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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, “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.”

The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance, and Marketplace Modernization Act (CREAMMA) signed into law by Governor Phil Murphy on February 22, 2021 brought new employment protections for job applicants and employees who lawfully use cannabis recreationally while not at work, namely, employees cannot be subject to an adverse employment action simply because a blood or urine test comes back positive for marijuana use.  Prior to enactment of CREAMMA, protections in the workplace for those using marijuana was limited to those possessing a medical marijuana card pursuant to the Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act (the Honig Act). Under the Honig Act, it is “unlawful to take any adverse employment action against an employee who is a registered qualifying patient based solely on the employee’s status as a registrant with the Cannabis Regulatory Commission” (“Commission”). An “adverse employment action” is defined as “refusing to hire or employ an individual, barring or discharging an individual from employment, requiring an individual to retire from employment, or discriminating against an individual in compensation or in any terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.” N.J.S.A., 24:61-3. Now that CREAMMA is the law, employees in New Jersey can no longer be denied employment or otherwise subject to an adverse employment action solely for using marijuana recreationally outside of work. Put differently, a failed drug test for marijuana by itself is an insufficient reason under CREAMMA for taking an adverse employment action against an employee. This means an employer would have to establish that the employee engaged in some conduct prohibited under the law, such as using marijuana at work, or being under the influence of marijuana at work, or otherwise unlawfully possessing selling or transporting marijuana in the workplace or during work hours.

Importantly the protections provided by CREAMMA apply with respect to all employees regardless of their job classifications or the nature of their job duties and responsibilities, including employees who work in safety-sensitive job positions. Furthermore, while CREAMMA preserves an employer’s right to conduct drug testing of its workforce it places a new obligation on employers to have employees suspected of using cannabis to undergo a physical evaluation by a person who has successfully attained certification as a Workplace Impairment Recognition Expert (WIRE) permitting him/her to determine the employee’s level of impairment while engaged in performing job duties. However, because the Commission has yet to adopt standards for a WIRE certification program no physical evaluation of an employee being drug tested in accordance with CREAMMA is currently permitted.

A major failing of CREAMMA is found in the fact that it does not expressly provide a private right of action for violations of the law. This means it appears an employee subjected to an adverse employment action for testing positive for marijuana use would have to claim a violation of another employment law which does permit an employee to sue in court.  For example, if an employee objected to being suspended by their employer for testing positive for marijuana because there was no evidence the employee used marijuana on the job or was under the influence of marijuana in the workplace, and then was fired for having done so, the employee maybe able to pursue a claim as a whistleblower under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”). CEPA is remedial legislation that, in relevant part, protects an employee from retaliation if he “[d]iscloses or threatens to disclose” to a supervisor or a public body an employer’s “activity, policy or practice” that the employee “reasonably believes” “is in violation of a law, or a rule or regulation promulgated pursuant to the law…” N.J.S.A. 34:19-3. A plaintiff in a CEPA case may receive compensation for lost pay and benefits, as well as mental distress damages. They can also win costs for the suit and attorney’s fees. Additionally, punitive damages, which are meant to punish the wrongdoer and deter them from any similar action in the future, are available when the employer has acted especially egregiously and/or outrageously. Damages available under CEPA are not capped by statute.

If you have notified your employer of your disability and are then terminated, your employer may be obligated to engage in an interactive dialogue to determine if they can accommodate you even after you are terminated. Put plainly, employers can be held liable for failing to accommodate an employee even if the employer learns of the employee’s accommodation request after the employee is terminated.

Generally, the LAD prohibits employers from subjecting employees, either perceived to be or who are in fact injured, sick, or disabled, to adverse employment actions, because the employee appears less useful than the employer would like them to be. More specifically, LAD requires employers to “make a reasonable accommodation to the limitations of an employee . . . who is a person with a disability, unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of its business.” Clarke v. Atl. City Bd. of Educ., No. A-5344-07T4, 2010 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1801, at *11 (App. Div. July 28, 2010).

To establish a prima facie case for failure to accommodate under the LAD, the plaintiff is required to demonstrate that:

On October 28, 2021, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul signed Senate Bill S4394A (the “NY Amendments”) into law amending New York Labor Law Section 740: Retaliatory Personnel Action by Employers; Prohibition (the “Labor Law”) N.Y.L.L. 740, dramatically expanding the legal protections afforded to whistleblowing employees. The NY Amendments are set to take effect on January 26, 2022 and will make New York the latest state to follow New Jersey’s historic lead in enacting the most pro-employee whistleblower statutes in the United States.

In 1986, the New Jersey State Legislature enacted the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”) N.J.S.A. 34:19(1)-(8), considered at the time to be “the most far reaching ‘whistleblower statute’ in the nation.” Mehlman v. Mobil Oil Corp., 153 N.J. 163, 179 (1998) (citing John H. Dorsey, Protecting Whistleblowers, N.Y. TIMES, Nov. 2, 1986, at 34). Specifically, “[T]he essential purpose behind CEPA” is to protect ‘whistleblowing’” activities that “benefit the health, safety, and welfare of the public,” by encouraging employees to report, or object to their employers’ unlawful misconduct. Feldman v. Hunterdon Radiological Assocs., 187 N.J. 228, 239 (2006). Additionally, CEPA protects all employees working in either the public or private sector, as well as independent contractors. D’Annunzio v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 192 N.J. 110, 114 (2007).

The New Jersey State Legislature broadly intended for CEPA to effectuate preventative measures to deter companies from taking “retaliatory action” against employees who engage in conduct constituting “whistleblowing activity” as defined by the statutory language. Higgins v. Pascack Valley Hosp., 158 N.J. 404, 420 (1999). CEPA defines protected “whistleblowing activity” to occur when an employee:

As general matter the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (the “FLSA”) requires employers to compensate employees for all the time employees have worked no matter where and when the work is done. However, an exception exists called the De Minimis Doctrine which permits employers not to pay employees when employees spend a small amount of time on tasks that by their nature are difficult for the employer to track or record. Specifically, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) codified the De Minimis defense in 29 C.F.R. § 785.47 which in pertinent part reads:

In recording working time under the Act, insubstantial or insignificant periods of time beyond the scheduled working hours, which cannot as a practical administrative matter be precisely recorded for payroll purposes, may be disregarded. The courts have held that such trifles are de minimis. Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co., 328 U.S. 680 (1946). This rule applies only where there are uncertain and indefinite periods of time involved of a few seconds or minutes duration, and where the failure to count such time is due to considerations justified by industrial realities. An employer may not arbitrarily fail to count as hours worked any part, however small, of the employee’s fixed or regular working time or practically ascertainable period of time he is regularly required to spend on duties assigned to him. Glenn L. Martin Nebraska Co. v. Culkin, 197 F. 2d 981, 987, (C.A. 8, 1952)

(emphasis added)

On October 5, 2021, Governor Phil Murphy signed Assembly Bill No. 681 (the “Amendment”) into law amending New Jerey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD) to prohibiting New Jersey government employers from implementing workplace policies mandating employees over the age of 70 to retire. Specifically, the Amendment reads:

Deleting the provision of section 1 of P.L.1938, c.295 (C.10:3- 1) that permits a governmental employer to require retirement when an employee attains a particular age if the employer can show “that the retirement age bears a manifest relationship to the employment in question”.

N.J.S.A. 10:3-1. (emphasis added)

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