Articles Posted in Discrimination

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The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (“ADEA”) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”) prohibit employers from discriminating against people because of their age. This includes a list of forbidden practices such as considering age when hiring and firing, compensation, assignment, transfer, promotion, use of company facilities, training, fringe benefits, pay, retirement plans, and disability leave, to name a few. While generally an employer cannot directly deny someone an opportunity to apply for a job because of their age – under the ADEA someone age 40 or over & under the NJLAD ages 18-70 (w/some exceptions) – it is currently unclear whether recruitment practices which discriminate against older applicants and deny them an equal opportunity to apply for jobs which they are well qualified are prohibited by the ADEA and the NJLAD.

The ADEA protections can be understood in two ways: Either, only “employees” are protected and anyone who is not a current employee does not have ADEA protection; or, “any individual” who is discriminated against by an employer based on their age is protected (even if they are not yet an employee). Initially, the Fourth Circuit in Villarreal v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 839 F3d 958, 961 (11th Cir. 2016) upheld the district court’s dismissal of an ADEA suit claiming that Villareal was unfairly discriminated against by R.J. Reynolds and that his fully qualified job application was dismissed because R.J. Reynolds was looking for younger recruits only. Id. R.J. Reynolds had issued hiring guidelines “describing their ‘targeted candidate’ as someone ‘2-3 years out of college’ who ‘adjusts easily to change’” and “‘to stay away from’ applicants ‘in sales 8-10 years.’” Id. The court justified dismissing the claim because it construed the ADEA language (section 4(a)(2)) to protect only current employees from discrimination and not job applicants. Id. at 963. However, the dissent disagreed pointing out that the ADEA protects “any individual” from age discrimination and not just employees.

In February 2017, the Northern District Courtof California in Rabin v. PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLP, No. 16-cv-02276-JST, 2017 U.S. Dist. Lexis 23224 at *1 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 17, 2017) permitted an ADEA disparate-impact claim to proceed. Building on the Villareal dissent, the court in Rabin held that the ADEA protected “any individual” not just current employees, and therefore, practices which disparately impact people based on age are prohibited by the ADEA even if they are not yet employed. Id. at *17.

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There are many religions and religious beliefs. There’s Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Bahá’í Faith, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Slavic neopaganism, Celtic polytheism, Heathenism (German paganism), Semitic neopaganism, Wicca, Kemetism (Egyptian paganism), Hellenism, Italo-Roman neopaganism to name a few. Whatever your sincerely held religious belief is, if any, federal and state law protects your right to observe those beliefs. 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et al 2012 (“Title VII”); N.J.S.A. 10:5-1, et. seq., the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”). In fact, an employer may be required to reasonably accommodate your religious belief so long as to do so does not cause the employer or co-workers an undue hardship.

Protected religious beliefs are based on an employee’s sincerely held belief. It does not matter whether the employee has a relatable or probable belief. Rather, if the employee indisputably has a sincere religious belief, the employee is entitled to receive a reasonable accommodation from their employer regardless of whether the employer likes or agrees with that belief.  The case of United States EEOC v. Consol Energy Inc., Nos. 16-1230, 16-1406, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 10385, at*1 (4th Cir. June 12, 2017), while somewhat factually unusual, underscores how important it is for an employer to focus on whether a requested accommodation is reasonable, and not whether the employee’s religious belief is reasonable. There, the Fourth Circuit held that so long as the employee has a legitimate religious belief, regardless how farfetched, they are entitled to be reasonably accommodated.

In United States EEOC v. Consol Energy Inc., the Fourth Circuit affirmed a $586,000 award to Beverly R. Butcher (“Butcher”) because his employer violated his religious rights under Title VII. Id. Butcher, a lifelong Evangelical Christian, worked for Robinson Rue Mines (owned by Consol Energy Inc. “Consol”) for 37 years without incident. Id. When Consol decided to use biometric scanners as a method of tracking timesheets Butcher protested. Butcher explained that as a devout Christian he believed using a biometric scanner to clock in and out of his job would mark him as a follower of the Antichrist, subjecting him to an eternity of fire and brimstone. Id. at *6. Consol chose to debate the legitimacy of these beliefs with Butcher and even presented him a letter explaining how the scanner leaves no physical marks and that Butcher’s understanding of the scriptures was incorrect.  Butcher persisted and a lawsuit was filed.

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People get aches and pains all the time. Your back hurts, your stomach is upset, or you are coughing and congested from a bad cold. Generally, that’s what sick days are for. And then there are times when someone sustains an injury or illness that temporarily prevents them from physically, mentally,or emotionally doing their job. In such instances, under the federal American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and the New Jersey Law against Discrimination (“LAD”), an employee is entitled to be reasonably accommodated by their employer. Under the LAD and ADA employees are even entitled to be accommodated for temporary disabilities. Temporary conditions that meet the definition of disability may be covered by the LAD and ADA. See, Failla v. City of Passaic, 146 F.3d 149 (3d Cir. 1998); Clowes v. Terminix Int’l, Inc., 109 N.J. 575 (1988); Enriquez v. West Jersey Health Systems, 342 N.J. Super. 501, 519 (App. Div. 2001) (observing that LAD “is very broad and does not require that a disability restrict any major life activities to any degree”); see also, Summers vs. Altarum Institute Corp., No. 13-1645 (4th Cir. January 23, 2014), (ruling that a temporary and severe impairment does in fact qualify as a disability under the ADA, thus, persons with temporary and severe impairments are protected by the ADA)

For an employee to be entitled to a reasonable accommodation for a disability, the ADA and LAD requires the injured or disabled employee can perform the essential functions of their job with or without an accommodation.  Put differently, an employer is not required to accommodate an employee who cannot perform his or her essential job functions even with an accommodation. Hennessey v. Winslow Township, 368 N.J. Super. 443, 452 (App. Div. 2004), aff’d, 183 N.J. 593 (2005). What constitutes an “essential function” is a very fact specific question. For example, if the essential functions of a job require heavy lifting and the employee can no longer lift heavy objects, the employer does not have to accommodate the employee.Furthermore, the ADA and LAD require an employer to reasonably accommodate a temporarily disabled employee by offering the employee, if available, the opportunity to fill a preexisting light duty position; in doing so the employee is helped to transition back to their original job.

In a landmark case, the United States Supreme Court in Young v. UPS ruled that under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) (where under federal law pregnancy is not inherently a disability) an employer must accommodate a pregnant employee with accommodations the employer gives to other workers who are similarly disabled. There, a pregnant Ms. Young was ordered by her doctor not to lift objects weighing more than 20 pounds. UPS refused to accommodate Young and move her to an available “light duty” job. Instead, UPS required Ms. Young to use up her vacation days, and when those ran out, to take an extended unpaid leave of absence. The Supreme Court found that if other similarly disabled UPS workers with lifting restrictions were being accommodated by the giving of light duty assignments,so too was Ms. Young entitled to the same light duty accommodation from UPS.

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Expressing ourselves through social media is the norm. Whether it’s a wacky, funny selfie with dog ears on Snapchat, or posting a snarky comment on Facebook; it is a way to express ourselves. However, it is also a quick way for employers to find out about what their employees are thinking and saying.

As a citizen of the United States you have a First Amendment right to freely express a controversial opinion or inflammatory statement in in a public forum. While the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights protects free speech, this protection only extends to government employees. As far as private employees’ job security is concerned, they do not enjoy similar carte blanche freedom to say whatever they want with impunity, i.e., without being disciplined. This is because New Jersey is an “employment at will” state. This means a private employer can decide to fire an employee for no good reason at all, so long as this decision does not violate the law. For instance, an employee of a private company who criticizes their boss or a customer may be fired for doing so.

In our electronically interconnected viral world, comments typed onto an iPad may impact your job security. Publicly accessible internet posts blur the boundaries between personal and work life, and all that matters are whether a comment, post, tweet, or picture offends your employer. Accordingly, you must be aware that what you post or tweet may set in motion the loss of your job. However, when employees discuss legally protected topics such as discrimination, they can by and large be protected from adverse employment action.

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The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) protects physically and mentally disabled employees from discrimination.  An employer cannot discriminate in their job applications, hiring, firing, training, pay, promotion, benefits, or leave against a disabled employee. Furthermore, an employer may not harass or retaliate against an employee who has a disability. Most critically, employers must provide disabled employees with reasonable accommodations at work.

When bringing disability claims, the LAD is more inclusive than the ADA. While the ADA does not include pregnancy itself as a disability and only a medical condition or complication due to pregnancy is considered a disability; the LAD includes even pregnancy itself as a disability. Also, the ADA does not protect an employee from an employer who is a private club while the LAD has no such limitation. 42 U.S.C. § 12111 (5)(B)(ii); N.J.S.A. 10:5-5(e).

The ADA and LAD protect employees whose disabilities substantially affect their major life activities. Such activities include hearing, seeing, speaking, thinking, walking, breathing, or performing manual tasks. Further, long-term disabilities/illnesses, such as cancer or diabetes, are still protected even though they are not permanent. However, if a disability is clearly short-term, for instance a cold or a sprain, it is generally not a “disability” which is protected. Finally, an employee’s disability does not need to be constant. Rather, disabilities which cause flair ups, such as chrome’s disease or cancer that is in remission, are also protected.

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On September 19, 2016, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld large emotional distress verdicts in a national origin discrimination case where the plaintiffs, Ramon and Jeffrey Cuevas, neither treated with a mental health professional, nor presented expert testimony at trial in support of their respective claims of emotional distress damages.  Ramon Cuevas v. Wentworth Group, 2016 N.J. LEXIS 891 (decided September 19, 2016). The Cuevas brothers filed a lawsuit under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination against their former employer, the Wentworth Group, alleging they were routinely subject to racially disparaging and humiliating remarks by Wentworth executives; the Cuevas brothers also alleged they were the victims of retaliatory firings. The case was tried before a jury who awarded them $2.5 million in damages, including $800,000 to Ramon and $600,000 to Jeffrey for emotional distress damages. The defendants’ filed a post-trial motion with the court requesting a reduction of the emotional distress damages award because they felt they were unconscionably too high.  Defendants’ application to the court for reduction of a jury award is called remittitur. The trial court denied defendants’ motion finding that the award was not “shocking to the conscience.”   The Appellate Division affirmed the jury verdict and the trial judge’s denial of defendants’ remitter application.  The issue on appeal before the New Jersey Supreme Court was whether the trial court properly denied defendants’ application for remittitur.

In agreeing with the Appellate Division panel below, and relying on its prior 2004 decision in Tarr v. Ciasulli, 181 N.J. 70 (2004), the New Jersey Supreme Court in Cuevas rejected defendants’ argument that, in a LAD case, only nominal damages may compensate for emotional distress when there is no “independent corroborative proof or a showing of resulting physical or psychological symptoms.” In affirming the trial court’s decision to leave intact the jury’s emotional distress verdict, the Court emphasized that, “the Legislature intended victims of discrimination to obtain compensation for mental anguish, embarrassment, and the like, without limitation to severe emotional or physical ailments.” (emphasis in original) quoting Tarr, supra., at 81. In doing so, the Court in Cuevas noted that a number of courts have upheld high emotional-distress LAD awards in the absence of expert testimony from mental-health experts. See, e.g., Rendine v. Pantzer, 141 N.J. 292, 311-13 (1995) (affirming trial court’s denial of remittitur and upholding jury’s emotional-damages awards of $105,000 and $125,000 for two plaintiffs in LAD gender-discrimination wrongful-termination case); Quinlan v. 36 Curtiss-Wright Corp., 409 N.J. Super. 193, 217 (App. Div. 2009) (upholding emotional-distress damages of $187,128 in LAD gender discrimination failure-to-promote case), rev’d on other grounds, 204 N.J. 239 (2010); Lockley v. Turner, 344 N.J. Super. 1, 12-14 (App. Div. 2001) (upholding $750,000 emotional-damages award), aff’d in part and modified in part on other grounds, 177 N.J. 413 (2003).

The Court further made clear that trial judges should be reticent to invade the province of the jury in determining what is a fair and reasonable damages verdict for a victim of proven discrimination.  This is because a jury’s verdict is cloaked with a “presumption of correctness” quoting Baxter v. Fairmont Food Co., 74 N.J.  588, 598 (1977).  The Court went on to opine that, “The unique nature of each case and the suffering of each plaintiff is the reason why juries are told that, in fixing a monetary amount for emotional-distress damages, there is ‘no better yardstick for your guidance than your own impartial judgment and experience.’” Model Jury Charges (Civil) § 2.36, 34 “Past and Future Emotional Distress in an Employment Law Case” (2014).

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If your employer has a widely disseminated anti-harassment policy and you are a victim of harassment on the job, you must follow the victim reporting mechanism or procedures in the policy because failure to do so may bar you from recovering damages for the harassment you were forced to endure.  The New Jersey Supreme Court decision in Aguas v. State of New Jersey, 220 N.J. 494 (2015) is instructive on this point.  Ilda Aguas worked as a corrections officer for the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC). The DOC had in place a widely disseminated written anti-harassment policy which required employees to report sexual harassment or other forms of discrimination in writing.  Aguas claimed her supervisor and other officers were sexually harassing her.  However, Aguas only reported the harassing conduct verbally, not in writing.  Thereafter, Aguas filed a lawsuit against the DOC and her harassers alleging she was sexually harassed in violation of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD).  Ilda Aguas’ lawsuit was ultimately dismissed because she failed to follow the DOC’s anti-harassment policy and its requirement that victims of harassment make their complaints in writing.

In its decision affirming the dismissal of Ms. Aguas’ lawsuit, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that when an employer has in place a well-publicized and reasonably effective policy designed to eliminate discriminatory harassment in the workplace, and an employee fails to comply with the policy, the employer may avoid liability for the harassment perpetrated by its supervisors or the victim’s co-workers. This is called the “Ellerth-Faragher Defense” which gets its name from two United Supreme Court decisions Faragher v. Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998), and Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998). Under the Ellerth-Faragher Defense an employer can avoid liability to a victim of harassment if no tangible job action was taken against the employee (such as a firing or demotion) and: (a) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior, and (b) that the plaintiff employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise. Faragher, supra., 524 U.S. at 807; Ellerth, supra,, 524 U.S. at 765.

Many victims of work related harassment are reluctant to report it for fear of retaliation; this is especially true if the harasser is a supervisor. Nonetheless, the Aguas decision instructs that failure to report the harassment could bar the victim from being able to sue an employer to recover damages for any physical, mental or emotional harms caused by the harassment. However, if you are a victim of harassment and fear retaliation if you report the harassment, you should consider that the LAD makes it unlawful for an employer, “to coerce, intimidate, threaten or interfere with any person in the exercise or enjoyment of, or on account of that person having aided or encouraged any other person in the exercise or enjoyment of, any right granted or protected by this act.” N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(d). Simply put, if your employer retaliates against you for reporting the harassment, you can and should sue them under the LAD for having done so. Victims of harassment and retaliation must do whatever is necessary to protect their right to sue in court to hold their employer and the harasser(s) accountable for the damage and harm caused by their unlawful actions.

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Lisa is a new probationary employee with a New Jersey company who has been the target of sexually offensive remarks by Doug, a male co-worker.  Doug’s harassing behavior includes, but is not limited to, asking Lisa: a) to sit on his lap; b) what her bra cup size is; c) to wear short skirts to work; d) to have a drink with him after work after she already declined to do so; and e) to take a “selfie” with him at her desk.  Lisa’s complaints to her boss and Human Resources about Doug’s incessant behavior has not stopped his unwelcome antics.  As a result, Lisa finds herself constantly fearful, anxious, sad, irritable, crying; she is distracted and having trouble focusing both at work and home. Her appetite has greatly decreased and she is having trouble sleeping. Lisa went to see her doctor and was informed her blood pressure was elevated and she was suffering from anxiety and depression. In addition to prescribing her medicine, the doctor has recommended Lisa immediately go on disability and consult with a mental health professional. Lisa tells the doctor that as a new employee she will not be eligible for health insurance for another two months, she has no personal savings, and has so far paid very little money into the state disability insurance program. She is both sick and fearful of losing her job and doesn’t know what to do. What Lisa needs to do is to call both an employment lawyer and a workers compensation lawyer.

The employment lawyer will immediately do everything necessary to protect Lisa’s legal interests as a victim of workplace sexual harassment including, if necessary, filing a lawsuit on her behalf asserting claims for violation of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD). The workers compensation lawyer will immediately place the employer on notice that Doug’s unstopped harassment has caused Lisa to suffer mental health injuries arising out of her course of employment and will demand that she immediately receive authorized medical treatment and workers compensation temporary disability benefits. If the employer fails to provide such benefits, the workers compensation lawyer will then file a workers compensation claim petition with the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Division of Workers Compensation Workers and file a motion with the workers compensation court seeking to compel the employer (and its insurance company) to provide Lisa with authorized medical treatment and temporary disability benefits. Assuming Lisa has suffered a partial permanent psychiatric injury, the workers compensation lawyer will eventually petition the workers compensation court to award Lisa money for her disabling injuries.

New Jersey law permits Lisa to file a LAD discrimination claim with the New Jersey Superior Court while at the same time pursuing a workers compensation claim before the New Jersey Division of Workers Compensation. This is because LAD claims and other intentionally caused harms are claims not subject to the exclusivity provision of the Workers Compensation Act.  In 1997, our State Supreme Court affirmed that employees could bring both a workers compensation claim  and a collateral discrimination and/or intentional infliction of emotional harm claim arising out of similar sets of facts and circumstances against the same employer where intentional acts by co-workers or the employer cause psychological disability to the employee. Schmidt v. Smith, 294 N.J. Super. 569, 584 (App Div. 1996) aff’d 155 N.J. 44 (1997) (“If the Legislature had intended workers compensation to be the exclusive remedy for victims of harassment and discrimination in the workplace it would not have provided for a jury trial as well as compensatory and punitive damages.”); Gardenshire v. N.J. Manufacturers Ins. Co., 333 N.J. Super. 219, 230 (Law Div. 2000).

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Amir is an American born Muslim of Pakistani descent. Amir has recently obtained an entry level administrative position at ABC, Inc., a large pharmaceutical company.  Two white co-workers in Amir’s department, Billy and Bob, who similarly hold entry level positions at ABC, dislike Muslims.  As a result, Billy and Bob scheme to get Amir fired by falsely reporting to their department manager Tony having seen Amir stealing drug samples used by the company’s sales team.  Relying on what Billy and Bob reported to him, Tony decides to fire Amir. Thereafter, Amir retains an employment lawyer and files a wrongful discharge discrimination lawsuit against ABC. While the lawsuit is pending, Billy and Bob’s discriminatory scheme is uncovered. Will Amir and his attorneys be able to hold ABC liable for Manager Tony having fired Amir based on what Billy and Bob reported? Under the so-called “cat’s paw” theory of liability, the answer appears to be yes.

Our United States Supreme Court in a case entitled Staub v. Proctor Hospital, 131 S.Ct. 1186 (2011), held that “an employer may be held liable for employment discrimination based on the discriminatory animus of an employee who influenced, but did not make the ultimate decision.”  Id. at 1187.  Prior to this ruling, lower federal courts had favorably applied the cat’s paw theory in discrimination cases. Abramson v. William Paterson College, 260 F.3d 265, 286 (3d Cir. 2001) (“it is sufficient if those exhibiting discriminatory animus influenced or participated in the decision to terminate.); Russell v. McKinney Hosp. Venture, 235 F.3d 219, 226 (5th Cir. 2000) (“If the employee can demonstrate that others had influence or leverage over the official decision maker . . . it is proper to impute their discriminatory attitudes to the formal decision maker.”); Santiago-Ramos v. Centennial P.R. Wireless Corp., 217 F.3d 46, 55 (1st Cir. 2000) (stating that “discriminatory comments . . . made by . . . those in a position to influence the decision maker” can be evidence of pretext); Griffin v. Washington Convention Ctr., 142 F.3d 1308, 1312 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (“Evidence of a subordinate’s bias is relevant where the ultimate decision maker is not insulated from the subordinate’s influence”). Similarly, the New Jersey Appellate Division adopted the cat’s paw theory from Staub and applied it under New Jersey’s whistleblowing law known as the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, or CEPA. Battaglia v. United Parcel Service, 2011 N.J. Super. Unpub LEXIS 2180 at * 29 (App. Div. Aug. 12, 2011); see also Lowe v. Medco Health Solutions of Willingboro, LLC, 2012 U.S. Dist LEXIS 59137 at *48-49 (D.N.J. Apr. 27, 2012) (“it appears likely that New Jersey will adopt a standard similar to the “cat’s paw’ theory enunciated in Staub”).

In Burlington v. News Corp., 55 F. Supp. 3d 723 (E.D. Pa. 2014), the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania concluded the “cat’s paw” theory of imputed causation in discrimination cases should be extended to situations where the discriminatory animus influencing the decision-maker stemmed from a nonsupervisory employee. Id. at 738; see also Harris v. Warrick Cnty. Sheriff’s Dep’t., 666 F.3d 444, 448 (7th Cir. 2012) (noting that co-worker “cat’s paw” liability might have been available had the plaintiff established causation); Keefer v. Olin Corp., No. 09-cv-23-WDS, 2011 WL 4474966, at *3 (S.D. Ill. Sept. 26, 2011) (“Plaintiff has to show that there is supportable evidence that the unidentified ‘nurse’ somehow actually influenced the decision maker . . . or that the nurse was in a supervisor capacity.”); Johnson v. Koppers, Inc., No. 10 C 3404, 2012 WL 1906448, at *6-7 (N.D. Ill. May 25, 2012) (expressly extending the cat’s paw doctrine to co-workers).