One of the most difficult issues for New Jersey employment attorneys is when federal law preempts New Jersey employment law. One of the most thorny areas is the intersection of the Federal Labor Management Relations Act, which governs the interpretation and application of collective bargaining agreements (union contracts) in the private sector. Fortunately, New Jersey’s Appellate Division has recently issued an important opinion clarifying this complex area in the context of disability discrimination and retaliation by an employer against an employee for filing a workers compensation claim.
Brian Hejda was a truck driver for Bell Container Corp., and a member of Teamsters Local Union 813. He suffered a workplace knee injury. He had various restrictions on what he could do at work, and he was medically limited to light duty. He filed a workers compensation claim; Bell denied that he sustained a disabling injury. Eventually Hejda was asymptomatic and able to return to full duty, although his doctors advised that he would eventually need arthroscopic surgery to repair the damage. Hejda reported to work for a week but was not given much to do. When he returned the following week, he was told to leave.
Bell wrote Local 813 that Hejda needed to be recertified pursuant to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations and have the required form returned to the company. Hejda declined to submit to an examination by the company’s doctors, and the union filed a grievance alleging that the company’s actions violated the collective bargaining agreement. Hejda received a certification from his family physician, and later a company physician, both of whom cleared him for work.
An arbitrator denied the grievance, however, and required he be left out of work until he received the proper form and medical certification, although the arbitrator did not address the examination by the company’s doctor. In a separate action, Hejda was found eligible for workers compensation claims, and Bell’s appeal was denied. Hejda also filed a claim for discrimination in the New Jersey Department of Labor’s Office of Special Compensation, claiming that he was discriminated against because he filed a workers compensation, but an administrative law judge denied the claim because he had not been cleared for work and Bell had no requirement to reinstate an employee who had not received the proper certification.
Hejda then submitted a second certification from his doctor which he claimed met the federal requirements. Bell reinstated him, but switched him from being a driver during the day to a switcher on the night shift.
Hejda’s Lawsuit in the Superior Court of New Jersey
Hejda then filed a lawsuit in the Law Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey claiming that Bell’s refusal to reinstate him, and then the subsequent switch to a different job on the night shift, were retaliation for filing a workers compensation claim in violation of New Jersey’s Workers Compensation Law and disability discrimination in violation of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (known as the “LAD”). Bell filed a motion to dismiss Hejda’s complaint, asking the judge to throw the lawsuit out because it was preempted by the Federal Labor Management Relations Act (the “LMRA”), because his suit required “an interpretation and application” of the terms of the union contract which was governed by the LMRA. The trial judge in the Superior Court agreed and threw out Hejda’s lawsuit.
The Appellate Division Reverses
The Appellate Division of New Jersey’s Superior Court reversed the trial judge and reinstated Hejda’s lawsuit in a recent published opinion.
The appeals court found that while section 301 of the LMRA may preempt the jurisdiction of New Jersey’s employment laws on questions about union contracts, in this case it did not apply because the resolution of the state law claims – the disability discrimination and retaliation for filing a workers compensation claim – did not require interpretation or application of the union contract. The fact that there may have been a parallel claim and remedy under the union’s collective bargaining agreement did not change the fact that Hejda had an independent claim for retaliation and discrimination.
The Appellate Division relied primarily on the New Jersey Supreme Court’s August 2016 decision in Puglia v. Elk Pipeline, Inc. In that case the Supreme Court held that section 301 of the LMRA did not preempt a retaliation claim under New Jersey’s Whistleblower Law (officially known as the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act, or “CEPA”). Just as in the Puglia case, Hejda’s retaliation and discrimination claims existed independently of the union contract, and did not require interpretation or application of the union contract to exist.
While a union contract may exist and give an employee a remedy for an alleged wrong by her employer, the existence of this remedy by itself will not bar a lawsuit for violation of a civil right, such as the right to be free from discrimination, retaliation for filing a workers compensation claim, or retaliation for a whistleblower claim.
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