SERVING OUR CLIENTS AND COMMUNITY DURING COVID-19

On June 5, 2020, new federal legislation was introduced that would protect family caregivers from workplace discrimination. Introduced by United States Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), the Protecting Family Caregivers from Discrimination Act would make it unlawful for an employer to (1) fail or refuse to hire an applicant because of the family caregiver responsibilities of the applicant; or (2) take adverse action or otherwise discriminate against an employee with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of the family caregiver responsibilities of the employee. The proposed law would also make it unlawful for an employer to interfere with or restrain the employee from exercising his or her rights under the act, and to retaliate against an employee for seeking enforcement of these protections.

IMG_0999-300x169The Protecting Family Caregivers from Discrimination Act would be enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), and violations would requireproof of disparate treatment by an employer or the disparate impact of an employer’s policies on a caregiver employee. An employee alleging discrimination under this Bill would have a private right of action against his or her employer without being required to file a charge through the EEOC or exhaust any other administrative remedies first.

Primary caregiver discrimination has long been an inadequately addressed problem in our work force, with advocacy groups, research centers, and legal projects fighting for appropriate protections for decades. This legislation is supported and endorsed by many of those groups, including the Center for WorkLife Law, National Employment Law Project, the National Alliance for Caregiving, the Caregiver Action Network, Caring Across Generations, the National Women’s Law Center, A Better Balance, National Partnership for Women & Families, The Arc of the United States, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.According to a report from the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California-Hastings, the number of employees reporting caregiver discrimination in the workplace increased almost four-fold from 2005 to 2015. The Center for WorkLife Law also reports that 60% of caregiver employees suffer retaliatory action from employers for having family responsibilities, including reduced hours and negative performance reviews. As of 2020, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) found that 53 million Americans care for their dependent family members and 61% of them do so while working at a full-time job.

A New York State trial court recently ruled that the arbitration clause in an employment contract requiring an employee to submit to binding arbitration for claims against her employer, including sexual harassment claims, was unenforceable following amendments to New York State’s Human Rights Law in 2018. The decision creates a split in authority between New York State and federal courts, following a 2019 decision in the Southern District of New York upholding the enforceability of arbitration agreements in employment contracts. That court found that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) preempts the New York statutory prohibition. These contrasting decisions may create uncertainty around the viability of employee/employer arbitration agreements in New York as they relate to harassment and discrimination claims.

IMG_2433-300x171This confusion exists in New Jersey as well. On March 18, 2019, Governor Murphy signed legislation that, among other things, prohibits mandatory arbitration of discrimination, retaliation or harassment claims as against public policy. While other jurisdictions, including New York, have enacted similar legislation pertaining to sexual harassment claims, the New Jersey law covers all claims arising under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). The New Jersey law also states that confidential settlement agreements “shall be deemed against public policy and unenforceable”. It is important to note that the prohibition of arbitration does not apply to collective bargaining agreements. It remains unclear whether New Jersey courts will find that this state law is preempted by the FAA, but nonetheless, employers run the risk of violating the new law if arbitration provisions are included in employment contracts going forward. The new law is not retroactive. It applies “to all contracts and agreements entered into, renewed, modified or amended on or after” March 18, 2019.

Since the signing of New Jersey’s law prohibiting the inclusion of arbitration agreements in employment contracts, New Jersey courts, both state and federal, have upheld the validity of arbitration clauses that were signed before enactment of the law.

A recent legal decision highlights the swiftness with which employers must rehire employees returning from active military duty. In Harwood v. American Airlines, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that a delay of six or eight weeks was too long after the end of active military duty to rehire an employee. The Court ordered the airline to pay back wages to the plaintiff, a commercial pilot and major general in the Airforce Reserve. The decision came from the Fourth Circuit, which considers legal disputes arising out of federal laws in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and North and South Carolina. The federal law at issue was the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), which is law in every state, including New Jersey.

IMG_0999-300x169Harwood was on military leave from his job with American Airlines from June 2013 through August 2015, and informed his employer of his intent to return to work following the end of his leave. In preparation for his return to American Airlines, Harwood had to obtain a medical certification from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Because he had been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation during his military tour, the FAA denied the certification. Over the course of the next two months, Harwood and American Airlines communicated regarding his medical issue and potential resolutions to get Harwood back to work. Because he was not medically cleared to fly by FAA standards, American Airlines offered to extend his military leave until the medical waiver came through or, alternatively, to create a position appropriate for his status and with equal pay. Ostensibly, the airline was working diligently and in good faith to return the plaintiff to his former status within the company. However, the airline made its employment offer in late October, approximately six weeks after Harwood’s military leave ended and two months after he had informed his employer of his intent to return to work.

Harwood declined both options offered by American Airlines and spent the next three months on military active duty, receiving military pay. Approximately five months after his deployment ended, Harwood decided to accept American Airlines’s offer for the custom position. On that same day, he received his medical waiver to fly so he was reassigned as a domestic flight captain.

On June 29, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey ruled that consumer goods giant, Amazon, must defend itself in a class action lawsuit brought by warehouse employees claiming violations of wage and hour laws arising from Amazon’s mandatory post-shift security screenings.

IMG_4764-300x165According to the Complaint, at the end of the workday, Amazon’s warehouse employees must submit to a lengthy security screening before they are permitted to leave Amazon’s premises. The lawsuit alleges that the security screening requires hundreds of employees to wait together before each individual must walk through a metal detector and place his or her personal items on a conveyor belt to be scanned via x-ray. If, after the initial screening, Amazon determines that additional screening is necessary, the employee must then report to the secondary screening area for a manual search of the employee’s person. These screenings are intended by Amazon to prevent theft of goods and can take approximately half an hour to complete after the employees have already clocked out of their shifts. Employees are not compensated for the time spent in these screenings.

The Complaint also alleges that the same security screening procedure is required of any employee that wishes to leave Amazon’s premises for his or her unpaid, 30 minute lunch break. Given the vastness of Amazon’s parking lot and remoteness of its premises, the screening allegedly prevents employees from going off site for their meal breaks. The lawsuit claims that Amazon violated federal and state wage and hour laws by failing to count time spent in these mandatory screenings as “hours worked” for purposes of calculating wages and overtime.

As those of us who are Rutgers football fans know, finding a winning head coach can be very difficult.  Unfortunately, the Rutgers football head coach position has become available three times in the past eight years, which means three expensive and time consuming job searches. While there are always a large pool of candidates who would love the opportunity to be the head coach of Rutgers football, there are always some highly qualified candidates who choose to interview for reasons other than actually wanting the job.  One example is to gain leverage in securing a better contract from their current coaching position.  Another example, is when an unemployed coach who is still owed money under a term contract interviews for a job to prove they are mitigating their damages.

View-recent-photos-300x179The issue of mitigation of damages has been placed front and center in connection with a federal lawsuit former Arkansas head coach, Bret Bielema has filed against his former employer.  According to news reports, Bielema is being accused by his former for failing to mitigate when removing himself as a candidate for the Rutgers position during the search when it became likely Rutgers would be hiring Schiano.

Bielema sued the Arkansas Razorback Foundation for breach of contract by alleging that the school has failed to pay him $7 million in salary he was owed after his no-cause firing. Arkansas claims, however, that Bielema failed to mitigate his damages for failing to use reasonable efforts to secure a comparable coaching job and instead accepting a much lower-paying job in the NFL. The lawsuit, currently pending in federal court, presents an interesting legal issue that many plaintiffs in employment cases are faced with in litigating their claims of wrongful termination or breach of contract. Did Bielema mitigate the damages he claims to have sustained by his termination.

For many working parents, school closures across the State of New Jersey since mid-March have posed insurmountable challenges as families attempt to manage work obligations with remote schooling and closed childcare centers. Now that the school year is over for most students and many summer camps are shuttered or running virtually, working parents are faced with a new set of childcare challenges that will impact their ability to fulfill work obligations. What options are available to working parents who are unable to balance the demands of work and childcare during Covid-19 closures this summer?

IMG_3800-300x169The United States Department of Labor (DOL) said Friday in one of its guidance letters that working parents may be entitled to up to 10 weeks of partially paid leave over the summer to care for their children if they can show that the virus disrupted plans to send them to a summer camp. To be eligible for such leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), covered workers include those employed by small and mid-size employers—those with more than 50 but fewer than 500 employees.

How does an employee demonstrate the intended plans for his or her children to attend a summer program? Proof of summer camp plans were firm and then disrupted by the virus should be sufficient. The key inquiry is whether there is any “evidence of a plan” to rely on summer camp as a means of childcare, and to consider whether it is “more likely than not” that if the camp was running normally, the child would be attending. Examples of sufficient proof might be an application or deposit that was submitted to the camp, proof that a child was already enrolled in a camp that is now closed, showing the child attended summer camp in previous years, having the child’s name on a camp’s waitlist, or some other indication of the worker’s intent to enroll the child(ren). At a minimum, the employee’s affirmative steps to secure a spot in a summer camp evidences “plans” that should satisfy FFCRA’s requirement for coverage. An employee who merely expressed an interest in a summer program but took no concrete steps toward enrollment will likely not be covered.

The recent highly publicized deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, among others, have cast a spotlight on race relations across the United States. Supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement in many cities have taken to the streets in protest of police brutality and systemic racism. In addition to public protests, many are sharing their views throughout social media and speaking out publicly to facilitate increased awareness and education to impact much needed change.

IMG_0929-2-300x169In recent local news, Middletown North High School Valedictorian, Jada Tulloch, took to social media to share her own experiences with racism in her hometown and to give her perspective on the protest staged by her classmates in response to being denied an in-person graduation ceremony. On June 2, Ms. Tulloch posted a video on Instagram about how she survived years of oppression and racism in Middletown, a student population that is approximately 90% Caucasian, and admonished those of her peers claiming that their rights were being infringed upon by the Middletown Board of Education. Ms. Tulloch was referring to a recent protest by her fellow high school classmates held outside the Board of Education offices on June 1. The demonstration was in opposition to proposed plans to have a virtual graduation in lieu of an in-person event due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting Orders of Governor Murphy. Ms. Tulloch spoke directly to those of her classmates who belittled the #BLM movement and the bravery of those standing up to police brutality and racial injustice through organized protest.

Responses to Ms. Tulloch’s remarks were varied, with many voicing their support of her statements while others criticized her and demanded her planned graduation speech as valedictorian be rescinded. Middletown superintendent, William O. George, III showed early support for Ms. Tulloch on behalf of the district when he wrote a letter on June 4, addressed to the school community, in which he refused to denounce her social media post and affirmed her First Amendment right to share her perspective and to speak out against injustice and systemic racism. Those opposed to Ms. Tulloch’s actions wrote letters to the Middletown Board of Education and on social media chastising her for speaking out against the racism within the Middletown community.

Christopher Neuwirth seeks reinstatement of position as Assistant Commissioner

HOLMDEL, NEW JERSEY (June 16, 2020)–Former Assistant Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health’s Division of Public Health, Infrastructure, Laboratories and Emergency Preparedness, Christopher Neuwirth, who was terminated on May 28, 2020, has filed a whistle-blower lawsuit today in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Mercer County against the State of New Jersey.

IMG_0999-300x169The lawsuit alleges that the State of New Jersey terminated Mr. Neuwirth in retaliation for lodging a complaint to the State Ethics Commission concerning the conduct of two high ranking members of Governor Murphy’s administration, Acting Superintendent Colonel Patrick J. Callahan and Governor Murphy’s Chief of Staff, George Helmy. According to the Complaint, Callahan pressured Mr. Neuwirth to collect specimens of relatives of Mr. Helmy at their private residence for COVID-19 testing. When Mr. Neuwirth lodged an ethics complaint for this instruction, the Ethics Liaison officer refused to process the complaint and implicitly threatened Mr. Neuwirth with criminal ramifications if he proceeded. DOH leadership then began to ostracize Mr. Neuwirth by excluding him from important COVID-19 response meetings, essentially stripping him of all decision-making duties and responsibilities, culminating in his termination on May 28, 2020.  

Workplace sexual harassment and assault have always been unfortunately common occurrences, and with the momentum of the #MeToo movement, these unlawful incidents are coming to light much more frequently. The repercussions for perpetrators is becoming more severe, but what about the unintended repercussions for the victims who come forward seeking justice? If an employee is sexually harassed or assaulted at work, how can he or she file a lawsuit without exposing himself or herself to further harm and humiliation? Does the victim have to choose between justice and personal security, or is anonymity an option in civil suits?  Unfortunately for victims of sexual harassment who would like to proceed with claims anonymously, the strong constitutionally protected presumption that courts are open to the public is often very high to overcome.

IMG_1457-300x169The issue of proceeding anonymously will be at issue in connection with two unnamed NFL players made recent headlines for filing a lawsuit against United Airlines on an anonymous basis.  In the lawsuit, the unnamed NFL players allege that flight attendants did not respond to their requests for help when a fellow passenger repeatedly groped their thighs and groins and verbally harassed them for wearing face masks on a flight from Los Angeles, CA to Newark, NJ in February. The lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, and details the escalating verbal harassment and sexual assault that was allegedly reported to flight attendants twice, ignored both times, and then only addressed when one of the victims got out of his seat and sought help to have the woman moved away from them. The woman was finally removed from the victims’ vicinity for the remainder of the flight, and the victims were given $150 vouchers by the airline. The players are seeking unspecified damages for battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligence and negligent hiring, training, supervision and retention.

Their attorney has stated that in bringing the lawsuit, the plaintiffs hope to help end this type of behavior and hold the airline accountable for keeping its passengers safe, but that they also fear the stigma that accompanies being male victims, which may be compounded by racial stereotypes about young African American males in particular. The NFL players have been allowed to proceed using John Doe pseudonyms so far, but it’s unclear how long their anonymity will last.

Many of us have heard of employee whistleblowers who go public with their employer’s egregious wrongdoings and suffer job loss or other retaliation for doing so. Both the federal government and the State of New Jersey offer protections to these conscientious employees.  For example, a federal law called the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 protects employees who disclose evidence of illegal or improper governmental activities. In New Jersey, we have enacted the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, which is viewed as one of the furthest reaching whistleblower laws in the country. Whistleblower laws such as these were enacted to assure that employees have protections when they do the right thing and oppose unlawful activity of their employer.  We, as a society, belief that employers and the government must play within the rules to protect people from being harmed from dangerous situations that can be caused by unlawful conduct.

IMG_3937-300x169There is perhaps no better example of the importance that whistleblowers can play in stopping governmental behavior that can cause harm to people than the allegations that Dr. Rick Bright has made against the government concerning its COVID-19 response. Dr. Bright was recently ousted from his prominent position as Director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) for what he alleges was in retaliation for disclosing certain violations of law, gross mismanagement and waste of funds, abuse of authority and substantial and specific danger to public health and safety of the government in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr. Rick Bright recently began making headlines when he went public with his Complaint alleging Whistleblower Retaliation filed with the United States Office of Special Counsel. In the lengthy filing, Dr. Bright alleges that he was fired from his position within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) after he refused to spend money on unproven and potentially dangerous drugs that the White House was touting as promising treatments for Covid-19, and he resisted pressure to put in place a national program geared toward expanding public access to those drugs.

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