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In Okakpu v. Irvington Bd. of Education, 2022 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1297 (decided July 18, 2022), our Appellate Division was asked to decide whether a triable issue was created by the Irvington Board of Education (“IBOE”) stating that one of the reasons it decided not to renew the contract of non-tenured Nkemdilum Okakpu was her conduct in displaying the flag of Nigeria, her country of origin, outside her classroom.  In doing so, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court below which granted the IBOE’s motion for summary judgment on the basis that the plaintiff had “failed to establish that [the Board’s] decision to non-renew her was based on anything other than a bona fide evaluation of her job performance and disciplinary issues.”

On appeal the Plaintiff argued, in part, that the IBOE “listing the flag of Nigeria outside her classroom” on her non-renewal paperwork was “inherently discriminatory on its face” and, therefore, direct evidence of national origin discrimination which by itself should have been sufficient to defeat the IBOE summary judgment motion. In opposition, the IBOE argued “the plaintiff failed to prove their conduct was discriminatory toward Nigerians or created an animus towards her protected class.” The Appellate Division then reviewed the different analytic approaches a court must take depending on whether the employment claim is based on purely circumstantial evidence as opposed to the existence of direct evidence of discrimination. A review of the court’s insightful discussion in this regard is found to be edifying.

The Appellate Court began by explaining how an employee who commences an action seeking redress for an alleged violation of the LAD “may attempt to prove employment discrimination by either direct or circumstantial evidence.”  Bergen Com. Bank v. Sisler, 157 N.J. 188, 208 (1999)). Determining which analytical framework controls an LAD claim “depends upon whether the employee attempts to prove employment discrimination by . . . direct or circumstantial evidence.” Grande v. Saint Clare’s Health Sys., 230 N.J. 1, 16 (2017).

Be careful what you post on social media sites on the internet because it may cost you your job. Recently, our New Jersey Appellate Division issued an opinion holding that neither the First Amendment nor Article I, paragraph 6 of the New Jersey Constitution prevents a private employer from terminating an at-will employee for posting racially insensitive comments about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement on her personal Facebook account.

In McVey v. AtlantiCare Medical System Incorp, et al., 2022 N.J. Super. LEXIS 70 * (App. Div., May 20, 2022), McVey, a nurse who rose through the ranks at Atlantic Care Regional medial Center to become its Corporate Director of Customer Service. Using her private Facebooks account, McVey posted that she found BLM to be racist arguing that it causes segregation writing, “Have you ever hear[d] of ‘white lives’ matter or ‘[J]ewish’ lives matter[?] No. Equal opportunity.” According to the court opinion she further stated:  “[T]hey are not dying . . . they are killing themselves.” McVey later posted that she “support[ed] all lives . . . as a nurse they all matter[,] and [she] d[id] not discriminate.” McVey added she did “not condone the rioting that ha[d] occurred in response to ‘this specific [B]lack man[‘]s death.'” *5. An AtlantiCare administrator later discovered McVey’s Facebook posts and she was later fired following the completion of an internal investigation.

McVey filed a wrongful discharge lawsuit claiming she was unlawfully punished for exercising her federal and state constitutional rights to freedom of speech. AtlantiCare filed a motion to dismiss arguing that a wrongful termination complaint against a private employer cannot be based on a constitutional free speech claim in cases where, as here, there is no state action. *6-*7. Following argument, the trial court rendered an oral decision, accepting AtlantiCare’s contention and dismissing McVey’s complaint. McVey appealed.

Our Appellate Division recently made clear it would not be receptive to sex based hostile work environment claims where it is established that the Plaintiff “gave as good as she got” while working in an environment rife with foulmouthed name calling and invectives. In Bouziotis v. Iron Bar, 2022 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 635, at *2 (App. Div. Apr. 19, 2022) an appellate court affirmed a trial court’s decision to grant the employer’s motion for summary judgement against a former female employee who alleged she was the victim of a hostile work environment based on her sex.

In September 2016 the Plaintiff-Employee, Lauren Bouziotis (“Bouziotis”) started working as a part-time bartender for Defendant-Employer Iron Bar (“Iron Bar”). Id. Shortly thereafter, Iron Bar’s part owner, Darrell Remlinger (“Remlinger”) stopped addressing Bouziotis by her proper name and instead started referring to her by “alternate names” used to describe someone with an oversized posterior or buttocks area. Id.  Curiously, the court felt that it would be too insensitive of it to actually state in its written decision what the “alternate name” used was.

Specifically, Remlinger used “alternative names” to refer to Bouziotis when publishing the weekly schedule, as well as on six out of forty of Bouziotis’s pay envelopes. In February 2017 Bouziotis complained about Remlinger calling her “alternate names” to General Manager Dave Monllor (“Monllor”), who also reported to Remlinger. Over the course of a year Bouziotis had complained approximately complained thirty (30) times to Monllor. However, Bouziotis never directly asked Remlinger to stop addressing her by these “alternate names.” In May 2018, Bouziotis submitted her two-week notice and a letter of resignation. Bouziotis’s resignation letter failed to state a reason for her resignation nor did the letter make any mention of Bouziotis’s belief she was the victim of sex discrimination. Afterwards, Bouziotis nevertheless proceeded to file a lawsuit against Iron Bar. Bouziotis alleged in her filed complaint that she was the victim of discrimination and wrongful termination, hostile work environment, retaliation, and aiding and abetting harassment under the LAD. Id. at *3. Ironbar answered and subsequently moved for summary judgement as a matter of law against Bouziotis’s claim. Id.

If you are a New Jersey employee and you overhear or learn secondhand that someone is using offensive language to disparage you or others based on protected class characteristics such as race, age, sex, disability, sexual orientation, etc., you may qualify as a victim of a discriminatory based hostile work environment under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (the “LAD”).  This may be true even if the prejudiced language is not directed at a protected class you are a member of.

Generally, when a Plaintiff-Employee alleges a hostile work environment under the LAD based on a legally protected class characteristic (i.e., age, race, sex, national origin, etc.) The Plaintiff-Employee must demonstrate that the Defendant-Employer’s conduct,

(1) would not have occurred “but-for” the Plaintiff-Employee’s protected characteristic,

We congratulate soon-to-be Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson on the Senate vote yesterday confirming her appointment to the Supreme Court of the United States. Justice Brown Jackson, who will be the first woman African American appointed to the Court, is extremely well qualified for the position. Having graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1992 she went onto to Harvard Law School and became supervising editor of the Harvard Law Review.  After law school she served as a law clerk for a United States District Judge, a Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit and then for retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.  After her clerkship with Justice Breyer, she went into private legal practice with a couple of law firms and eventually took a position as an assistant federal public defender in Washington D.C. In 2009, Judge Brown Jackson was nominated by President Obama to serve on the United States Sentencing Commission.  This was followed by her appointment in 2012 as a sitting judge to the United District Court for the District of Columbia and then in 2021 to a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  Suffice to say Judge Brown Jackson’s well-rounded legal career has been a very illustrious one and we are confident she will be an effective and valued member of the United States Supreme Court once sworn in.

Judge Brown Jackson’s historic appointment to the Court brings to mind the late Martin Luther King, Jr.’s astute observation that, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  This statement is especially apropos given 155 years have passed since then Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Roger B. Taney, a virulent racist and slaveowner, read from the bench on March 6, 1857, the decision he authored in Dred Scott v. Sandford 60 U.S. 393 (1857) where he declared Scott, then a slave, “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect” and therefore had no standing to bring a lawsuit in a court of law. By way of background, in 1846, an enslaved Black man named Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, sued for their freedom in the St. Louis Circuit Court claiming that they should be deemed free persons due to their residence in Missouri, a free territory in the North where slavery was prohibited. Their lawsuit started an 11-year legal battle culminating in Chief Justice Taney reading the most abhorrent decision ever issued by the Supreme Court of the United States.

Taney framed the question before the Court as to whether a black person whose ancestors were brought into this country, and sold as slaves, could be entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States to any of its citizens. The Court in a 7-2 decision concluded that people of African ancestry were not intended by the founder of this country to be considered as “citizens” as the word is used in the Constitution and therefore could not claim any of the right and privileges which the Constitution provides for its citizens.  Dred Scott further held that because slaves were property, not citizens, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 prohibiting slavery north of the 36’30 line was unconstitutional because it violated citizens’ constitutional rights prohibiting unlawful seizure of property. Many historians believe this decision which virtually made it impossible to stop the spread of slavery in the United States and was widely decried in the North served to hasten the onset of the Civil War. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment granting citizenship and equal civil and legal rights. to all persons born in the Unites States, regardless of color, effectively overturned the Dred Scott decision.

New Jersey employees compensated on a commission basis maybe considered wage earners who are afforded the same legal protections as hourly or salaried employees under the New Jersey Wage Payment Law (the “NJWPL”). Consequently, when employers fail to pay employees the full value of commissions earned an employer may be liable for violating the NJWPL because the statute requires employers to pay the full value of wages due to their employees on regular paydays. Specifically, the NJWPL defines “wages” as:

“the direct monetary compensation for labor or services rendered by an employee, where the amount is determined on a time, time, task, piece, or commission basis excluding any form of supplementary incentives and bonuses which are calculated independently of regular wages and paid in addition thereto.”

N.J.S.A. 34:11-4.1(c).

Retaliatory adverse employment actions are not only limited to termination. If an employer engages in a bad faith or a sham internal investigation against an employee after the employee blew the whistle about conduct, he or she reasonably believed violated the law, was fraudulent, or was contrary to public policy, such an employee may have a viable claim under New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”). Generally, New Jersey state courts have held that an employer’s investigation of an employee does not in itself constitute a “retaliatory action.” Beasley v. Passaic City., 377 N.J. Super. 585, 608 (App. Div. 2004). However, if an employee makes a strong showing that an investigation was illegitimate or in bad faith, then the investigation may qualify as an “adverse employment action,” permitting the aggrieved employee to file an affirmative CEPA claim. Id.

To establish a prima facie CEPA claim, a plaintiff must satisfy four elements:

(1) that he . . . reasonably believed that his . . . employer’s conduct was violating either a law or a rule or regulation promulgated pursuant to law;

If you are unemployed and you left your New Jersey job because you reasonable believed you would be fired or laid off, you may still be eligible for unemployment benefits. Generally, employees who voluntarily quit working may not qualify for unemployment benefits because “the purpose of the New Jersey Unemployment Compensation Act [UCA] is to provide some income for the worker earning nothing, because he is out of work through no fault or act of his own….” Battaglia v. Bd. of Review, 14 N.J. Super. 24, 27 (App.Div.1951); see also Yardville Supply Co. v. Bd. of Review, 114 N.J. 371, 375 (1989). The specific language in the UCA states, an individual employee shall be disqualified for benefits if he or she has left work voluntarily “without good cause attributable to such work.” “Good cause attributable to such work” means a reason related directly to the individual’s employment, which was so compelling as to give the individual no choice but to leave the employment.” N.J.A.C. 12:17-9.1(b). Put differently, the employer must be “at fault” for the employee’s quitting. This can be further conceptualized in two ways.

First, an employee who leaves work for a personal reason, or a reason not connected directly to the work, would likely be ineligible for unemployment benefits. The statute references several examples of what would constitute leaving work for personal reasons such as: a lack of transportation; care of children or other relatives; school attendance; self-employment; lack of housing; relocating to another area for personal reasons; relocating to another area to accompany a spouse, a civil union partner, or other relatives; voluntary retirement; to accept other work; or incarceration. N.J.A.C. 12:17-9.1(b)

Second, an employee who leaves work because of mere dissatisfaction with working conditions will likely be ineligible for unemployment benefits unless the work conditions are so unsafe or unhealthy that no reasonable person could withstand working in such an environment, and no remedial action was taken by the employer upon the employees’ complaint of the condition. N.J.A.C. 12:17-9.1(b). To illustrate the distinction, an office employee who complains of the office they work in being too warm or cold could not leave for good cause for such a reason because most reasonable employees would consider office temperature to be a slight discomfort. By contrast, if a construction worker were required to operate an electrical equipment to fix leaky roof may leave work for good cause if the worker can show they complained to their employer about the danger of being electrocuted and the employer made no effort to fix the condition.

Recently the United States Senate amended the Federal Arbitration Act (the “FAA”) by passing S. 2342, known as “The Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act” (the “Amendment”). The Amendment was passed with bipartisan approval and is expected to be signed into law by President Biden. Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-IL), stated the overall purpose of the Amendment:

“Forced arbitration clauses requires disputes to be decided in secret proceedings where the deck is often stacked in favor of corporations and repeat players. For Americans who have been sexually assaulted or harassed, forced arbitration clauses not only deny survivors a day in court, they require the misconduct be concealed from public view. And that allows the abusers to commit more abuse… The bill before us today would give survivors of sexual assault and harassment a choice to go to court instead of being forced into arbitration under the fine print of contracts signed before the dispute arose…” 

Employers often require their workers to sign arbitration agreement where workers are forced to waive their right to sue in court when legal rights provided them by employment laws are violated in the workplace. Instead, the worker must resolve legal disputes through a private binding arbitration process. Arbitration requires parties to use a secretive confidential process where a privately person, typically a practicing lawyer or retired judge, is retained to serve as an arbitrator who functions like a judge outside of court. Critics of arbitration argue the process stacks the odds against the employee because professional arbitrators typically get repeat business from big business employers as compared to individual employee claimant who will typically use an arbitrator on only one occasion during their life. Common sense dictates that that if an arbitrator wants repeat business from an employer, then he or she must avoid hurting that same employer in their corporate pocketbook. According to an article published in May 2017 on the site populardemocracy.org, “Workers in mandatory arbitration win about one fifth of the time (about 21 percent), which is 59 percent as often as they win in federal courts and 38 percent as often as they win in state courts. In other words, employees are 1.7 times more likely to win in federal courts than in arbitration and 2.6 times more likely to win in state courts than in arbitration. Median damage awards in forced employment arbitration are $36,500, compared to $176,400 in federal court employment discrimination cases and $85,600 in state court non-civil rights cases.”

This past January 2022, Brian Flores was terminated by the Miami Dolphins after what objectively should be considered three successful seasons as its Head Coach. Initially, after Flores was first fired, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers remained as the sole Black head coach in the NFL.  Recently, in just this last week, the Miami Dolphins hired Mike McDaniel (bi-racial) and the Houston Texans hired Lovie Smith, who is Black. Naturally, this begs the question: why are there only three Black head coaches in a league where over 70 percent of its players are Black?

According to a recent federal class action complaint filed by Flores in the Southern District of New York against the NFL, with the New York Giants, Miami Dolphins, and Denver Broncos named as co-defendants, the answer lies in statistics which appear to point to the NFL and its 32 white team owners engaging in racially disparate hiring practices. However, Flores’ portrayal of the NFL as a particularly egregious offender of laws promoting equal opportunity hiring practices may not hold under closer scrutiny.

On February 1, 2022, former Miami Dolphin Head Coach Brian Flores filed a federal class action, claiming the clubs failed to hire him based on his Black race. Flores alleges in the complaint violations of both Federal law, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights act as well as State law, New Jerseys Law Against Discrimination (the “LAD”). More specifically, Flores claims that the Denver Broncos in 2019 and New York Giants in 2022 held or scheduled “sham” interviews in order to appear compliant with the NFL’s “Rooney Rule.”

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