Articles Posted in Discrimination and Harassment

Despite the finding of a prima facie case of race discrimination, a New Jersey appeals court has upheld the firing of a Muslim corrections officer who refused to remove her headscarf on the job.

Linda Tisby began working at the Camden County Correctional Facility in 2002 but became a Muslim in 2015 and one day reported to work wearing the khimar, or headscarf. She refused to remove it, was sent home and recommended for disciplinary charges. After continuing to report to work wearing the khimar, the Correctional Facility dismissed Tisby on May 11, 2015.

Tisby filed two separate suits against Camden County and the Camden County Correctional Facility. The first, filed on June 12, 2015, sought damages under the NJ Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”) and alleged that the jail had permitted other women to work with head coverings, including Muslim women and those undergoing chemotherapy. A month later, she filed a second suit, seeking reinstatement and back pay and asserting violations of the NJLAD.

The NJ Supreme Court recently ruled that the New Jersey State Police’s failure to assert a sovereign immunity defense during its trial on an Americans with Disabilities Act claim does not constitute a waiver of sovereign immunity.

This case was brought by Brian Royster, a state trooper who suffered from ulcerative colitis. His condition required that he have immediate access to a bathroom while on the job. After returning from medical leave for treatment of his condition, his department assigned him to conduct surveillance from a car. He repeatedly asked to be moved to an assignment that offered access to a restroom, but he remained on the surveillance assignment for seven months.

Royster filed suit against the state police, asserting, among other claims, that it failed to make reasonable accommodation for his medical condition in violation of the ADA and the NJLAD, and for retaliation under the ADA, NJLAD, and the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”). The state trial court dismissed several claims, leaving only the CEPA retaliation and the ADA failure-to-accommodate claim for trial. The jury awarded the employee $500,000 in damages on the ADA claim.

In a recent employment discrimination case, Cuevas v. Wentworth Group, the NJ Supreme Court upheld the jury’s award of emotional distress damages to the Plaintiffs, Ramon and Jeffrey Cuevas, two brothers who suffered derogatory and humiliating racial remarks and discrimination at work. The brothers are Hispanic. Wentworth fired the brothers shortly after Jeffrey complained about the harassment.

At the trial court level, the jury awarded over $1 million in lost wages, $800,000 in emotional distress damages and $52,500 in punitive damages to Ramon. It awarded Jeffrey $150,000 in lost wages, $600,000 in emotional distress damages and $32,500 in punitive damages. Both the trial court and the Appellate Division denied defendants’ request for a remittitur (reduction) of the emotional distress damages.

On certification, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the jury’s emotional distress damages award to the Cuevas brothers. The Court held that a judge should not rely on personal knowledge of other verdicts or comparative-verdict methodology when deciding a remittitur motion to reduce a damage award because each case is unique. Moreover, the Court held that a judge should only consider the record itself, in order to maintain the deferential standard of review of a jury’s award of damages.

The New Jersey Appellate Division recently held that a written warning, if part of a system of progressive discipline, may constitute an adverse employment action under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”), which in turn could mean an employer could be held liable for discriminatory or retaliatory actions.

In Prager v. Joyce Honda, Inc., No. A-3691-14T3, ____N.J. Super _____ (App. Div. August 22, 2016), Plaintiff was a former receptionist who was inappropriately touched by a long-standing, valued customer of the Joyce Honda car dealership. Plaintiff filed a municipal court complaint against the customer. Plaintiff claimed that she thereafter became isolated by her coworkers and, about a week after she filed the report, received two written warnings for leaving early without permission. When management presented Plaintiff with the written warnings, she became upset, stating that the warnings were false and issued in retaliation for pressing charges against the customer. The Plaintiff claimed that she had left early many times before without incident and that her high level of anxiety was causing her to throw up before work. In response, management offered to rescind the warnings and suggested that if work was making her feel sick; it would be in her best interest to resign. Plaintiff resigned the next day.

Plaintiff then filed a lawsuit against Joyce Honda, claiming retaliation under the NJLAD. The trial court dismissed, holding that Plaintiff’s municipal court complaint against the customer was not protected activity under the NJLAD. On appeal the Appellate Division affirmed on different, but notable grounds. The Appellate Division found that the Plaintiff’s municipal court complaint was protected activity. Nevertheless, her retaliation claim failed because she could not demonstrate that the two written warnings constituted an adverse employment action. The court used an objective standard to evaluate whether the warnings were an adverse employment action: whether a reasonable person could have found them to be materially adverse. It noted the analysis was case specific, and explained that a written warning could be deemed a materially adverse employment action, such as in the case where a formal system of progressive discipline exists and is enforced. In the Prager case the Appellate Division ruled that the written warnings Plaintiff received were not an adverse employment action since it was not certain that Plaintiff would receive future discipline (Plaintiff resigned the next day and the employer offered to rescind the warnings).

The Second Circuit in Vasquez v. Empress Ambulance Service, Inc., recently adopted the “cat’s paw” theory of liability under Title VII and found that the retaliatory intent of a low-level, non-supervisory employee may be ascribed to an employer where “the employer’s own negligence gives effect to the employee’s retaliatory animus and causes the victim to suffer an adverse employment decision.”

The Plaintiff in this case was an emergency medical technician. She reported to her supervisors that a fellow EMT had sexually harassed her. The harasser suspected that the Plaintiff had complained about his behavior and, in retaliation, manipulated a series of text messages and photos to make it appear as if it was in fact Plaintiff who was soliciting a sexual relationship with him, and presented the altered evidence to the Employer during its investigation.

The Employer then concluded that Plaintiff was having an inappropriate sexual relationship with the co-worker and terminated her. Plaintiff informed the Employer that the co-worker was lying to cover up his own indiscretions and offered to show the Employer her unaltered cell phone messages. The Employer declined to review Plaintiff’s cell phone and further refused to show her the “racy self-taken photo” that the co-worker claimed Plaintiff had sent him. Apparently, this photo was obscured and Plaintiff’s face could not be identified.

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.