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In Loeb v. Vantage Custom Classics, Inc., ESX-L-4762-20, the New Jersey Superior Court, Law Division, Essex County, was faced with the question of whether an employee who suffers an adverse employment action because of complaints he made to his employer about its failure to follow Governor Phil Murphy’s Executive Orders designed to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus can sue as a whistleblower under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA). The Court answered this question in the affirmative.

On March 9, 2020, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy issued Executive Order No. 103, declaring a State of Emergency and a Public Health Emergency because of the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 16, 2020, Governor Murphy issued Executive Order No. 104 implementing aggressive social distancing measures to mitigate further spread of COVID-19 in New Jersey. On March 21, 2020, Governor Murphy issued Executive Order No. 107 directing all residents employed in nonessential jobs to stay at home. Paragraph 10 of Executive Order 107 states that, “All businesses or non-profits in the State, whether closed or open to the public, must accommodate their workforce, wherever practicable, for telework or work-from-home arrangements.” And on April 8, 2020, Governor Murphy issued Executive Order No. 122 incorporating all relevant Executive Orders in relation to pandemic COVID-19, Declaring;

“All essential retail businesses, warehousing businesses, manufacturing businesses, and businesses performing essential construction projects must also adopt policies that include, at minimum, the following requirements:

An employee who is terminated for alleged sexual harassment based on a consensual out-of-work romantic relationship with a coworker, where no complaint of sexual harassment was ever made and where the employer’s investigation revealed no good-faith basis for concluding sexual harassment had occurred, can serve as the basis for a public-policy wrongful discharge claim pursuant to Pierce v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp, 84 NJ. 58 (1980) (holding that it is unlawful to discharge an employee in violation of a clear mandate of public policy) and Lehmann v. Toys ‘R’ Us, Inc., 132 N.J. 587 (1993) (requiring employers to conduct fair and thorough investigations of sexual harassment allegations). Both the New Jersey Supreme Court and the Appellate Division have held that consensual romantic relationships between coworkers do not constitute sexual harassment, even if one of the parties to the relationship is favored by the other to the detriment of third parties in the workplace.

In Erickson v. March & McLennan Co., Inc., 117 N.J. 539 (1990), a unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court held that (1) there was “no reason to extend the protection of the LAD to sex-discrimination claims based on voluntary personal relations in the workplace” and (2) “favoritism in the workplace, based solely on personal romantic preference as opposed to coercion, does not constitute discrimination on the basis of gender.” Id. at 557. Similarly, while addressing the discoverability of consensual sexual relationships between partners and employees at a law firm in a case in which the plaintiff associate alleged that she had been raped by one of the partners, the Appellate Division relied upon the distinction between sex in the workplace and sexual harassment in the workplace to bar discovery of such consensual sexual relationships. K.S. v. ABC Professional Corp., 330 N.J. Super. 288 (App. Div. 2000). The Appellate Division noted that “[s]ex is not congruent with sexual misconduct” in holding that “whether any partner ever had a consensual and welcomed relationship with an employee is irrelevant to plaintiffs’ claim that a hostile work environment was created or tolerated by defendants.”  Id. at 297. Hence, in New Jersey consensual sexual relationships in the workplace, even between superiors and subordinates, do not constitute sexual harassment, and therefore cannot be used as a predicate for firing an employee for sexual harassment. Given this, it may be gainsaid that an employer violates a clear mandate of New Jersey public policy by firing an employee for alleged sexual harassment based on the employee’s consensual romantic relationship with a coworker. Such a discharge violates a clear mandate of public policy and therefore is unlawful Pierce v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp., 84 N.J. 58, 72 (1980).

In Grasser v. United Healthcare Corporation, MID-L-12026-99, the company fired plaintiff Grasser after learning he had been involved in a romantic relationship with a female coworker even though no one (including the female coworker) had complained plaintiff Grasser had done anything inappropriate and despite the female coworker’s clear statement the relationship was entirely consensual. Moreover, the employer’s investigation uncovered absolutely no evidence that either plaintiff or the female coworker had done anything inappropriate in the workplace. Notwithstanding this, defendant-employer fired plaintiff anyway, asserting his relationship with the female coworker violated the company’s sexual harassment policy. In denying the defendant corporation’s motion for summary judgment, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Yolanda Ciccone, J.S.C. stated in part:

The law in New Jersey is clear that actual or constructive discharge is not a required element for recovery of economic losses due to employer’s retaliatory actions under New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), N.J.S.A. 34:19-1 to -14; Donelson v. DuPont Chambers Works, 206 N.J. 243 (2011). Under CEPA, any retaliatory action on the part of the employer is a violation and therefore recoverable if the action(s) have proximately caused the injury to employee.  Donelson, 206 N.J.at 249 (referencing N.J.S.A. 34:19-5).  Also, where appropriate, “the court shall order compensation for all lost wages, benefits and other remuneration to the fullest extent possible.Id. (emphasis added).  Such damage can include adverse employment capabilities due to mental unfitness for duty.  IdThese protections exist to encourage whistleblowing on the part of employees and to protect those whistleblowers from any retaliation taken by their employers regardless of their employment status.  CEPA protects equally those who are discharged, who suffer a retaliatory hostile work environment, who suffer psychiatric distress forcing early retirement, and even those currently employed by the retaliating company who were retaliated against in some fashion for their whistleblowing actions.

In Donelson, the plaintiff Seddon, was a long-term employee of DuPont Chambers Works, who after approximately 30 years of employment, reported concerns regarding the inadequate procedures the company employed in handling a particular hazardous substance.  After filing an OSHA complaint, DuPont subjected Seddon to disparate and hostile treatment. Seddon eventually suffered an emotional breakdown, was placed on disability and he eventually resigned from his job. Seddon did not claim nor was he found to have suffered a constructive discharge at the hands of his employer, yet nonetheless was entitled by the Court to the full spectrum of tort recovery. This is because “other adverse employment actions taken against an employee” may lead to the proximate causation of economic loss, and any such event may lead to the full spectrum of tort recovery.  Donelson, 206 N.J. at 257.  Seddon’s psychologist recommended time away from work and even filed the papers for disability leave. Hence, the court in Donelson held that in the circumstance where an employer’s retaliatory action proximately causes employee to suffer a documented mental incapacitation, that employee has a right to recover lost wages even in the absence of a constructive discharge.  Id. at 263.

Herbe v. Rutgers, 2020 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2563 (App. Div. decided December 29, 2020) is a recently decided Appellate Division case which is a progeny of Donelson. Nurse Herbe was a Clinical Nurse Coordinator for University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Herbe was assigned with her supervisor and a coworker to audit medical charts, but they refused to help her with the audit because they were busy writing an essay for the supervisor’s graduate school application. In fact, they had the temerity to ask Herbe to help them author the essay, but rather than do so, Herbe left the room they were all in without comment. Thereafter, Nurse Herbe reported her supervisor and her coworker to the employer, believing they were guilty of theft of time, plagiarism, fraud, and ethics rules. Almost immediately after reporting the misconduct, Plaintiff’s supervisor and coworker began to harass Herbe at work, calling her a “mole,” undermining Plaintiff’s supervisory authority of a new employee, and making demeaning comments about her weight, clothing, and jewelry. The harassment Herbe was forced to endure at work eventually placed her under the care of a psychologist who placed her on disability leave for an indefinite period of time. In response, the employer fired her.

Although less frequently invoked than other provisions contained within the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), the statute prohibits discriminatory refusal to do business with independent contractors because they or their family members possess one or more protected class characteristics. Specifically, N.J.S.A. § 10:5-12(l) provides:

“It shall be…an unlawful discrimination…For any person to refuse to buy from, sell to, lease from or to, license, contract with, or trade with, provide goods, services or information to, or otherwise do business with any other person on the basis of the race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry, age, pregnancy or breastfeeding, sex, gender identity or expression, affectional or sexual orientation, marital status, civil union status, domestic partnership status, liability for service in the Armed Forces of the United States, disability, nationality, or source of lawful income used for rental or mortgage payments of such other person or of such other person’s family members, partners, members, stockholders, directors, officers, managers, superintendents, agents, employees, business associates, suppliers, or customers.…”

Similarly, the LAD prohibits discriminatory terminations of contracts. Rubin v. Chilton, 359 N.J. Super. 105 (App. Div. 2003).

Underscoring the paramount need to put in place comprehensive health and safety standards designed to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus in our state, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy recently issued Executive Order No. 192, requiring employers with employees physically present at worksites to adhere to strict COVID-19 safety requirements. Executive Order No. 192 provides in part:

1. Effective at 6:00 a.m. on Thursday, November 5, 2020, every business, non-profit and governmental or educational entity (hereinafter collectively referred to as “employers” or “employer”) that requires or permits its workforce to be physically present at a worksite to perform work is required to abide by the following requirements to protect employees, customers and all others who come into physical contact with its operations:

a. Require that individuals at the worksite maintain at least 6 feet of distance from one another to the maximum extent possible, including but not limited to during worksite meetings, orientations and similar activities, in common areas such as restrooms and break rooms, and when individuals are entering and exiting the workplace. Where the nature of an employee’s work or the work area does not allow for 6 feet of distance maintained at all times, employers shall ensure that each such employee wears a mask and shall install physical barriers between workstations wherever possible.

In 1945 New Jersey became the first state since the Reconstruction era to pass comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation with its enactment of the Law Against Discrimination, or as it is more commonly called, the “LAD.”  In enacting the LAD, the NJ Legislature declared “that practices of discrimination against any of its inhabitants…are matters of concern to the government of the State, and that such discrimination threatens not only the rights and proper privileges of the inhabitants of the State but menaces the institutions and foundation of a free democratic State.” N.J.S.A. 10:5-3. While the LAD expressly states that “inhabitants” or residents of New Jersey are protected from discrimination, no mention is made as to whether its protections extend to victims of discrimination who reside or work outside of New Jersey. Fortunately, in Calabotta v. Phibro Animal Health Corp., 460 N.J. Super. 38 (App. Div. 2019) the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division concluded the LAD could extend in appropriate circumstances to plaintiffs who reside or work outside of New Jersey.

In Calabotta, the plaintiff, an Illinois resident, sued his New Jersey-based former employer, alleging that it wrongfully denied him a promotion to a position in New Jersey and thereafter wrongfully terminated him from his job with its subsidiary in Illinois.  Specifically, plaintiff Calabotta claimed that the company engaged in “associational” discrimination against him in violation of LAD based on the fact that his wife was then terminally ill with cancer.  As an initial matter the Appellate Division in Calabotta found there to be a conflict between New Jersey law and Illinois law when it came to recognizing “associational” discrimination as a viable cause of action.  It was recognized in New Jersey. O’Lone v. N.J. Dep’t of Corr., 313 N.J. Super. 249, 255 (App. Div. 1998) (where a plaintiff is wrongfully discharged for associating with a member of a protected group under the LAD, it is the functional equivalent of being a member of that same protected group). By contrast, Illinois law had not recognized a cause of action for associational discrimination.

In deciding whether LAD covered plaintiff Calabotta’s failure to promote and wrongful discharge claims, the Court decided the factors spelled out in the Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Laws (the “Second Restatement”) were applicable:

New Jersey health care facility workers cannot refuse to receive a flu shot.  On January 13, 2020, Governor Phil Murphy enacted N.J.S.A. § 26:2H-18.79, concerning influenza vaccination in New Jersey health care facilities.  The statute first provides that, beginning with the onset of the first flu season next following the effective date of the legislation, each health care facility (i.e., general or special hospital, nursing home or home health care agency) must establish and implement an annual flu vaccine program in accordance with the recommendations of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and any rules and regulations adopted in accordance with the statute.

For the purposes of its annual flu vaccine program, each health care facility must annually provide a flu shot to each of its employees and require that each employee at the facility receive a flu shot annually no later than December 31 of the current flu season, which flu shot must be provided by the facility.

A health care facility employee who does not wish to have a flu shot must prove that he or she has a medical exemption, which must be submitted using a form designated by the Department of Health, stating that the flu shot is “medically contraindicated, as enumerated by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”  An attestation of a medical exemption is subject to approval by the facility following the facility’s review to confirm that the exemption is consistent with CDC standards.  A health care facility must not discharge or reduce the pay of any employee who receives a medical exemption from the annual flu shot requirement.

With the passing of United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (March 15, 1933 – September 18, 2020) this country lost an irreplaceable and implacable advocate for the bedrock notion that every person regardless of their sex, race, national origin, disability or sexual orientation, or other unique or protected characteristic, should be treated equally under the law. In the employment context, a great example of Justice Ginsburg’s spirited pursuit of equality for all is found in her dissenting opinion in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 550 U.S. 618 (2007).  This dissent helped to galvanize the later passage and signing into law of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act which makes clear that pay discrimination claims on the basis of sex, race, national origin, age, religion and disability, accrue whenever a discriminatory pay decision or practice is adopted, or when a person becomes subject to the decision or practice, or when a person is affected by the disparate pay decision or practice, including whenever s/he receives a discriminatory paycheck

Lilly Ledbetter was one of a few female supervisors at the Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Alabama.  She suspected she was getting fewer and lower pay raises than similarly situated male supervisors but had no proof until she received an anonymous note revealing the salaries of three of the male managers. After she filed a complaint with the EEOC, her case went to trial, and the jury awarded her back-pay and approximately $3.3 million in compensatory and punitive damages for the extreme nature of the pay discrimination.

The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed the jury verdict, holding that her case was filed too late – even though Ms. Ledbetter continued to receive discriminatory pay – because the company’s original decision on her pay had been made years earlier. In a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Alito, the Supreme Court upheld the Eleventh Circuit decision and ruled that employees cannot challenge ongoing pay discrimination if the employer’s original discriminatory pay decision occurred outside of the statute of limitations period – which in Alabama was a mere 180- day period – even when the employee continues to receive paychecks that have been discriminatorily reduced.

It is possible to certify discrimination claims brought under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 et seq. (“LAD”) as class action claims. In Alleyne v. NJ Transit 2020 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1686 (Law Div., decided Aug. 28, 2020) a New Jersey trial court certified a class action for disability discrimination. In 2018, Plaintiff Anthony Alleyne filed a class action lawsuit against his employer, the New Jersey Transit Corporation (NJ Transit), alleging that NJ Transit violated the LAD by discriminating against him based on his disability, sleep apnea. The court granted Alleyne’s motion to certify the following class: “individuals who were removed from service with NJ Transit and required to submit to sleep apnea testing while employed by NJ Transit at any time from September 19, 2016 to present.”

On October 5, 2016, Alleyne attended his routine physical examination. During the exam, Alleyne’s body mass index and neck circumference were measured. The doctor conducting the examination informed Alleyne that he believed Alleyne may have sleep apnea. Based on the doctor’s suspicions, NJ Transit removed Alleyne from service that same day. At that time, Alleyne was employed as a locomotive engineer.

Once removed, Alleyne was required by NJ Transit to undergo further testing and was diagnosed with mild to moderate sleep apnea. He was informed that, based on the results of his tests, NJ Transit required him to wear a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine and maintain a certain level of compliance before he could return to work. He paid out of pocket for the costs of tests incurred from the treatments and examinations required by NJ Transit. NJ Transit did not reimburse him for the costs and did not compensate him for the time he spent out of service.

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