SERVING OUR CLIENTS AND COMMUNITY DURING COVID-19

A proposed bill that would significantly limit New Jersey employers’ ability to prevent their employees from working with competing businesses will be considered by the New Jersey Assembly Labor Committee.  Proponents of the bill argue the new statutory framework will encourage innovation and production by eliminating the special hardships that non-compete agreements impose on New Jersey employees. This legislation, if passed, would be a gigantic victory for New Jersey employees whose pursuit of job and career opportunities have been stifled for far too long by employers’ restrictive covenants.

692696DC-BF0E-4D5C-B804-7228BA4B9D50-300x300While non-compete agreements are disfavored by our Courts, current New Jersey law allows employers to require employees to execute these anti-competitive contracts as a condition of employment regardless of the agreement’s ultimate enforceability. Job applicants who choose not to execute a non-compete agreement can lawfully be denied employment, and if an employee is fired for refusing to sign during the course of his or her employment, there is no recourse for wrongful termination.

Because litigation involving an alleged breach of a non-competition agreement is fact sensitive to the particulars of each case, it is often very difficult for an employee (or his or her employment attorney) to accurately predict whether a court will enforce a contested non-compete agreement. To make matters even worse for employees, most non-compete disputes will never get to the point of a judicial determination because of the high cost inherent in restrictive covenant litigation and the significant financial disparities that so often exist between the individual employee and entity employer.  The reality is that most working people simply cannot afford to pay a competent non-compete attorney to represent them.  Because of this reality, employees who have been subjected to overly broad, anti-competition restrictive covenants, have no recourse and are left with the choice of either remaining in a job they would like to leave or leaving the job only to be forced out of their chosen industry for the period of time (e.g. 1 to 2 years) required under the non-competition clause.

“There’s a long and ugly history at Edna Mahan,” said New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. He was referencing not only the January 11, 2021 attack in which prison guards wearing riot gear beat, pepper sprayed and sexually assaulted the female inmates housed at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, New Jersey. The long history of sexual abuse at Edna Mahan dates back at least to the early 1990s, and a searing report issued in the Spring of 2020 by the Department of Justice has exposed the prison as a hostile and abusive environment, not because of the inmates’ crimes, but because of the guards whose duty it has been to house, feed and protect these women.

C3AC1131-D54A-483E-826B-FE4BDF8B551D-300x166Around midnight on January 11, 2021, over two dozen officers forcibly removed the women inmates from their cells, resulting in broken bones, concussions, and in at least one instance, forcible sexual penetration. Although we typically protect the privacy of harassment and assault victims, some of the women who were attacked have chosen to come forward publicly. Inmate Ajila Nelson said she was beaten and sexually assaulted in her cell during the extraction. Desiree Dasilva was punched repeatedly in the head resulting in a broken eye socket and said an officer left a boot print on her arm. Emmalee Dent was punched in the head approximately twenty-eight times by one of the guards as she pressed herself against a wall and attempted to protect herself from the blows. Inmate Faith Haines told a local media outlet that the attack started when another prisoner became upset that her cell had been searched while she was outdoors for recreation. Reportedly, Sean St. Paul, an administrator who was suspended in the wake of the attack threatened the inmates with similar discipline “every night” that they “acted up”.

A few weeks later, three prison guards – Sergeant Amir Bethea, Sergeant Anthony Valvano and Officer Luis Garcia – were accused of filing false reports in an effort to cover up the attack and were charged with official misconduct, tampering with public records, and Garcia was charged with aggravated assault for the beating of Emmalee Dent.

In Manchester, a township in Ocean County, New Jersey where 92% of its approximately 43,000 residents are white, a star high school basketball player’s attempt to speak out against issues of race discrimination and inequity was shut down by the Board of Education. At the most recent Board meeting, star basketball player Destiny Adams, presented a thoughtful speech to the Board to persuade them that the girls basketball team should be permitted to wear Black Lives Matter sweatshirts during the pregame warmup to their first game of the season, which took place Tuesday, January 26. Destiny was supported at the meeting by her mother, an attorney, and her father, the principal of Manchester High School, both of whom also spoke. Without discussing her proposal among the members of the Board or taking an official vote on it, the Board denied her request, stating that warmup gear may only display the school’s name.

fullsizeoutput_3c-1-300x169In speaking to news media, Destiny said of the Board’s decision, “They told me no, but that can’t really silence me, so we needed to find a way around it”. In fact, Destiny and most of her teammates wore Black Lives Matter sweatshirts prior to their season opener last night against Jackson Liberty High School despite the Board’s ruling. Destiny and another teammate also wore socks that said Black Lives Matter, while another player wrote Black Lives Matter on her sneakers.

According to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, what players wear during pregame warmups is determined at the school’s discretion. From a legal standpoint, the question is how to balance public school students’ First Amendment right to freedom of expression with a school’s right to ensure the school environment is not disrupted and the rights of one student do not infringe on the rights of another.

Statistics show people with disabilities in the United States are twice as likely to be unemployed than those without a disability. The issue has been exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused joblessness to rise and an increase of workplace disability discrimination. But underlying the conversation about getting people with disabilities back to work is a controversial debate about where and what type of work people with disabilities should have access to and be provided reasonable accommodations.

6AE55F99-A017-42B1-BEAB-4D7220445832-300x169In September 2020, Governor Murphy announced that a total of $1,312,500 of CARES Act funding will be used to reopen 26 sheltered workshop programs throughout New Jersey which have been closed for close to a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In making this announcement, supporters credited sheltered workshops with providing “a positive and valuable service for our developmentally disabled community”, and “a safe work environment that cultivates their skills and abilities”. However just 4 months later, in January 2021, some of those same supporters advanced the argument that our state government should be doing more to help individuals with disabilities find inclusive and competitive employment. So what is a sheltered workshop and how is it different from an inclusive and competitive workplace?

A sheltered workshop is an employer that is authorized under New Jersey’s Wage and Hour Law to employ individuals with disabilities at a rate less than the minimum wage. Specifically, Subchapter 9 of the Wage and Hour Law, defines “individual with disability” as someone whose earning capacity is impaired by a physical or mental disability and “sheltered workshop” as a charitable organization focused on rehabilitation, employment or vocational training for individuals whose earning capacity is thus impaired. The law is based on the faulty logic that a person’s disability is the main factor impairing his or her earning potential, and not the law itself which explicitly degrades that potential. These sheltered workshops apply for permits with the Office of Wage and Hour Compliance which authorize them to employ individuals with disabilities at less than minimum wage. Only people with disabilities can be employed under these special permits, ensuring that all non-disabled employees are paid higher wages.

The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey has reversed a trial judge’s the dismissal of a whistleblower lawsuit brought by a former licensed nurse of Rutgers University School of Biomedical and Health Sciences, which used to be the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (Rutgers). This court’s decision will revive the ex-nurses lawsuit and allow her claims of whistleblower retaliation under New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act to proceed to trial.

IMG_3469-300x169Ms. Herbe worked as a licensed nurse at Rutgers since 2009 and had recently been promoted to the position of Clinical Nurse Coordinator for the Child Health Program. Over the course of three days, when she and two coworkers along with their supervisor were assigned to audit patient charts, the supervisor admittedly abandoned that task and brought one of Ms. Herbe’s coworkers along with her to help her fill out an application to Rutgers’ graduate nursing program. Ms. Herbe reported her supervisor for theft of time, among other rule violations, via an anonymous employee hotline. The Business Manager for the Child Health Program investigated Ms. Herbe’s anonymous allegations and found them to be credible. Both the supervisor and coworker were disciplined, including loss of leave benefit time and removal of the supervisor’s application from consideration by the graduate program.

Immediately after they were disciplined, Ms. Herbe’s supervisor began to harass her by making comments about her being “a mole”, meeting with Ms. Herbe’s team without her, asking them for “dirt on her”, changing the reporting requirements that Ms. Herbe had put in place for her team, yelling at her in front of new employees and generally trying to undermine her authority. The supervisor also wrote her up for leaving work early and other infractions that Ms. Herbe claims never occurred. Ms. Herbe also began receiving poor performance evaluations for the first time in her four years working at Rutgers.

Sexual harassment and assault against female members of the military remains a persistent problem that has rightfully received heightened attention in the last few years in the hope that it can be eradicated from all branches of our armed forces. Gender-based harassment and assault are prevalent in the world of veterans affairs as well, and the area of veterans’ health care in particular has come under scrutiny.

fullsizeoutput_44-300x169According to a national Health Services Research and Development survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), 25% of women patients at VA health care facilities have experienced sexual or other harassment from other veterans. The VA defines patient harassment as “unwelcome physical, non-verbal or verbal behavior that interferes with a veteran’s access to and sustained engagement with VA health care. Harassment creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive health care environment.” The VA also provides examples of harassing conduct. For instance, the VA recognizes the failure to acknowledge women as veterans as gender harassment, and it occurs when someone asks a woman veteran if she is accompanying her husband to an appointment or questions her about the authenticity of clothing identifying a branch or era of service. On Vantage Point, the official blog of the VA, it also lists catcalls, whistles, stares, leering or ogling, telling women to smile, telling women they are too pretty to be veterans and following or cornering someone as examples of gender-based harassment. By all appearances, the VA is working to identify, educate veterans about, and eradicate this type of sexual harassment.

However, some question the VA’s dedication to gender equality and safety in its health care facilities after Andrea Goldstein, senior policy advisor on female veterans to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, alleged she had been sexually assaulted at a government-run veterans’ hospital. Goldstein, who has chosen to make her identity known, claimed in September 2019 that while she was waiting in line to buy food in the main lobby of the VA hospital in Washington, D.C., a contractor rubbed his body against hers and made suggestive comments of a sexual nature. Since that time, the VA and specifically its Secretary of Veterans Affairs for the Trump administration Robert Wilkie’s handling of her claim have come under scrutiny. The ensuing investigations have raised serious questions about how the VA handles complaints of sexual harassment, assault and retaliation and point to larger societal problems of victim-blaming and refusing to address systemic problems of gender equality and respect for female veterans.

Liquidated damages are a type of monetary compensation to which an injured party is entitled when a statute provides for this additional relief or when it is available under contract.  When liquidated damages are an available remedy under statutory law, the statute will generally provide guidelines to courts to help them determine the appropriate award. Under New Jersey’s Wage Payment Law, specifically the August 6, 2019 amendments also commonly known as the Wage Theft Act, an additional amount of liquidated damages of up to 200% of the unpaid wages due are available should the plaintiff succeed in his or her claim for unpaid wages. The Wage Theft Act also extended the time plaintiffs have to bring claims against their employers from two to six years.

IMG_0615-4-300x170-3-300x170One question that has been litigated in the year and a half since the passing of the Wage Theft Act is whether the amendments apply retroactively to claims that arose before August 6, 2019. The Superior Court for the State of New Jersey in the Essex County vicinage just refused to dismiss a putative class action complaint filed by Werny Castro on behalf of himself and other similarly situated truck drivers, against the defendant Linden Bulk Transportation, LLC, a for-profit motor freight carrier, under the New Jersey Wage Payment Law, including the wage theft amendments. Castro claims that the trucking company purposely misclassified him and other similarly situated drivers as independent contractors rather than employees in order to avoid paying them proper wages in violation of the Wage Payment Law.

Castro’s job required him to deliver cargo from Linden’s facility to various ports in New Jersey. He claims that since August 2013, the trucking company has misclassified him and other drivers, and unlawfully required them to pay certain expenses thereby depriving them of rightfully earned wages. Specifically, Linden required drivers to pay for fuel, taxes, tolls, truck parts, insurance policies and business-related phone calls, among other items. The trucking company classified the drivers as lessors of the trucks, and itself as lessee. Castro claims, however, that the drivers in fact leased the vehicles from an affiliate of Linden and that at least one of the vehicles was even registered under Linden’s Department of Transportation registration number. In addition to control and ownership of the vehicles, Castro claims that the trucking company also exercised control over the work performed by him and the other putative plaintiffs. For instance, Linden set work schedules and distributed assignments, required the use of Linden’s shipping invoices and time verification reports, and required that the trucks be returned to and stored at Linden’s facility at the end of each shift. Linden also had the ability to terminate Castro and the other drivers, which would have left them entirely unemployed without any clients or customers, because they all relied entirely upon Linden for their work.

Employers are increasingly attempting to avoid having to pay sales employees their rightfully earned and owed sales commissions during the COVID pandemic. In many cases, a company has no legal basis to avoid paying sales representatives their earned commissions by unilaterally retroactively changing the terms and conditions of how sales commissions are earned because COVID related conditions result in an unexpected increase in sales. In these situations, a sales representative understanding of their legal rights is critical if he or she has any hope in recovering their earned commissions.

Employees who are paid through commissions rightfully rely on being timely paid their earned compensation. Commission structures also benefit employers by motivating employees to perform at or above company expectations, thereby increasing profitability for the employer and allowing the employer to identify and reward its most productive employees. The type of commission structure an employer uses can range from simple to complicated, and most of them are memorialized in employment agreements signed by both empB6D67F1E-7E48-4F4C-A59E-5470E7CCFEAF-300x169loyer and employee. Once an employee and employer agree to the terms of how commissions are earned and when they are to be paid, an employer cannot unilaterally and retroactively change the terms without breaching the contract or potentially violating wage payment law.  If an employer wishes to change the terms and conditions of a commission agreement, like any contract, they must give proper notice to the employee of the proposed change and obtain the employees clear consent to the new agreement. Often, employers who wish to alter commission structures do so to save money, which for the employee, means lower commissions and reduced income.

Sometimes, an employer is prevented from paying agreed-upon commissions due to unpredictable hardships outside of the employer’s control, like acts of terrorism or natural disasters that make performance of the contract impossible or impracticable. For an employer to protect itself from these unforeseen events, they may contain a force majeure clause in a sales agreement which potentially could release the paying party from its obligations when payment becomes impossible or impracticable.

Disability discrimination remains a persistent problem in the workplace. But it does not happen only at work. Last month, a Norwood, New Jersey teenager was cut from her school’s volleyball team because she has epilepsy. After her father reported what he believed to be discriminatory conduct and demanded that the school adhere to her rights under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, she was permitted back on the team. Once she was playing again, however, she was subjected to bullying and harassment from her teammates that lasted the entire school year according to the Complaint filed by her father on October 1, 2020.

fullsizeoutput_3f-300x169Norwood is a small K-8 district where the minor plaintiff (referred to by her initials, EP) received special education and related services due to several disabilities including social anxiety and epilepsy. In addition to being a special education student at Norwood public school, EP was also a member of the volleyball team. Along with her teammates, she tried out for and made the team in her 6th and 7th grade years. When she tried out in her 8thgrade year, she was shocked when she found out that she was the only 8thgrade student who did not make it. When her father addressed his daughter’s removal from the volleyball team with school administrators, EP was allowed back on the team, but was subject to bullying by her teammates for the rest of the school year.

The family filed a Complaint in the New Jersey Superior Court for Bergen County against the Norwood Board of Education and Vito DeLaura, the principal of Norwood public school, alleging violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act. In the lawsuit, the family alleges that Mr. DeLaura, who they claim has a history of singling out and humiliating EP due to her disabilities, instructed the volleyball coach not to let EP play. Specifically, the lawsuit claims the volleyball coach cut EP from the team because her epilepsy required the school to hire a nurse who would be present at all games and practices, creating a significant financial burden on the school district. The family claims that the subsequent bullying was due to EP’s disabilities and was not addressed properly by the school.

Late last month the state of California, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the state of Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, the state of Maryland and the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, together filed a lawsuit against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) stemming from the EEOC’s decision to stop sharing important data with state and local “fairness in employment practices agencies” (FEPAs). The complaint filed in the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California alleges that the EEOC’s decision has negatively impacted state efforts to eradicate workplace discrimination and violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It also alleges that the decision violates the federal Administrative Procedure Act, because the change was made without consultation or adequate notice to state FEPAs with whom the EEOC has longstanding worksharing agreements. The states and state agencies involved in the lawsuit are seeking an order setting aside the EEOC’s new policy and requiring the EEOC to reinstate FEPAs’ access to employment data.

What Is EEOC Data and Why Is It Important to The States?

Since 1966, spurred by the new legal requirements of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin,the EEOC has required employers with 100 or more employees to report employment data broken down by job category, race, sex and ethnicity on forms called EEO-1s. The intent of the EEO-1 data is to help identify and eradicate workplace discrimination in accordance with Title VII. Specifically, Title VII requires employers to maintain records that can show whether unlawful employment practices have been committed, and to preserve and produce those records as mandated by the EEOC. In further support of that mandate, Title VII also requires that the EEOC maintain open communication and coordinate its efforts with FEPAs. In part, the EEOC must provide FEPAs employment information reported to it if the reporting employer is in the FEPA’s state. In return, FEPAs are bound by confidentiality provisions. Worksharing Agreements between the EEOC and FEPAs generally set forth terms governing the relationship between the two agencies and often require both agencies to make data available to the other if it will assist in carrying out their responsibilities under Title VII.

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