Articles Tagged with “New Jersey Employment Lawyers”

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Wage and hour claims dealing with overtime requirements are among the most contentious in employment law litigation.  The United States Supreme Court recently issued a decision exempting one narrow class of employees (“service advisors” at automobile dealerships) from coverage.  While the specific effect of the ruling is limited, the reasoning behind it may signal a shift in the way the Supreme Court interprets the exemptions from overtime requirements in federal employment law.

The Federal Fair Labor Standards Act governs wage and hour issues for most employees in the United States.  Generally speaking, unless an employee is an “exempt employee” she must receive minimum wage for all hours worked, and overtime pay at the rate of one and a half times her normal pay rate (known as “time and a half”) when she works more than forty hours in a week.  Broad categories of employees are exempt, however.  The major categories of exemptions are professional, executive and administrative employees.  Many other smaller or sub-categories of employees are also exempt.

New Jersey’s Wage and Hour Law provides similar coverage for New Jersey employees, who receive protection under both state and federal law.  Both laws also prohibit retaliation against employees who file complaints about violations (although there are technical requirements about what constitutes a “complaint”), and both require the employer to pay the employee’s attorneys fees if she prevails in a lawsuit.  The main difference is that the Fair Labor Standards Act provides for double damages if the violation is “willful” – this means that if the employer willfully underpaid the employee by $1000, it must pay her $2000 in damages plus reimbursing her for her attorneys fees.  The New Jersey Wage and Hour Law, on the other hand, does not provide for double damages.

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By typography-2858715__340-300x150enacting the Law Against Discrimination, New Jersey has provided its workers with some of the strongest anti-discrimination laws in the United States.  New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination protects against employment discrimination, including harassment, because of these protected categories

  • race
  • creed
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partnership-2750197__340-300x200The United States Supreme Court issued a major decision on tolling the statute of limitations on state law claims while the case is in federal court which has significant impact on New Jersey employment litigation.  In the case of Artis v. District of Columbia, the Supreme Court answered a major procedural question regarding the interplay of federal and state claims being heard together in federal district court and state statutes of limitations.  While the case involved an employment case in District of Columbia, it would be equally applicable to cases brought under New Jersey employment law.

Background

Stephanie Artis worked as a health inspector for the city government of the District of Columbia.  She was fired.  Thereafter, she filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. She alleged a federal claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (known as “Title VII”).  She also sued under District of Columbia law for whistleblower retaliations, false claims and gender discrimination.

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votive-candles-2903933__340-300x200Both New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination and the Federal Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 expressly prohibit employers from discriminating against employees because of their religious practices if they can be reasonably accommodated.  In many cases the most difficult question is whether an accommodation which the employer could have provided was “reasonable.”  However, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued an important decision on the unusual question of whether an employee’s honestly and strongly held beliefs could be considered “religious” under Title VII.

Paul Fallon had been an employee of Mercy Medical Center since 1994.  In 2012, Mercy instituted a rule that all employees had to receive a flu vaccination each year.  Mercy allowed for religious exemptions.  Fallon requested and was granted exemptions in 2012 and 2013.  However, she  was denied in 2014 because Mercy had changed its definition of religious exemption.  There was no question that Fallon’s objection was because of his sincerely held belief that the vaccination did more harm than good.  However, he cited no religious source, just his belief that it is wrong to cause harm to your own body.  Mercy decided that this reason was not “religious” under its policy, and ordered Fallon to get the shot or provide a letter from clergy explaining why he could not get the vaccination for religious reasons.  He failed to provide the letter and refused to be vaccinated.  Mercy therefore fired him.

Fallon filed suit in Federal District Court alleging that Mercy had fired him because of his religious beliefs, and therefore committed religious discrimination in violation of Title VII.  The trial judge disagreed and dismissed his suit.  Fallon appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.  The Third Circuit agreed with the trial judge’s opinion and upheld the decision.

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whistle-2496555__340-300x200In the case of DiFiore v. CSL Behring, LLC, a former pharmaceutical employee brought an action in the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against her former employer for retaliation in the form of a wrongful, constructive discharge.  In that case, the employee specifically brought claims under the federal False Claims Act (“FCA”)  https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/31/3729 and Pennsylvania’s common law wrongful discharge cause of action. She claimed that she had raised concerns about off-label marketing of products which caused her employer to retaliate.

In that case, the District Court instructed the jury that, in order to prove retaliation under the FCA, the employee had to prove that the whistleblowing by the employee was the sole cause for the adverse action (firing or other retaliatory action).  However, the plaintiff-employee argued that she need only provide that the whistleblower action was a motivating factor for the wrongful discharge – not that it was the only reason for the adverse employment action.  The plaintiff was relying on a prior Third Circuit case, Hutchins v. ABC Corp. However, the Court determined that the “motivating factor” language in the Hutchins case was merely dicta – meaning that the language was extraneous to the decision and does not act as precedential.

The Court also decided that the United States Supreme Court decisions in Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc. and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v Nassar indicate that a “motivating factor” test is inappropriate.  (The Gross case considered a claim under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) and the Nassar case considered a claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.)  In both cases, the Supreme Court found that the language “because of” in those laws, equated to the requirement of “but-for” causation.  In other words, the adverse action would not have happened “but for” the improper motivation, requiring that to be the exclusive motivation.   The ADEA, Title VII, and the FCA all contain that same language.

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american-963190__340-300x200Some of the most conflict-ridden areas in New Jersey employment involve wage and hour issues – who needs to be paid, how much, when and for what.  An important Federal appeals court decision has shed light on one of the most contested topics in this area – when employees mostly paid for benefits.

The Wage and Hour Legal and Regulatory Framework

Wage and hour issues in New Jersey are governed by New Jersey’s Wage and Hour Law and New Jersey’s Wage Payment Law.  Employers in New Jersey must also comply with the requirements of the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (known as the “FLSA”), and the regulations put out by the United States Department of Labor implementing the FLSA.  New Jersey courts follow federal court decisions on the FLSA when interpreting the Wage and Hour Law and the Wage Payment Law.  The Regulations which the Department of Labor established are found in the Code of Federal Regulations, known as the “CFR.”

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racism-2733840__340-300x300When an employee is being harassed or disciplined in his employment as a result of discrimination or retaliation for the employee’s objections to illegal conduct, there are multiple laws which may provide relief to the employee.  These include, for instance, New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (the “LAD”) and New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA,” also known as the “Whistleblower Law.”)

Both Acts may allow the employee to bring a lawsuit against the employer for a wrongful termination or other adverse employment action (i.e. demotion), as well as harassment.  When an employer is wrongfully disciplining or retaliating against an employee, it is important for the employee to preserve and maintain records of the wrongful conduct of the employer in order to support her claim that she suffered a wrongful employment action.  However, employees need to be cautious in what records they preserve and how they preserve those records.

In the case of Quinlan v. Curtiss Wright Corporation  Joyce Quinlan believed that as a result of gender discrimination, her employer had passed her over for a promotion. She then began copying confidential human resources files which she believed supported her claim that she was being discriminated against and she produced the copies in the course of discovery during litigation.  The employer later fired her for “taking” the records (while litigation was ongoing).  Quinlan then amended her complaint to include the claim that she was retaliated against for essentially participating in the LAD suit against the employer.  The Law Against Discrimination  not only prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of a protected classification (gender, nationality, religion, race, etc.), but it also prohibits retaliation against a person for opposing discrimination, filing a discrimination complaint, or participating in a LAD proceeding.

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dc-court-appeals-district-columbia-building-abraham-lincoln-statue-74985350One of the most vexing problems facing employees suing their employers for harassment is what legal standard the acts must meet in order to prove harassment.  In the case of Castleberry v. STI Group, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that harassment need only be severe or pervasive, giving a significant victory to employees.

In that case, Atron Castleberry and John Brown were African-American men.  They obtained jobs through a staffing agency, STI Group, which employed and placed them with Chesapeake Energy Corporation, an oil and gas company.  Shortly after they were hired, the only other African-American on their crew was fired.  They alleged that on several occasions someone wrote “don’t be black on the right of way” on their timesheets.  They also alleged that they were only allowed to clean around pipelines despite their experience, when other employees faced no such restrictions, including white employees with less experience.  They also claimed that while they were working on a fence-removal project their supervisor told them that they would be fired if they “n…..r-rigged” the fence.  After the last incident, which seven co-workers confirmed, they reported the incident.  Two weeks later they were fired.

They filed suit in the United States District Court under federal employment law.  The district judge dismissed their case before any evidence was exchanged in discovery because he believed that the employees had not alleged harassment which created a hostile work environment which was both “severe” and “pervasive.”  The employees appealed to the United States of America for the Third Circuit, which hears appeals of New Jersey Federal cases.  The Third Circuit reversed.

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megaphone-1480342__340-300x200The New Jersey Civil Rights Act, the state counterpart to the federal law known as “Section 1983,” is a powerful tool for government employees to protect themselves when their public employers violate their civil rights

After the Civil War, Congress passed a law known as “Section 1983.”  Section 1983 was part of the Ku Klux Klan Act, also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1871.  The Act was passed at the urging of President Ulysses S. Grant as part of a series of measures during Reconstruction to protect the rights (and safety) of freed slaves in the South, who were facing increased violence and intimidation from the Klan and others.  Indeed, much of this was orchestrated with local government.  Section 1983 therefore made it illegal for someone to act “under color of law or authority” to deprive another person of their rights under the United States Constitution or federal law.  Essentially, it gave people a remedy for violation of their rights.  It allowed for civil suits, injunctions, punitive damages and the recovery of attorneys fees as well.  Over the years, Section 1983 has come to protect the rights of public employees from the denial of rights by local government employers.

However, New Jersey had no counterpart for a remedy for people deprived of their rights under the New Jersey Constitution or New Jersey law, which was not protected under Section 1983.  To resolve this gap, in 2004, New Jersey enacted the New Jersey Civil Rights Act to provide a remedy for violations of a person’s civil rights protected by New Jersey laws or the New Jersey Constitution.  Like its federal counterpart Section 1983, the New Jersey Civil Rights Act protects public employees from deprivation of their civil rights by their local employers.  As currently interpreted by the courts, the New Jersey Civil Rights Act allows for suits only against local governments such as towns, cities, boards of education, counties and local government authorities (such as housing authorities, parking authorities, etc.).

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strategy-1710763__340-300x160One 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.

Background

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.