Articles Posted in Retaliation

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Under the federal American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”), a disabled employee is entitled to be reasonably accommodated by their employer so long as to do so does not create an undue hardship for the employer or coworkers. However, for an employee to be entitled to a reasonable accommodation for a disability, the ADA and LAD requires that the 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” requires a very fact specific determination. To do so, the U.S. Equal Employment Commission suggests the following factors be considered: (1) the employer’s job descriptions; (2) whether the position exists to perform that function specifically; (3) the experience of employees who actually hold that position; (4) the time spent performing the function; (5) the consequences of not performing the function; (6) whether other employees are available to perform the function, and; (7) the degree of expertise or skill required to perform the function. However,when looking at the job description factor, the New Jersey Supreme Court in Grande v. Saint Clare’s Health Sys., Nos. A-67, 076606, 2017 N.J. LEXIS 746, at *1 (decided July 12, 2017) recently reaffirmed that an employer cannot arbitrarily define which requirements are “essential” job functions.

Maryanne Grande (“Grande”) was a Registered Nurse who suffered repeated injuries while working at Saint Clare’s causing damage to her shoulders and neck. Following her last medical leave, Grande was cleared by her doctor to return to full-duty. However, before permitting her to do so, Saint Clare’s required Grande to undergo and pass a functional capacity evaluation (an FCE). The FCE concluded that Grande was fit to perform medium category work (occasional lift and work up to 50 lbs.) with certain job alterations to avoid prolonged or repetitive neck movements, and required assistance when performing patient transfers or guarding patients or handling loads greater than 50 pounds. Thereafter, Saint Clare’s informed Grande that they were terminating her employment because they felt she had limitations which prevented her from safely doing her job.

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The federal Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601-2654 and New Jersey Family Leave Act (“NJFLA”) N.J.S.A. 34:11B-1 et. seq. permits employees to take 12 weeks of protected unpaid leave when they or their immediate family suffer a serious medical condition or for a new born child. This allows the employee to cope and recuperate from such circumstances. Relatedly, an employer cannot punish an employee for taking FMLA or NJFLA leave. Indeed, the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit recently ruled that an employee can use his medical leave time off as vacation time, and cannot be fired for doing so, so long as taking such time off does not directly violate an express company policy. In Jones v. Gulf Coast Health Care of Delaware, LLC, 854 F.3d 1261 (11thCir. 2017), the 11th Circuit remanded to the district court to decide whether an employer had subjected his employee to unlawful retaliation by firing him when he did not use his time off within the “spirit” of medical leave – to rehabilitate and recover – and instead vacationed.

In Jones, the employer, Accentia, granted plaintiff Rodney Jones (“Jones”), their Activities Director, 12 weeks of FMLA leave so that he could undergo rotator cuff surgery and fully recover. However, when Jones was scheduled to return, his doctor reported that Jones could not resume physical activity until February 1, 2015. Despite his doctor’s recommendations and his own physical limitations, Jones still wished to return to his job at the end of his FMLA leave. Jones understood his doctor’s report to simply mean that he needed to continue physical therapy, not that he was prohibited from working entirely. Therefore, he asked his supervisor to allow him to return to work on light duty. His requested was denied. In fact, Jones was told he would not be permitted to return to work unless he underwent and passed a fitness-for-duty exam. Because his supervisor was adamant that Jones could not return to work on light duty, Jones did not ask his doctor for a light-duty certification. Jones instead requested additional time off and was granted another 30 days of non-FMLA medical leave to complete his physical therapy.

During the additional leave time, Jones twice visited the Busch Gardens theme park in Tampa Bay, Florida where he spent time walking around and taking pictures of the park’s Christmas decorations. Jones also visited his family in the Caribbean for three days. He posted photos from these trips on his Facebook page, including pictures of himself on the beach, posing by a boat wreck, and in the ocean. When Jones returned to work, his supervisor confronted him with the vacation photos and informed him that “corporate” believed, based on these Facebook posts, Jones had been well enough to return to work without additional leave. Hence, Jones was suspended, and then his employment terminated following an investigation by the company.

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Many professions require a person to be licensed before they can work in their chosen field such as medicine, nursing, law, dentistry, teaching, accounting, pharmacy, psychology, engineering, and architecture, to name a few. Many, if not all, of these professions require the practitioner to adhere to a professional code of ethics or code of responsibility. Recently, in a case entitled Steven Trzaska v. L’Oreal USA, Inc., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 13381 (decided July 25, 2017), the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit concluded that an employer who subjects an employee who is a licensed professional to workplace retaliation for refusing to violate a code of professional conduct violates New Jersey’s whistleblowing law, i.e., New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA).

Steven Trzaska worked as a supervising patent attorney for L’Oréal USA, Inc. (L’Oréal).  His team’s job was in part to file patent applications with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The patent team he was assigned had to satisfy an annual 40 patent application filing quota.  Management officials at L’Oréal told Trzaska and his team members that if they failed to meet the quota, “there would be consequences which would negatively impact their careers and/or continued employment.”  Notwithstanding management’s threat, the patent team did not believe it was able to meet the mandatory quota without filing frivolous patent applications.As a licensed attorney required to follow professional rules of conduct and the rules of the USPTO, Mr. Trzaska made it known to L’Oréalmanagementthat neither he nor his team would file patent applications they in good faith believed were not patentable.  This meant the patent quota was not attainable.  After Mr. Trzaska’s views become known to L’Oréal management, they presented him with two severance packages requiring him to leave the company.  When Mr. Trzaska refused to accept these severance offers, he was fired.  Thereafter, Mr. Trzaska filed a lawsuit against L’Oreal alleging he was fired in violation of CEPA. The United States District Court dismissed Mr. Trzaska’s lawsuit finding that he did not engage in the conduct protected under CEPA.  Mr. Trzaska appealed the dismissal of his case to the Third Court.

CEPA protects employees who blow the whistle by, among others, disclosing to a supervisor “an activity, policy or practice of the employer . . . that the employee reasonably believes . . . is in violation of a law, or a rule or regulation promulgated pursuant to law,” N.J.S.A. 34:19-3(a)(1), or by objecting to or refusing to participate “in any activity, policy or practice which the employee reasonably believes . . . is in violation of a law . . . .,” or  by objecting to or refusing to participate in any activity, policy or practice which “is incompatible with a clear mandate of public policy concerning the public health, safety or welfare . . . .” N.J.S.A. 34:19-3(c)(1) and (3).  A plaintiff who pursues a CEPA claim need not show that his or her employer or another employee actually violated the law or a clear mandate of public policy.  Dzwonar v. McDevitt, 177 N.J. 451, 462 (2003).  Instead, the plaintiff simply must show that he “reasonably believes” that to be the case. Id.  This is because the goal of CEPA, is “not to make lawyers out of conscientious employees but rather to prevent retaliation against those employees who object to employer conduct that they reasonably believe to be unlawful or indisputably dangerous to the public health, safety or welfare.” Mehlman v. Mobil Oil Corp., 153 N.J. 163, 193-94 (1998).

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A constructive discharge occurs when conditions at work become so unlawfully and intolerably hostile an employee is left with no choice but to resign. Previously, to recover under New Jersey’s Whistleblower Law – the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) – a litigant was required to prove actual or constructive discharge. This changed when the New Jersey Supreme Court in Donelson v. DuPont Chambers Works expanded the scope of liability and broadened potential litigants’ avenues of recovery in holding that an employee who files suit under CEPA may recover back and front pay, even if the employee was not fired or constructively discharged.  This can be done if the employee shows he or she became mentally disabled because of the employer’s retaliation. Such retaliation typically takes the form of a hostile work environment.

In Donelson, Plaintiff, John Seddon, a thirty-year employee of DuPont Chambers Works, filed complaints with DuPont management and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regarding unsafe conditions in the workplace. Seddon believed that after he engaged in whistleblowing activities, DuPont retaliated by placing him on an involuntary short-term disability leave. Following his return to work, DuPont required that Seddon work twelve-hour shifts in an isolated work assignment, a requirement that he characterized as “torture.” Consequently, Seddon sought psychiatric treatment and took a voluntary six-month leave of absence. After his six-month leave, Seddon retired with a disability pension from DuPont.

In his lawsuit, Seddon alleged that DuPont retaliated against him for complaining about workplace safety concerns, and as result of DuPont’s retaliatory actions, he suffered a mental breakdown rendering him unable to hold gainful employment. Following a trial, a jury rendered a verdict in favor of Seddon awarding him $724,000 for economic losses and $500,000 in punitive damages. However, on appeal the Appellate Division reversed, determining a lost wage claim under CEPA is not cognizable unless actual or constructive discharge was proved.

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In our blog article posted on August 3, 2016, we discussed the growing trend of court jurisdictions throughout the country adopting the cat’s paw causation theory to conclude that employers can be held liable for the discriminatory or retaliatory acts of supervisors and subordinate co-workers. To remind, under the cat’s paw theory of legal causation, also known as the “subordinate bias” theory, an employer may be held legally responsible to a complainant/plaintiff for employment discrimination or unlawful workplace retaliation based on the discriminatory or retaliatory animus of an employee who influenced the decision-maker (typically a managerial level employee), but who him or herself, did not make the employment decision adversely impacting the complainant/plaintiff.  Recently, a federal court sitting in the Second Circuit’s Southern District of New York adopted the cat’s paw theory in a sexual harassment case entitled Vasquez v. Empress Ambulance Service, Inc., (decided August 26, 2016).

The facts in Vasquez explain why the court there felt constrained to rule in the employer’s favor. Andrea Vasquez worked on an ambulance crew for Empress Ambulance as an emergency medical technician. A male dispatcher named Gray worked for Empress as a dispatcher.  After Gray met Vasquez, he began to pursue a romantic or sexual relationship by asking her out on dates, putting his arm around her and touching her shoulders. Vasquez made clear to Gray that she was not interested in such a relationship with him and tried to ignore him. Not wanting to take no as an answer, Gray thought he could woo Vasquez by texting her a picture of his erect penis with the message “Wat u think” (sic).  Vasquez was disgusted by Gray’s text and informed her supervisor about the unwanted text message. The supervisor instructed Vasquez to type up a complaint and send it to Empress’ human resources department and her supervisors.  Meanwhile, having caught wind of Vasquez’s complaints about him and fearing the loss of his job, Gray began to create the false impression that he and Vasquez were involved in an intimate personal relationship.  Deceitfully, Gray was able to manipulate his iPhone so that the record of a conversation with someone else containing consensual sexual text banter appeared to have taken place between Gray and Vasquez.  Gray gave printed screen shot portions of such text conversation to Empress Management.  Gray was also able to contrive a racy photograph of a woman he purported was Vasquez claiming she sent it to him in response to his erect penis photo. Gray’s effort to mislead Empress proved successful as Vasquez was fired by Empress based on the Empress Management Committee’s misapprehension that she had communicated a false sexual harassment claim against Gray.

Following her termination, Vasquez filed a sexual harassment discrimination and retaliation claims against Empress under federal Title VII and the New York State Human Rights Law.  Empress moved to dismiss Vasquez’s complaint arguing, in part, that a cat’s paw claim is only viable when the biased person who influences the adverse employment discrimination is the plaintiff’s supervisor, and not like Gray, a mere co-worker. In rejecting Empress’ argument, the court stated that a subordinate’s biased recommendation to a decision-maker supports a cat paw’s theory of liability when the biased person acts within the scope of his or her employment, or when the biased subordinate acts as the employer’s agent although not formally delegated the authority to do so.  Under either of these possibilities, the biased person by virtue of their position or relationship with the decision-maker(s) must occupy a position of confidence sufficient to corrupt the decision making process.  Applying these principles, the court concluded that Gray’s manipulative conduct fell outside the scope of his employment, Gray was not delegated authority to act for the company, and no evidence was presented showing Gray occupied a position of confidence in the eyes of the employer sufficient to corrupt the decision to terminate Vasquez’s employment. Because the court found an insufficient basis to impute Gray’s retaliatory intent to Empress, it dismissed the claims brought against Empress.