SERVING OUR CLIENTS AND COMMUNITY DURING COVID-19

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.

Most people know that Workers’ Compensation provides benefits to employees who get injured or sick as a result of their jobs. Workers’ compensation is a State-run insurance program that provides medical and other benefits to individuals who suffer job-related ailments. It also provides death benefits to an employee’s dependents if the employee dies as a result of the job-related illness or injury. Workers’ compensation is a no-fault program, which means that a sick or injured employee will receive the benefits no matter who was at fault, but in exchange, the employee cannot bring a civil action against the employer except under circumstances involving intentional acts.

IMG_0999-300x169So what about all the essential workers who are risking their health showing up to work every day during the Covid-19 pandemic? First responders, healthcare workers, and employees working to provide essential goods and services during the Statewide shut down are among those at the greatest risk of contracting and becoming sick from the virus. How does New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation Law protect them? Can Covid-19 be considered a work-related illness during our current public health crisis?

New Jersey lawmakers have recognized this as a serious problem in today’s workforce and have passed legislation to protect essential employees who contract Covid-19 at work. Senate Act No. 2380, approved on May 14, 2020, mandates that if during the public health crisis declared by Executive Order 103 (and extended by any subsequent executive orders) an essential employee contracts Covid-19 while at work outside of his or her home, there will be a rebuttable presumption that the contraction of the virus was work-related and fully compensable under New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation Law, disability retirement, and any other benefits provided to individuals who suffer illness or injury related to their employment.  This presumption in favor of the essential employee can be rebutted by a preponderance of the evidence that shows the employee was not exposed to the virus while at work.

TRENTON (May 15, 2020)–Attorneys for Katie Brennan said on Friday that they have reached a settlement agreement in Brennan’s lawsuit against the State of New Jersey, Murphy for Governor, Inc., and Al Alvarez. Brennan came forward in October 2018 about having been raped by Alvarez when he was a senior member of Gov. Phil Murphy’s 2017 gubernatorial campaign staff. She filed suit in January 2019.

As part of the settlement, the State of New Jersey and Murphy for Governor, Inc. will pay $1 million, of which $600,000 will go to Brennan and $400,000 will go to cover the legal costs for more than a year of work with her attorneys at Smith Eibeler, LLC. Brennan will donate the entirety of the $600,000 she will receive to The Waterfront Project, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting Hudson County’s economically disadvantaged people–the working poor, seniors, veterans, and those living with disabilities–by providing information, advice, and pro bono legal representation to address their civil legal issues and concerns. The Waterfront Project will use the donation from Brennan to fund legal services and support for low-income survivors of sexual assault and harassment.

“The Waterfont Project is honored to play a part in making New Jersey a more equitable place for survivors of sexual assault,” said Rebecca Symes, Interim Executive Director of the Waterfront Project. “We look forward to partnering with sexual assault survivors, advocates, and policymakers to design an innovative project addressing this very complicated, but urgent need.”

Most people are aware that the state and federal law can provide legal protection against sexual harassment and other discriminatory conduct to employees in the workplace. No job-related action, from recruitment and interviewing to compensation or discharge can be intentionally influenced or biased by an employee’s protected class, such as sex, gender, race, disability and others protected classes. But what if the individual is discriminated or harassed outside the employment?  Will the law provide any protection to an individual who is subjected to sexual harassment or other forms of discrimination in places outside the employment, such as government building, campaign organizations or within a police department?  The Appellate Division has issued a decision providing further guidance in situations in which a person is subjected to non-employment related discrimination in a case entitled Holmes v. Jersey City Police Department.

IMG_4199-300x169The case involves a transgender man, who was arrested for shoplifting and brought to the Jersey City Police Department for processing.  The individual, Mr. Holmes, presented his valid driver’s license indicating his gender as male at the time of the arrest. After fingerprinting revealed Holmes’ former name and gender, the officers used offensive and demeaning language to verbally harass Mr. Holmes for the duration of his time at the police station. The officers also moved Mr. Holmes from a male holding cell to a female holding cell despite Mr. Holmes’ identification as male.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination prohibits gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment in a place of public accommodation. A place of public accommodation is any place that is open to the public, including schools, businesses, restaurants, government buildings and healthcare facilities. Public place accommodation violations include the use of offensive language, the display of demeaning images such as pornography or inappropriate drawings, as well as unwanted touching and other forms of physical harassment. This harassment can be unlawful regardless of whether it’s performed by an employee of the public place or another patron. Places of public accommodation have legal obligations to ensure that they have policies and procedures in place to prevent and stops the harassment once it knows about it or should have known about it, and it may not retaliate against the individual who was harassed or complained about harassment.

Under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), an employee is entitled to reasonable accommodations at his or her workplace when he or she has a disability and the accommodation allows him or her to carry out basic job functions. But what if the employee requires medical leave to seek treatment for the disability? How long can the requested leave be? What if the employee’s time off under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has already been exhausted or is unavailable? And how can the employee prove that he or she would still be able to perform basic job functions if the accommodation is provided?

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The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey answered these questions in a recent decision in the case of Pritchett v. New Jersey, when it held that leaves of absence are available accommodations under the LAD. In upholding the reasonableness of a request for a 4month extension of a medical leave, the Court determined that even unpaid leave that exceeds FMLA entitlements can be considered a reasonable accommodation, and should be assessed on a case by case basis. Additionally, the Court found that the LAD does not require expert testimony as to the individual employee’s ability to return to work. Such testimony need only attest to the fact that someone with the same disability could potentially function in the workplace.

In 2006, Shelley Pritchett was hired as a corrections officer at the Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC), and within a year, she was promoted to senior corrections officer. As a routine part of her job, Pritchett escorted inmates through and around the prison, responded to codes, and intervened to end physical fights between inmates when necessary. On June 8, 2011, Pritchett broke up a fight among several inmates and injured her neck, back and knee. Due to her injuries, Pritchett took medical leave pursuant to the FMLA until September 21, 2011, exhausting all of her available FMLA leave.

The federal government recently enacted the Families First Coronavirus Response Act which provides emergency aid to workers as a result the Covid-19 outbreak. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act is a compressive package that, in part, temporary amends the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) to incorporate, paid sick leave and extended family leave to support workers that can no longer work due to the coronavirus pandemic.

IMG_4103-300x169With respect to paid leave, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act is essentially comprised of two components: The Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act and The Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act.

The Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act

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