to 40 hours of paid sick leave per calendar year.  Employees who are eligible for a temporary work schedule change under this bill need not exhaust their earned paid sick time before requesting such changes. In addition, any unpaid leave granted for personal events under this bill does not count toward the obligation to provide earned paid sick leave pursuant to the Earned Sick Time Act.

For more information about how this new bill affects your company or how your company can effectively implement it into its existing practices and procedures, 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.

NYS Attorney General Issues Guidance on Preventing & Correcting Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

On December 6, 2017, amidst the recent barrage of publicized sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations made against various news organizations, politicians, and Hollywood elite, New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman released “Know Your Rights” guidance on sexual harassment in the workplace.  The purpose of the guidance is to inform New Yorkers about the laws that protect them from sexual harassment at work and to provide victims of sexual harassment with information on the appropriate agencies to consult should they seek to file a complaint or take legal action, along with helplines for further support.  The guidance highlights the following:

Sexual Harassment Defined – Sexual harassment occurs when unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature is used as the basis for making employment decisions, like hiring or firing, or is so frequent or severe that it creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

  • The conduct can be verbal, visual and/or physical, such as unsolicited sexual advances, sexually offensive remarks or jokes, comments about a person’s gender or sexual orientation or preferences, unwanted touching, and sexually suggestive gestures.
  • Sexual harassment can be committed by a supervisor, co-worker, or third-party vendor/customer/client who comes into the workplace.
  • Protections apply to both men and women, and same sex harassment is prohibited, regardless of sexual orientation.

Avenues of Relief – Laws prohibiting sexual harassment include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”), the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”), and the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”).  The scope and procedure for filing complaints differ under each law.

  • Those who feel they have been the victim of, or who have observed sexual harassment should first report it to his/her employer pursuant to the employer’s internal policies. Individuals may also consult an attorney to determine whether to file a complaint with a government agency or a lawsuit in state or federal court.
  • Agencies who handle sexual harassment complaints include the New York State Office of the Attorney General Civil Rights Bureau (“OAG”), the New York State Division of Human Rights (“NYSDHR”), and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).
    • The OAG represents the People of New York (not the individual complaining party) when it discovers evidence of a pattern, practice, or policy of sexual harassment.
    • The NYSHRL allows individuals to file a complaint against employers of any size with the NYSDHR or proceed directly to court.
    • Sexual harassment complaints under Title VII may only be brought against employers with more than 15 employees and must be filed first with the EEOC before commencing a lawsuit.

No Retaliation – The law also prohibits retaliation against anyone who has filed a complaint about sexual harassment in the workplace.

Criminal Liability – Sexual harassment may constitute a crime, under theories of stalking and/or assault.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious problem that affects many employees and organizations.  As stated by A.G. Schneiderman, “We all have a stake in preventing [sexual harassment] and stopping it when it happens.”  Addressing sexual harassment in the workplace provides a benefit to employees and employers alike.  Employees have a right to feel secure in the workplace, and employers can have liability in situations where harassing behaviors is permitted whether by supervisors, subordinates, peers, customers, vendors, and contractors. Employers can reduce the risks of claims of sexual harassment in the workplace by arming its employees with tools to deal with inappropriate workplace behavior and sexual harassment allegations.  This includes a well-crafted sexual harassment prevention and complaint policy and routine training for managers and supervisors.

For more information about how anti-harassment laws affect your company or how your company can effectively prevent and address complaints of sexual harassment, 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.

Christie Vetoes Expansion of New Jersey Family Leave & Increased Minimum Wage

On July 21, 2017, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie conditionally vetoed two bills that would have expanded New Jersey’s pioneering paid Family Leave Act and raised minimum wage for certain transportation center service workers.  Under the New Jersey Family Leave Act (NJFLA), which applies to New Jersey companies with 50 or more employees, workers are eligible to receive up to 12 weeks of continuous leave during a given 24-month period to care for a newly born or adopted child, parent, a child under 18, spouse, or civil union partner who has a serious health condition requiring in-patient care, continuing medical treatment or medical supervision.  The leave is partially paid, and eligible employees can generally receive up to $633 per week.

The Bill (A4927) would have extended the NJFLA’s coverage to employers with 20 or more employees and expanded the definition of “family member” to include siblings, grandparents, grandchildren and parents-in-law.  Moreover, the Bill would have doubled the maximum number of weeks of family temporary disability leave benefits from 6 weeks to 12 weeks, increased available intermittent leave from 42 days to 84 days, and raised the weekly cap on paid benefits to $932, depending on the claimant’s income.

Governor Christie denounced the Bill’s supporters as disregarding the increased cost to taxpayers and the potentially adverse impact the bill would have on small businesses in New Jersey.

The minimum wage bill (A4870) would have significantly raised New Jersey’s minimum wage for employees at Newark Liberty International Airport, Newark Penn Station, and the Hoboken Terminal, from $10.10 to $17.98 per hour.  Incidentally, Christie vetoed a bill last year that would have raised New Jersey’s minimum wage from its current $8.44 to $15.00 per hour.  The New Jersey Business & Industry Association, considering the vetoes to be a victory to New Jersey employers, stated that the minimum wage bill would have set “a terrible precedent by circumventing the collective bargaining process and imposing backdoor wage and benefit increases by statute.”

For more information on these vetoes and current laws regarding family leave, minimum wage, or other applicable leave laws, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullnullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullnullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.