SERVING OUR CLIENTS AND COMMUNITY DURING COVID-19

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.

While there are federal and state laws that protect employees from racial discrimination in the workplace throughout the country, these laws are not always uniform in terms of the severity or pervasive enough of the complained of conduct that constitute an actionable hostile work environment.  Generally speaking, when the racially discriminatory conduct is so severe or pervasive as to change the nature of the job, a worker has grounds to bring a lawsuit for hostile work environment. But what type of conduct meets the standard for a successful claim? More specifically, can a single instance of race-based discrimination create a hostile work environment? The answer may depend on where the suit is filed. For example, in New Jersey, our courts have held that a single racial epithet can constitute a hostile work environment, while other courts outside New Jersey have adopted a strict rule that a single racial epithet, no matter how offensive, can never be enough to constitute a hostile work environment.

IMG_1E2345D1B7BA-1-300x225Earlier this month, a judge in the federal district court for the Northern District of Alabama granted a defendant employer summary judgment against three plaintiff employees’ claims of racial discrimination and hostile work environment. In Bone v. Alliance Investment Co., LLC, Case No. 5:18-cv-01706-LCB (N.D. Ala. Oct. 8, 2020), three African American carpenters sued their employer, claiming that supervisors frequently referred to them as the n-word behind their backs and routinely assigned them more physically demanding work than their white counterparts. One plaintiff was called the n-word directly to his face and others overheard it being used. The company argued that the employees had failed to present evidence that the harassing conduct was severe or pervasive enough to alter the terms or conditions of their employment. Agreeing, the court dismissed the hostile work environment claim with prejudice.Specifically, the court found that in order to establish a hostile work environment in the Eleventh Circuit, the plaintiffs had to show that “the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult, that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.” The test for severe and pervasive conduct is both subjective and objective, meaning that the environment became what a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive as well as one that the victim subjectively perceived to be abusive. The court found that although the behavior was subjectively abusive to plaintiffs, under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person would not find the workplace to be hostile. Recognizing the severity of the n-word, the court still held that because the plaintiffs’ job performance was not impacted by it, their claim for hostile work environment failed as a matter of law.

The Bone case is reminiscent of a 2019 case decided by recently appointed Supreme Court Justice, Amy Coney Barrett, when she sat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. In Smith v. Ill. Dept. of Transportation, 936 F.3d 554 (7thCir. 2019), an employee for the Illinois Department of Transportation was fired after a probationary period of employment during which he allegedly performed quite poorly. The employee sued the Department, arguing that it had subjected him to a hostile work environment and fired him in retaliation for his complaints about racial discrimination. The Circuit Court affirmed the dismissal of his claims for failing to establish a hostile work environment as a matter of law. In his lawsuit, the employee claimed he was treated differently from other employees due to his race and his supervisor called him the n-word during a confrontation. The employee was fired two weeks after the confrontation. Addressing the hostile work environment claim, the Circuit Court found that the majority of the harassment he cited was unconnected to his race and arose from generally unpleasant and profane language that was used routinely toward all employees. The one incident, however, that plainly constituted race-based harassment was when one of his supervisors called him a “stupid ass [n-word]” after finding out that he had filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity office. The Court noted that “while there is no ‘magic number of slurs’ that indicates a hostile work environment, an ‘unambiguously racial epithet falls on the more severe end of the spectrum.’” Even still, a plaintiff cannot win a hostile work environment claim simply by proving that the word was said unless he can also show that it altered the conditions of his employment. Unlike in Bone, the Seventh Circuit Court found that the plaintiff failed to prove even his own subjective belief that being called the n-word created a hostile work environment. The court found that because his entire employment had been rocky, and by the time he was called the n-word his termination proceedings were already under way, there was no proof that the racial slur changed the always unpleasant work environment. Because he could not show that the distress he suffered from being called the n-word was distinct from the distress he suffered routinely at work, the plaintiff’s claim for hostile work environment was dismissed.

In the wake of several recent equal pay settlements between female university professors and their employers, the newest litigation of this ilk has popped up in New Jersey. A lawsuit filed under the New Jersey Equal Pay law in state court last week by five women professors at Rutgers University alleges that they are paid significantly less than their male counterparts. Three of the five plaintiffs are world-renowned scholars in their fields, having published multiple books, hundreds of articles, given numerous presentations, and won several awards. In fact, two of the plaintiffs have achieved the most prestigious professional designation at Rutgers, and yet all five are still paid tens of thousands of dollars less than male professors with the same or less impressive credentials.

IMG_5357-300x169One of the plaintiffs, Professor Deepa Kumar, who teaches journalism and media studies and is one of the country’s leading experts on Islamaphobia, was hired in 2004 at a salary that was the same or higher than four white men and women who were hired contemporaneously. However, today, Professor Kumar makes approximately $25,000 less per year than other professors in her department despite multiple attempts to negotiate pay raises. Another plaintiff, Professor Judith Storch, a distinguished professor of nutritional sciences, recently learned that her salary was on average $46,000 lower than all other distinguished professors in biomedical science.

Remarkably, Rutgers already has in place a system of review by which professors may request wage increases in order to advance the goal of pay equity. The plaintiffs in the current lawsuit claim that system is not working. In 2018, the University’s faculty union commissioned a study that showed pay discrepancies between male and female faculty members. Overall, women faculty were paid 7% less than men. Over time, that gap can add up to a substantial amount of lost income. Professor Kumar estimates that she has lost over $300,000 since her employment with Rutgers began. Another litigant against Rutgers, Professor Nancy Wolff claims she lost $500,000. Putting that loss into terms of gender inequity, Professor Wolff pointed out that half million dollars that should have been paid to her was instead used by her employer to pay her white male counterparts at significantly higher rates than she was being paid.

Two recent New Jersey lawsuit settlements highlight the prevalent issues of sexual harassment and sex discrimination that woman police officers continue to face in the workplace.  These cases illustrate how important it is for male-dominated work environments such as police departments to take preventative measures against sexual harassment and to take immediate remedial measures when it occurs.

IMG_3469-300x169Last month, it was reported that Franklin Township settled a gender discrimination and retaliation lawsuit with a female police lieutenant, Kristen Durham for the sum of $300,000. The settlement also allows Durham to remain on paid personal administrative leave until she achieves 25 years of service credit in the New Jersey Division of Pensions, Police and Firemen’s Retirement System.

Durham, of Robbinsville, started working for the Franklin Township Police Department in 1996, where women make up only about ten percent of the department. Durham is the first and only female lieutenant. In her complaint, she alleged that her male supervisors publicly engaged in extramarital affairs and openly discussed their sexual activities. One male supervisor even ordered Durham to watch a subordinate with whom he was having an affair when he was not at work and to report back to him if any male officers spoke to her. Durham’s responsibilities included recruiting for the department and in that capacity, she personally recruited nine African American officers, and often advocated for female, Black and Hispanic officers to receive equal treatment to their white male counterparts in the department.

The absence of pay equity between men and women, commonly known as the “gender wage gap” has been a newsworthy yet unresolved manifestation of gender discrimination for decades. Pay inequities exist in virtually all industries and professions and are not limited to gender disparities.

IMG_2135-300x169Most recently, one of New Jersey’s premier educational institutions, Princeton University, settled a lengthy dispute over whether it was paying female professors equally to male professors. On average, a full-time professor at Princeton earns over $200,000 per year, but there are variations in pay that Princeton asserts are dependent on department, job performance, and the market-driven economics of filling top spots in academia. But when the U.S. Department of Labor conducted a federal pay discrimination investigation into Princeton’s compensation structure, its findings indicated discriminatory pay practices along gender lines. The Department of Labor’s review of salaries between 2012 and 2014 found that among professors, women were being paid less than men despite holding the same jobs and having the same experience and credentials.

Princeton contested the Department of Labor’s findings for years and still admits no culpability, arguing that the investigation was flawed. It has, however, finally agreed to pay nearly $1.2 million — including $925,000 in back pay and at least $250,000 in future salary adjustments — to female professors, including those who have left the university. Under the Early Resolution Conciliation Agreement between Princeton and the Department of Labor, Princeton will award back pay to the 106 female professors identified by the investigation as having been underpaid between 2012 and 2014 and award future pay raises. Princeton also agreed to analyze faculty salaries at the time of hire and in its annual merit increase process, to make sure there are no future pay gaps between male and female employees. In a statement, a Princeton spokesperson said that the university would engage in hiring initiatives in fields that typically have a low representation of women and encourage women to serve in leadership positions such as deanships. It will also train employees on pay equity.

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