Articles Posted in Discrimination and Harassment

The NJ Appellate Division has ruled, once again that it will not require enforcement of an arbitration clause absent a showing that the clause constituted a clear waiver by the plaintiff of his or her right to a jury trial.

In Anthony v. Eleison Pharmaceuticals LLC, Docket No. A-932-15T4 (App. Div. July 18, 2016), a former executive filed a lawsuit against his former employer under the New Jersey Wage Payment Act, alleging that the company failed to pay him wages that were due to him following the termination of his employment. The lawsuit also included breach of contract claims. The employer filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit and order arbitration pursuant to a clause in the employment agreement which stated, among other things, that “[t]he parties agree that should any dispute arise out of this Agreement, a phased dispute resolution process shall resolve the dispute,” ending in binding arbitration. The trial court granted the employer’s motion, stating that the arbitration clause constituted a valid waiver by the employee of his right to pursue his claims in a judicial forum.

The lower court’s ruling in Anthony was clearly in error. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in Atalese v. U.S. Legal Services Group LP, 219 N.J. 430 (2014), that NJ courts will not enforce arbitration clauses unless they contain explicit language informing the employee that he or she was giving up the right to go to court and have a jury trial. The arbitration clause at issue in Anthony clearly did not contain such language. Accordingly, the Appellate Division reversed the lower court and the case will proceed to trial.

We are pleased to write that the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled, last week, that the two-year statute of limitations for filing a discrimination claim under the NJ Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) couldn’t be shortened by an employer seeking to insert a clause in an employment agreement or contract.

The case arose when Raymours Furniture Co., fired an employee, Sergio Rodriguez who had signed a job application which stated, in capital letters, that he agreed “that any claim or lawsuit relating to [his] service with Raymour & Flanigan must be filed no more than six moths after the date of the employment action that is the subject of the claim or lawsuit. I waive any statute of limitations to the contrary.” Mr. Rodriguez claimed that Raymour & Flanigan wrongfully terminated him on account of his disability and in retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim. He sued under the LAD nine months after he was fired. Both a trial judge and the Appellate Division ruled that the lawsuit was time-barred, even though New Jersey law allows a plaintiff two years to bring such an action.

The Supreme Court disagreed with the lower courts. The Court noted that the “contractual shortening of the LAD’s two-year limitations period for a private action is contrary to the public policy expressed in the LAD.” The Court noted the unequal bargaining power of the potential employer and employee. Clearly, mandating that the employee agree to a shorter statute of limitations in an employment application before they can be hired is, by definition a contract of adhesion. Although some employers may argue that two-years is too long of a time period to hold an employer responsible for defending an action for discrimination – where documents may have disappeared, key witnesses have left the company and the memories of decision-makers have faded – it is not for a private employer to alter a statutory limitation period by contract. We believe that this could only be done, after careful consideration by the legislature.

On May 9, 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) released new guidance on what is a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The guidance makes clear that employers must not only provide employees with disabilities access to leave as an accommodation on the same basis as similarly situated employees without disabilities, but may be required to modify its policies to provide leave for a disability even where the employer does not offer leave to other employees. The guidance also addresses common issues for employers including analyzing undue hardship, requests for “indefinite” leave, maximum leave policies, and return to work issues. The guidance is a welcome relief for both employees and employers since it clears up some previous ambiguities in the law’s application.

The guidance states that if an employee requests leave related to a disability and the leave falls within the employer’s existing leave policy, the employer should treat the employee making the request the same as an employee who requests leave for reasons unrelated to a disability. For example, if an employer provides sick leave as well as annual leave that may be used for any purpose, an employer may not require an employee to designate leave as sick time simply because it is being used for a purpose related to a disability, because doing so would deny the employee use of annual leave due to his or her disability.

Further, the guidance provides that an employer must consider unpaid leave as a possible reasonable accommodation even when:

As reported by NJ.com, Governor Chris Christie has vetoed SB 992, a bill which sought to bar gender-based pay discrimination.  A full text of the proposed legislation may be read here.  The bill would have amended the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination by adding language prohibiting an employer from paying one gender less than the other for “substantially similar” work.  Employers would be permitted to pay workers of different sexes doing similar jobs in an unequal manner only if they could demonstrate that the unequal treatment was justified based on factors such as training, education, experience, or job performance.  The bill also contained a triple damages provision for employees who won cases brought under the law, and a transparency provision mandating that businesses who contract with the State file equal pay information to ensure compliance with the statute.

Governor Christie, in his veto message, criticized the law as “depart[ing] significantly from well-established law” and stated that the law would make New Jersey “very business unfriendly.”  The bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), has signaled that she may attempt a veto override, in that the bill passed by decisive margins in both houses — 28-4 in the Senate and 54-14-6 in the Assembly.

Pay equity is an important issue to New Jersey’s professional workforce.  There is no question that women and men should be paid the same for the same or similar work.  There is also no question that this bill would have helped New Jersey to achieve its goal of eradicating discrimination from the workplace.

 

On Monday, March 28, 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed several bills amending the NYC Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”). We are pleased because these amendments should ultimately provide employees more protection under the law.

The bills incorporate three NYC judicial decisions as appropriate examples of the liberal construction requirement of the NYCHRL. In Albunio v. City of New York, 17 N.Y.3d 472 (N.Y. 2011), the Court of Appeals held that it must construe the anti-retaliation provision of the NYCHRL broadly in favor of discrimination plaintiffs, to the extent that such construction was reasonable under the facts of a case. In Williams v. New York City Housing Authority, 61 A.D.3d 62 (1st Dep’t 2009), the Appellate Division held that a Plaintiff need not prove that harassment was severe or pervasive in order to prove a hostile work environment claim under the NYCHRL. Instead, the Plaintiff need only show that he or she has been treated less well than other employees of his or her protected class. The court noted that questions of severity and pervasiveness go only to consideration of the scope of permissible damages, and not to the question of underlying liability. The court noted that “petty slights or trivial inconveniences” would not result in liability. Finally, in Bennett v. Health Management Systems, 92 A.D.3d 29 (1st Dep’t 2011), the court clarified the burden shifting analysis set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), especially in the summary judgment content, in order to “maximize the opportunities for discrimination to be exposed.”

One bill, Intro 818-A amends the administrative code in relation to the NYCHRL to provide attorneys’ fees, expert fees, and other costs in complaints brought before the New York City Human Rights Commission.

In Delvecchio v. Township of Bridgewater, (A-24-14) (074936), the New Jersey Appellate Division ruled on April 28, 2016, that a Plaintiff may rely on the testimony of a treating physician who has not been designated as an expert witness, to establish the existence of a disability for a claim under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 et. seq.  

Ms. Delvecchio worked as a police dispatcher for the Township of Bridgewater (“Township”) for more than 10 years. At that time, the Township maintained three shifts for police dispatchers, including a midnight shift, and required dispatchers to work each of the shifts on a rotating basis. In 2003, Ms. Delvecchio developed inflammatory bowel syndrome (“IBS”), and began treatment with Dr. Gary Ciambotti, a gastroenterologist. Dr. Ciambotti wrote to Ms. Delvecchio’s supervisors and stated that her symptoms were under control as long as she worked regular daytime hours, but would be exacerbated by an assignment to the midnight shift.

For three years, the Township did not require Ms. Delvecchio to work the night shift, but eventually it stated that it was no longer possible to assign her consistently to the daytime shift due to the burden that this imposed on other employees who covered the remaining shifts. In December 2007 the Township asked Ms. Delvecchio to resign. She refused, and accepted another position within the Township as a records clerk, but at a lower salary. On September 26, 2009 the Township terminated Ms. Delvecchio’s employment for neglect of duty and chronic/excessive absenteeism. Ms. Delvecchio sued, claiming that the Township fired her instead of providing her a reasonable accommodation for her disability, in violation of the LAD.

We have negotiated many settlement agreements for claims brought under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”), the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”), and various other New Jersey laws that have included a provision barring the settling employee from seeking future employment with the defendant employer.  Employers argue in favor of including these clauses in order to prevent future claims of retaliation in the event the employer does not agree to re-hire the employee.  Truth be told, most employees have no desire to work again for the offending employer, but these no re-hire provisions can become complicated when companies are sold and/or merged and the employee seeks future employment with the re-constituted employer.

A federal court in New York (see, Reyes v. Hip at Murray Street) recently refused to approve a proposed settlement for a lawsuit brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act because it contained such a no re-hire provision.  It will be interesting to see if there is more push back on these clauses in settlement agreements for a wider range of employment law claims.  Stay tuned!

The New York Times reported today about a study recently undertaken by Rutgers and Syracuse universities.  Researchers sent resumes and cover letters on behalf of fictitious applicants for thousands of accounting jobs.  Disappointingly, they found that employers expressed interest in candidates who disclosed a disability about 26 percent less frequently than in candidates who did not.  This could explain the low national employment rate for persons with disabilities.

The researchers created two separate resumes: one for a highly qualified candidate with six years of experience, and one for a novice candidate about one year out of college.  For each resume, they composed three different cover letters: one for a candidate with no disability, one for a candidate who disclosed a spinal cord injury in the letter, and one for a candidate who disclosed having Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder that can make social interactions difficult.

Interestingly, employers had less interest in interviewing the experienced candidate that was disabled than the disabled candidate just out of school. Employers were about 34 percent less likely to show interest in an experienced disabled candidate, but only about 15 percent less likely to express interest in a disabled novice candidate.  The researchers speculated that the steeper drop-off in interested for experienced disabled candidates arose because more experienced workers represent a larger investment for employers, who must typically pay such workers higher salaries and assume the employment relationship will last longer.  Also, experienced workers are also more likely to interact with clients on a regular basis so employers may believe that hiring these workers are riskier.

According to the Insurance Journal, retaliation claims by employees were the most frequently asserted type of employment claim in fiscal year 2014.  The data comes from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency which investigates claims of employment discrimination.  In fiscal year 2014, the percentage of claims which asserted that an employer retaliated against an employee for participating in a complaint of discrimination reached an all-time high of 42.8%.  Next on the list were, in order, race, sex (including pregnancy and sexual harassment), disability age, national origin, religion, color, equal pay act, and genetic information.

The EEOC data shows that employment discrimination claims in general are decreasing nationwide.  I see this as a positive development because it indicates that, at least to some degree, employers appear to be getting the message that discrimination is wrong, both from a moral and an economic perspective.  However, the rise in retaliation claims is troubling.  This could indicate that the reason why discrimination claims are in decline is not because there is less discrimination going on, but because employees are fearful of retaliation if they report discrimination.  We would like to see a decline in discrimination coupled with a decline in retaliation.

A McDonald’s employee was told to “take it easy like my grandmother and retire,” according to a case currently pending before a federal district court in Pennsylvania.  She was apparently working more slowly than McDonald’s wanted, so they fired her due to her “poor health and age.”  The employee sued under the ADA, ADEA, and Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), alleging age and disability discrimination.  The evidence in the case includes the fact that McDonald’s had a “hit list” of older workers who it was about to terminate.  The employee’s request to include this evidence at the trial was granted over McDonald’s objection.  The court found that trial testimony by a witness regarding the hit list (in which the employee’s name was included) would not be hearsay.  The “hit list” was also deemed an “admission” under the Rules of Evidence.

We will continue to monitor this interesting case.  In the meantime, if your boss tells you it’s time to retire . . . tell him it’s time for you to call an employment lawyer.