On August 24, 2018, New Jersey has passed Bill A-3871, which amends N.J.S.A. 43:21-5 of the New Jersey Unemployment Insurance Law by eliminating the severe misconduct disqualification as well as other changes to New Jersey unemployment laws.  One of the key changes in the bill is revising the definition of legal definition of what constitutes misconduct, along with modifying the misconduct disqualification period for misconduct was also changed in the new law from 7 weeks to 5 weeks.

Under the new unemployment law, misconduct is now defined as follows:

[b]ehavior, other than gross misconduct, conduct which is improper, connected with the individual’s work, malicious, within the individual’s control, not a good faith error of judgment or discretion, and is either a deliberate refusal without good cause, to comply with the employer’s lawful and reasonable rules made known to the employee or a deliberate disregard of standards of behavior the employer has a reasonable right to expect, including reasonable safety standards and reasonable standards for a workplace free of drug and substance abuse.

On October 4, 2018 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) released the preliminary report of the sexual harassment data they collected for fiscal year 2018 (ending September 30, 2018).  This report shows that the #MeToo movement has had a widespread impact on reporting of sexual harassment and related workplace abuses.

The EEOC is the federal agency of the United States charged with administering and enforcing civil right laws against workplace discrimination including claims of sexual harassment, unlawful discrimination and retaliation.  Individuals who have suffered wrongful termination or discrimination at the workplace can file a charge with the EEOC by themselves or through the assistance of a private employment lawyer.  The EEOC was formed in 1965 and maintains its headquarters in Washington, DC with offices throughout the United States, including New Jersey.

Over the course of the past year, there has been a seismic shift in the way that sexual harassment has been viewed and addressed across all aspects of our society in large part due to the #MeToo movement.  Nowhere has this change been seen more drastically than in the incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace.  In the past year there has been a reckoning across the United States, with a clear message being sent to harassers that discriminatory and harassing behavior and conduct will no longer be tolerated at the workplace, our schools or in any other circumstances.

A New Jersey District Court has allowed an independent sales representative to proceed with his lawsuit against his principal company for failing to pay his earned sales commissions.  This case reaffirms New Jersey’s strong public policy in assuring sales representatives are timely paid their earned sales commissions.

Prior to New Jersey passing the Sales Representatives’ Rights Act,  independent sales representatives often faced an uphill battle when it came to legal disputes concerning unpaid commissions. As an independent contractor who is paid on a 1099 basis, New Jersey Wage Payment law does not protect independent sales representatives from being paid their sales commissions because they are not considered employees under the law.  In recognizing the need to protect independent sales representatives from receiving their hard-earned commissions, New Jersey enacted the New Jersey Sales Representatives’ Rights Act that allows for sales representatives to sue for their unpaid earned commissions and imposes significant penalties against principals for failing to pay the commissions in a timely manner.

In the recent case TLE Marketing Co. v. WBM, LLC, No. CV-17-11752 Slip Op. (D.N.J. Sep. 14, 2018) the plaintiff raised a novel argument that, if successful, could expand the reach of the Act.  TLE Marketing Corporation is an independent sales agency based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and has been providing marketing and sales representation for companies since 1976.  WBM, LLC is a developer, importer, and distributor of a variety of distinctive products, with a primary focus on Himalayan salt products.  WBM is based out of Flemington, New Jersey and has been in business for over 20 years.  Starting in 2007, TLE and WBM began working together, signing a sales representative contract that provided that TLE would market and sell WBM products.  The two companies enjoyed a lengthy business relationship of almost 10 years until, in June 2017, WBM terminated the sales representative contract.  In response, TLE filed a complaint in Minnesota alleging wrongful termination, breach of contract, and failure to pay commissions in violation of Minnesota state statute.

An extensive independent investigation into the Dallas Mavericks has substantiated numerous claims of sexual harassment and other serious workplace misconduct within the organization over a span of over 20 years.  In response to the findings, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has apologized to all the women involved and promised that the organization will be better in addressing issues of sexual harassment in the future.  Mr. Cuban will also pledge $10 million to women’s groups in response to the findings of report.

Incidents of sexual harassment first became public in a February 20, 2018 Sports Illustrated article titled “Exclusive: Inside the Corrosive Workplace Culture of the Dallas Mavericks.  In the article, SI details various allegations of severe and pervasive sexual harassment within the Maverick organization. The allegations included more than a dozen current and ex-employees referring to the sexual harassment, domestic violence and other serious misconduct within the workplace as being as an “open secret.” Many of the incidents of the sexual harassment came from Team President and CEO, Terdema Ussery, who was accused of sexually harassing employees from the very beginning of his employment in 1998 when he became President and CEO.  The allegations against Mr. Ussery included him repeatedly positioning employees for sex, unwelcomed touching of employees during meetings and other incidents of sexual harassment.  Mr. Ussery left the Mavericks in 2015 to take a position with Under Armour as president for global sports.  It has been reported thecomeback.com/nba/mavericks-former-president-terdema-ussery-accused-serial-sexual-harassment.html that Mr. Ussery was accused of sexual harassment at Under Armour and resigned after two months in the position.

The Dallas Mavericks responded to the SI story by hiring prominent employment lawyers from the law firms of Lowenstein Sandler and Krutoy Law, P.C. to conduct a thorough investigation into the allegations in the article and all other any issues of serious misconduct.  According to the investigation report, the employments lawyers conducted interviews of 215 witnesses during the seven-month long investigation.  The employment lawyers reviewed 1.6 million documents and emails with the assistance of an independent forensics firm.  They also reviewed human resource files, employee handbooks, policies and training and other information on the hiring, firing, promotions salaries, salary increases and bonuses provide to employees.

A federal Court of Appeals has affirmed a jury verdict in favor of a former Costco employee in connection with her claim of a hostile work environment based upon sexual harassment by a customer.  This case reaffirms that an employer can be held legally responsible for allowing a hostile work environment created by non-employees if the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to render the employee’s work environment hostile.

In the matter of EEOC v. Costco Wholesale Corp., the EEOC sued on behalf of a former Costco employee, Dawn Suppo.  Ms. Suppo was initially employed as a seasonal, part-time employee in 2009 and then became a regular, part-time employee in May, 2010.  Around the time she became a regular employee, a customer named Thad Thompson began approaching Ms. Suppo and asking her personal questions that her uncomfortable.  Initially, Ms. Suppo did not report the interactions to her supervisor or other management.  However, in or about July/August, 2010, the conduct did not stop and Ms. Suppo informed her supervisor of Mr. Thompson’s harassing conduct and the fact that she was scared of him.  Her supervisor instructed her to notify him if she sees Mr. Thompson again.

Soon thereafter, Ms. Suppo noticed Mr. Thompson in the store again watching her through the store aisles. Ms. Suppo reported to her supervisor that Mr. Thompson was back in the store stalking her and that she was scared of him.  As a result, Ms. Suppo’s supervisor and other management brought Mr. Thompson into the warehouse office and instructed him to leave Ms. Suppo alone.  Mr. Thompson responded with anger and loudly yelled that it is a “free country” and that he had “freedom of speech.”  Ms. Suppo was extremely scared at this point and decided to call the police and file a report.  Later that day, the one of the Costco Assistant Managers yelled at Ms. Suppo for calling the police and instructed her to be nice to Mr. Thompson.

A New Jersey Appellate Division has reversed a Board of Review decision denying an employee the right to have an appeal hearing after failing to register and appear for the scheduled appeal hearing.  This decision stems from the Department of Labor, Unemployment Division, recent change in its procedures that now requires the employee and employer to pre-register one day before the scheduled hearing before the Appeal Tribunal.  In this case, the employee’s unemployment appeal was dismissed without any opportunity to have an appeal hearing because of the employee’s failure to call and register.

In the case entitled Jeff Randall v. Board of Review and D&C Tire Pros, Inc., the claimant, Mr. Randall filed his claim for unemployment benefits in January, 2017 as a result of the termination of his employment with D&C Tire Pros, Inc.  The initial determination disqualified Mr. Randall from receiving unemployment benefits by finding that Mr. Randall was discharged for simple misconduct in connection with the work.  The simple misconduct determination resulted in disqualifying Mr. Randall from receiving unemployment benefits from the period January 22, 2017 through March 18, 2017. Mr. Randall appealed the Deputy’s initial determination to the Appeal Tribunal by arguing that he was not terminated from his employment due to simple misconduct connected with the work.

In response to his appeal, Mr. Randall received a Notice of Telephone Hearing to take place on April 6, 2017 before an Appeal Tribunal Hearing Examiner.  The Notice of Telephone Hearing reads as follows:

The New Jersey Appellate Division has reversed a trial court’s determination that barred an employee from pursuing punitive damages in an arbitration proceeding.  While reversing the trial court’s determination concerning the issue of punitive damages, the court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit by holding that the plaintiff knowingly agreed to arbitrate her sexual harassment claims by waiving her right to a jury trial as set forth in the employment agreement. As a result, the employee will now pursue her sexual harassment claims in a private arbitration, but will be permitted to pursue her claims for punitive damages in the arbitration proceedings.

In the case of Milagros Roman v. Bergen Logistics, LLC,the employee, Ms. Roman, alleges that she experienced sexual harassment during her employment with Bergen Logistics.  Roman began her employment as a human resource generalist in 2015.  In April, 2017, Roman alleges that she was subjected to sexual harassment from her immediate supervisor and was terminated form her employment in retaliation for rebuffing the sexual advances.  Roman subsequently filed a complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey for claims sexual harassment, retaliation, hostile work environment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The employer responded by filing a motion to dismiss and to compel Roman to bring her claims in a private arbitration proceeding based upon an employment agreement that she signed in which she waived her right to a jury trial.  The employment agreement also included a provision that barred Roman from pursuing punitive damages in any action against the employer.  Specifically, the agreement read the employee and the employer agreed not to “file or maintain any lawsuit, action or legal proceeding of any nature with respect to any dispute, controversy or claim within the scope of [the] Agreement,” and that “BY SIGNING [THE] AGREEMENT [PLAINTIFF] AND THE COMPANY ARE WAIVING ANY RIGHT, STATUTORY OR OTHERWISE TO A TRIAL BY JURY.” The trial court granted the employer’s motion and dismissed Roman’s claim and also found that the arbitration agreement’s clause that waived Roman’s right to pursue punitive damages as enforceable.

In yet another legislative win in favor of New Jersey workers, Governor Murphy has signed a bill eliminating the controversial severe misconduct disqualification for unemployment benefits.   As of Friday, August 24, 2018, the severe misconduct disqualification has been repealed from the New Jersey unemployment law.  The bill also makes other significant changes to unemployment law concerning misconduct.  The change of law is being viewed by plaintiff employment attorneys as another legislative victory for New Jersey employees.

The History of Severe Misconduct

The severe misconduct disqualification was first enacted into law in 2010 and created a new total disqualification of unemployment benefits as a more severe penality than that of simple misconduct’s temporary seven (7) week disqualification. Prior to the 2010, a claimant would be disqualified for six weeks if it was found that they committed misconduct and could only be totally disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits if it was found that the termination was for gross misconduct.  Gross misconduct is when the claimant is terminated as a result of committing a criminal act, such as stealing, assault and other conduct punishable by criminal law.

The United States Court of Appeals Third Circuit has reversed a district court’s dismissal of a disability discrimination lawsuit brought by a registered nurse against her former employer. In the lawsuit captioned Aleka Ruggiero v. Mount Nittany Medical Center, the registered nurse claims that she was unlawfully terminated from her employment in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) for being terminated after refusing to get required vaccination because of her disability.

The plaintiff, Aleka Ruggiero, was employed as a registered nurse at Mount Nittany Medical Center before being terminated in July of 2015. According to the Complaint, Ms. Ruggiero suffers from severe anxiety and eosinophilic esophagitis, which limited her certain areas of life, including her ability to eat, sleep and engage in social communications. Despite her disabilities, Ms. Ruggiero was able to perform her job duties.

However, Ms. Ruggiero was required by the medical to receive a vaccination for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (the “TDAP”) vaccination as a result of her position as a nurse.  After not obtaining the vaccination prior to the deadline mandated by the hospital, Ms. Ruggiero provided a medical note from her doctor that medically exempted her from having to receive the vaccination. Mount Nittany Medical Center rejected the doctor’s note and requested further detail concerning Ms. Ruggiero’s medical inability to get the TDAP vaccination. After the treating doctor provided further information from the treating doctor, the medical center again rejected it as insufficient.  The medical center also rejected Ms. Ruggiero’s request to wear a surgical mask while at work as a different form of reasonable accommodation. After rejecting both reasonable accommodations requests, Ms. Ruggiero was eventually terminated after she missed the new imposed deadline to obtain the TDAP vaccination.

New Jersey lawmakers have introduced a bill that will prohibit an employer from requiring that victims of discrimination, retaliation and harassment to keep their claims confidential as part of a settlement. Employers routinely require that non-disclosure provisions are included as a material term of any settlement agreement in cases of sexual harassment and other employment discrimination.  Bill No. 121, if passed, will render any confidentiality provision contained in a settlement agreement as unenforceable.

Earlier this year, the federal government passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Acts (“TCJA”).  In an apparent response to the #MeToo movement, the TCJA included a provision that prohibits employers from taking a deduction for attorney fees’ and costs that are incurred in any sexual harassment or sexual abuse case if the settlement agreement includes a non-disclosure provision.  While this provision was clearly aimed at curbing the use of the non-disclosure provisions in sexual harassment lawsuits, it did not prohibit the use of non-disclosure provisions all together.  Under TCJA, an employer can still require a victim of sexual harassment or abuse to keep any settlement of his or her claim confidential if they are willing to forgo the tax deduction.

Bill No. 121 takes it much further by making any confidentiality provision in any settlement agreement that attempts to conceal discrimination, retaliation, or sexual harassment, null and void.  Under the bill, an employer must include a prominent notice that the clause is unenforceable if they choose to add it to any settlement agreement.  The bill also prohibits an employer from taking any retaliatory action against an employee who refuses to sign an employment agreement that contains any illegal non-disclosure clause.