Articles Posted in Law Against Discrimination

New Jersey’s State Policy Prohibiting Discrimination in the Workplace is considered amongst many New Jersey employment lawyers as being one of the least protective of employee rights in the entire country.  Unfortunately, the newest revisions proposed by the Civil Service Commission do not provide any meaningful improvement for State employees governed under the State’s anti-harassment policy, and particularly with respect to how it conducts investigations of claims of sexual harassment.  In fact, when it comes to New Jersey’s controversial “strict confidentiality directive” policy, the proposed changes make the New Jersey’s anti-harassment policy even worse for victims of sexual harassment and discrimination.

Much has been written over the past week regarding the Civil Service Commission’s attempts to strengthen the strict confidentiality directive.  While the Civil Service Commission’s proposed revisions could worsen the penalties for breach, the current version of the strict confidentiality directive in effect continues to require incidents of sexual harassment from the public. What many of the news reports seem to have missed is the devastating impact of the current strict confidentiality policy has and continues to have on silencing victims of sexual harassment.

The current strict confidentiality directive in place expressly threatens state employees with discipline up to and including termination if the state employee exercises his or her constitutionally protected right to speak out about allegations of harassment within the state workplace. A state employee who makes a complaint of harassment or discrimination, or is requested to participate in a discrimination or harassment investigation, is required under current state regulations and practice to keep all aspects of the investigation confidential.  This means, for example, that if a state employee is the victim of sexual assault or harassment at her state job and she complains about it to the State’s EEO/AA office, she is forbidden under current regulations and practice to tell a lawyer, a co-worker or even her spouse anything about what happened.  The strict confidential directive remains in place and every state employee must abide by it or be subject to discipline.  N.J.A.C. 4A:7-3.1(j), states:

Last month New York City took action to combat an often-overlooked form of race discrimination involving employee’s hair.  In February 2019, the New York City Commission on Human Rights (the “Commission”) published new guidance that explains that employers (as well as housing providers and providers of public accommodations) can no longer institute policies or practices that discriminate against people on the basis of their natural hair texture or their choice to wear a hairstyle commonly associated with African Americans, such as an afro or dreadlocks.  According to this new guidance, the Commission views such policies and practices as violative of the New York City Human Rights Law (the “NYCHRL”), announcing that in the Commission’s view, “Black hairstyles are protected racial characteristics under the NYCHRL because they are an inherent part of Black identity.

Discrimination based on hairstyles is an issue that courts across the country have grappled with over the years, with generally employer-friendly results. Courts have been fairly consistent in finding that where a person’s hairstyle is tied to their faith, employers cannot restrict their right to express their faith through their chosen hairstyle. On the other hand, where the person’s hairstyle is tied to their cultural identity and heritage, courts have not been so kind.  For the most part, if an employer implemented a race-neutral policy banning hairstyles associated with Black people, courts have not found discrimination. Similarly, race-neutral policies restricting “unkempt” or “messy” hairstyles have generally gained approval from the courts.

For the most part, in order to prevail, a plaintiff had to show that they were specifically targeted in some way, or that the employer’s policy was not applied neutrally.  In other words, employees had to demonstrate that the employer’s defense – that the employee failed to comply with a race-neutral employee grooming policy – was pretextual and that the employer’s true motive was discriminatory.  Proving pretext can be extremely difficult, which explains why most employers have succeeded when their grooming policies have been challenged as racially discriminatory.

Any woman who returns to work after a pregnancy understands how challenging it can be. For mothers who choose to breastfeed, returning to work presents an additional layer of complexity. Figuring out how, when and where to express breast milk requires the cooperation of the employer, who all too often does not understand its legal obligations to assist the mother returning to work and provide reasonable accommodations to breastfeed or express milk during work hours. Understanding your rights respecting laws to support lactating women while at work can be instrumental to continued breastfeeding success following the return to work.

In 2018, New Jersey became the 28th state to enact protections for breastfeeding mothers in the workplace. Former Governor Chris Christie signed into law protections for breastfeeding employees who wish to express milk at work. Effective January 8, 2018, the law provides protections and accommodations for employees who breastfeed and wish to pump in the workplace. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination now specifically includes “breastfeeding” as a protected class which makes it unlawful to discriminate against an employee on the basis of her breastfeeding status.  The law also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who they know or should know breastfeeds or who needs to express milk at work for their newborn child.

On March 18, 2019, Governor Murphy officially signed S-121 into law that makes any provision in an employment which waives any substantive or procedural right of an employee unenforceable as against New Jersey public policy.  Under the new law, New Jersey employers will no longer be able to conceal the underlying details of sexual harassment and other claims of discrimination through the use of non-disclosure or confidentiality provisions in settlement agreements.  The new Non-Disclosure law also protects employees from being retaliated against for not entering into any agreement or contract that requires them to waive their substantive or procedural rights.

The Non-Disclosure bill will apply to all workplace discrimination claims alleged or brought under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of protected traits such as gender, disability, race, national origin and other protected classes of people.  It also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who oppose discrimination or participate in harassment investigations.  Finally, it makes employers responsible for the harm caused to employees who are forced to work in a hostile work environment.

The Non-Disclosure bill is being touted a significant win for New Jersey employees’ rights and the #MeToo movement.  The law was sponsored by Senators Loretta Weinberg and Nia Gill an Assembly members Valerie Vainieri Huttle, John F. McKeon and Jon M. Brammick.  The law will not be administered retroactively.  Instead, it will only apply to employment contracts that are entered into, renewed, modified or amended on or after the law’s March 18, 2019 effective date. This means any contract to arbitrate or settlement agreement requiring the underlying claims of lawsuit to be confidential signed before March 18, 2019 can still be enforced by an employer against an employee.

New Jersey maintains a strong public policy in protecting employees who speak out against the employer’s for engaging in unlawful business activities.  The law recognizes that employers are responsible when they try to silence and hurt persons who oppose workplace conduct or activities that endangers people in the workplace and the public at large.  However, while New Jersey law clearly provides for immense legal protections for employees against workplace retaliation, this does not mean anyone who is fired for complaining to his or her employer will be successful in a claim for wrongful termination.

New Jersey first enacted its state whistleblower law, the New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”) in 1986. CEPA is broad in scope and considered as one of the farthest reaching state whistleblower laws in the entire country. CEPA is remedial legislation and is entitled to liberal construction by our courts.

Under of New Jersey’s whistleblower law, a worker cannot be terminated for opposing or refusing to participate in unlawful or certain other improper conduct of the employer.  By placing stiff penalties upon employers who violate the whistleblower law, the New Jersey anti-retaliation statute tries to discourage employers from engaging in illegal or unethical workplace activities.  The state law applies to private and public employers and employees.  It also can apply to independent contractors in certain circumstances depending on the specific facts and circumstances of the business relationship.

The rampant abuse of arbitration agreements, and the injustice that these agreements have created for employees, is finally being recognized and addressed. The Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal Act, or “FAIR Act,” was introduced to the United States House of Representatives by Representatives Hank Johnson and Richard Blumenthal on February 28, 2019.  The FAIR Act would, among other things, outlaw forced arbitration clauses in employment contracts or agreements.  The FAIR Act would, instead, require that the employee agree to arbitration only after the dispute has arisen in order for any arbitration agreement to be enforceable.

If passed as written, the Fair Act would not have retroactive effect as to disputes that arose prior to its passing; however, the bill would have retroactive effect in that it would apply to arbitration clauses in employment contracts that were entered into prior to the bill’s passing.  In other words, if the bill passes, all disputes arising thereafter would not be subject to an arbitration clause included in an employment agreement.

The current state of arbitration across the country is a classic case of too much of a good thing.  In theory, arbitration would serve as an option afforded to both parties to a dispute, with each party given the opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of that option to determine if they wished to have their dispute resolved through arbitration. In reality, however, this is not how arbitration works most of the time.  In the majority of arbitrations, one party was not truly given an option and did not understand anything about the process prior to “agreeing” to have any future dispute resolved through that process.  As a result, many people never get their day in court, because they unwittingly signed away their right to do so.

There are various laws that protect pregnant women from workplace discrimination and that provide for pregnancy related leave from work.  In fact, there are both federal and state laws that provide New Jersey employees the right to take pregnancy leave to give and recovery from giving birth. Each of these laws have different eligibility requirements that govern whether an employer must provide these rights to their employees.

The most commonly known pregnancy leave related law is the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). The FMLA was first enacted and signed into law in 1993 by President Bill Clinton.  The FMLA provides up to 12 weeks of leave for any 12-month period of time in order to give birth or care for a new born or adopted child.  In order to be eligible for FMLA leave, the employee must be employed by the employer for one year and must have worked 1,250 hours during the one-year period preceding the leave.  If the employer is in the private-sector, they must have at least 50 employees for the FMLA to apply to them.  All public sector employers, regardless of size, are obligated to provide eligible employees pregnancy leave under the FMLA. In order to exercise rights under the FMLA, a pregnant employee must provide their employer notice of their intent to take the leave at least 30 days in advance of their need for the leave.

In a 2015 case entitled Aguas v. State of New Jersey, the New Jersey Supreme Court adopted the federal standard regarding employer liability for workplace sexual harassment. For the first time, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that an employer can avoid liability in situations where the workplace sexual harassment did not result in any tangible employment action if the employer can show (1) it has strong anti-harassment policies and effective reporting mechanisms and (2) the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the policies and reporting procedures.

The Aquas ruling dramatically changed the manner in which sexual harassment cases have been litigated in New Jersey.  It has also served as a valuable reminder to all New Jersey employers of the importance of having strong anti-harassment policies in place to protect employees from sexual harassment.

The plaintiff in Aguas v. State of New Jersey, Ilda Aguas, was a corrections officer in the New Jersey Department of Corrections.  During her employment, Ms. Aguas began to experience objectionable sexual harassment at the hands of her supervisor, Lieutenant Darryl McClish. On multiple occasions, McClish both verbally and physically harassed Ms. Aguas, such as by asking her to go to a motel with him, forcing himself on her in imitation of a “lap dance”, and holding Ms. Aguas’s arms behind her back while pressing his genitals against her body and asking “what are you going to do?” Ms. Aguas objected to this behavior directly to McClish, who refused to cease the sexually harassing behavior. Ms. Aguas was additionally harassed by two other supervisors.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

TRENTON (February 6, 2019)–Following is a statement from Katie Brennan in response to the findings of Peter Verniero’s inquiry into the vetting and hiring processes of the Murphy administration’s transition office:

“It’s clear from the report that there was a lack of accountability and effective policies and procedures to address a glaring personnel problem in the Transition. I appreciate the recommended reforms and I look forward to seeing additional recommendations from the Joint Select Legislative Oversight Committee so that comprehensive reform can be implemented.

It is not uncommon when a sexual harassment claim is filed for controversy to arise regarding who exactly is liable for the harassment. In 1993, the New Jersey Supreme Court held in the case ‘Lehmann v. Toys ‘R’ Us’ an employer may be liable if the sexual harasser was acting within the scope of his or her employment or if the employer was negligent for allowing the existence of a hostile work environment.  After the Lehman decision, questions remained concerning how victims of sexual harassment could prove that their employer was negligent and therefore liable for the sexual harassing conduct of one of its employees. In a 2002 case Maria Gaines v. Joseph Bellino, the New Jersey Supreme Court provided further clarification concerning an employer’s liability for workplace sexual harassment and established a framework for courts to determine whether an employer has an effective anti-harassment policy.

In Gaines v. Bellino, the plaintiff Maria Gaines was an employee of Hudson County Correctional Facility when she began to experience sexually harassing behavior from her supervisor, Captain Bellino. In 1990, Mr. Bellino forcibly kissed Ms. Gaines against her will. Ms. Gaines objected to the assault, and immediately reported it to several coworkers and some other higher level officials of the facility. She was encouraged to report the behavior, but expressed fear of retaliation as well as of Bellino himself. This fear was shared by multiple coworkers, and Gaines was further advised that the facility’s supervisors would most likely not believe her reports of the harassment. Because of this, Gaines chose not to submit a formal report regarding the behavior. Over the next few years, Gaines was subject to additional harassing incidents. On one occasion, Bellino brought up the initial assault in front of a superior officer, adding that he could even rape Gaines and no one would believe her. In early 1995, Ms. Gaines reported the conduct to the warden of the facility. No investigation was conducted until the middle of 1996, and no action was taken until March of 1997, when Bellino was suspended for 30 days.

Ms. Gaines filed a legal complaint against Bellino and the Hudson County Correctional Facility regarding the harassment in 1998. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants noting that the Hudson County Correctional facility maintained an anti-harassment policy and mechanisms for reporting harassment, proven by posters that had been exhibited in the facility as well as a section of the employee handbook that dictated the reporting process. Ms. Gaines appealed this decision, as she argued that the anti-harassment policies were ineffective and not implemented correctly. The question that the New Jersey Supreme Court was charged with answering was whether the Hudson County Correctional Facility’s anti-harassment policy in place were enough to protect an employer from being held accountable for sexual harassment?