Articles Posted in Law Against Discrimination

A New Jersey Appellate Division has affirmed a jury verdict of $525K in favor of a former customer service representative against her former company, RockTenn Co., and supervisor for claims of hostile work environment and unlawful retaliation. This sexual harassment case is another reminder to all New Jersey employers of the importance of having effective anti-discrimination policies in place that stop and remediate workplace sexual harassment.

In the case, Velez v. RockTenn Company and Raymond Perry,  the employee, Ms. Velez began her employment with RockTenn as a customer service representative in November, 2010 earning $45,000 per year.  Shortly after beginning her employment, Ms. Velez’s supervisor, Mr. Perry, engaged in sexually harassing behavior toward her.  The unwelcomed sexual harassment included Mr. Perry showing Ms. Velez a picture of his girlfriend and telling Ms. Velez that they had recently broke up.  Mr. Perry commented that his girlfriend had “nice thighs” and he loved Latino women. Ms. Velez, who is also Latino, testified that Mr. Perry would inappropriate look at her breasts, legs and backside while he spoke to her at work and one time asked her out on a date.  Ms. Velez also testified that he asked her out and that his conduct caused her to avoid going into his office.  At the company holiday party, Mr. Perry again showed a picture of his girlfriend to Ms. Velez and announced that she was trying to convince him to have a threesome.  A month later in January, 2011, Mr. Perry placed his hand over Ms. Velez’s hand during a work-related conversation and stated, “Oh, I should not be doing this, should I?”

Mr. Perry also exhibited controlling behavior over Ms. Velez during her employment.  Mr. Perry attempted to limit Ms. Velez’s interactions with other employees and went as far as to instruct her not to have lunch with another male employee, whom Mr. Perry did not believe was a good person. Mr. Perry also prevented Ms. Velez from attending a mandatory training, which Ms. Velez claims was in retaliation for her rebuffing of Mr. Perry’s harassing conduct.

Over the weekend, German Soccer Star, Mesut Ozil, retired from the German National Team following what he claimed to be rampant racist remarks and mistreatment based on his Turkish heritage, according to the BBC. The German Football Association, “DFB”, denies accusations of maintaining a hostile and discriminatory work environment for athletes of foreign descent. Ozil’s allegations align with experiences of other World Cup athletes who claim that they’ve been victims of racially hostile treatment based on their national origin.

The FIFA World Cup of soccer took over the international sports stage this summer and served to shed light on issues of discrimination worldwide. Though athletes were required to be citizens of the countries that they played for in the tournament, many players identified as immigrants to these nations, or shared heritage with other countries as well. A common experience of these dual-citizenship or immigrant athletes was to feel as though their fans accepted them as fellow citizens only when their team won; after a loss, the “foreign” athletes were treated as undesirable outsiders. This sentiment would manifest in hate mail, racist or discriminatory statements, and the reception of undue blame for their team’s poor performance.

Along these lines, Mesut Ozil claims he was discriminated against, singled out and scapegoated for Germany’s failure to advance past the group stages in the World Cup this year. Ozil, who is of Turkish descent, claims that he received racially harassing hate mail and was unfairly blamed for Germany’s poor World Cup performance.  Earlier this year, Ozil posted a photograph featuring himself alongside the President of Turkey after a friendly, soccer related meeting. Ozil was immediately criticized by DFB officials and fans who questioned his loyalty to democratic values.  Ozil was also abandoned by partners and sponsors and denounced by DFB officials such as Reinhard Grindel for the photograph and meeting. Fans referred to him as a “Turkish pig” and German media outlets openly blamed his Turkish heritage and meeting with Erdogan for Germany’s losses in the World Cup.

More than a year before #MeToo, a Select Task Force was created by President Obama to examine the problem of sexual harassment at the workplace. The Select Task Force consisted of a select group of outside experts who analyzed the causes and effects of workplace harassment and made recommendations what should be done to prevent it. The Select Task Force’s Report of the Co-Chairs of the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace was published in 2016 before the #MeToo movement.

The mission of the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace was to determine the extent to which harassment impacts employees of various industries nationwide, as well as how best to mediate this behavior. The Task Force operated in conjunction with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and its eighteen (18) members include academics, lawyers, EEOC representatives, and other experts from all across the country.  The Select Task Force’s June 2016 Report outlined that analyzed the different factors that increase the risk of workplace harassment, how workplace harassment impacts employees and productivity, and how workplaces can both address and prevent the occurrence of harassment in their office. The eruption of movements have revealed the continuing epidemic of sexual harassment in the workplace which has caused an renewed interest in the report.

The report revealed that Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received approximately 30,000 charges of workplace harassment in 2015 alone. This statistic is even more shocking in light of the Select Task Force’s finding that only 25% of the victims report the harassment to their employers. In fact, reporting harassment to the employer is the least common response to harassment.  Victims of sexual harassment fear disbelief, inaction, or blatant retaliation by their superiors or the harasser.

The Third Circuit has reversed a trial court’s decision that dismissed a sexual harassment lawsuit because the plaintiff employee never complained directly to her employer. The decision is causing employment attorneys across the country to question the continued viability of the Faragher-Ellerth defense, which permits employers to avoid liability for sexual harassment where an employee fails to make a formal complaint about sexual harassment directly to the employer.

In the case of Sheri Minarsky v. Susquehanna County and Thomas Yadlosky, Jr., the employee began her employment as a part-time secretary with the Susquehanna County Department of Veterans Affairs from September, 2009. The employee claimed that she had been sexually harassed by her supervisor throughout her employment starting from the very beginning. The sexual harassment included her supervisor attempting to kiss her on the lips, massaging her shoulders while she was at her computer and approaching her from behind and pulling her against him. The employee also claimed that the supervisor would often question her whereabouts during her lunch hour and would also call her at home under the pretense of a work-related inquiry only to then ask personal questions unrelated to work.  The supervisor also sent sexually explicit messages through email to the employee.

While the employee never complained to her employer about her claims of sexual harassment in fear of retaliation, the employer was aware of the supervisor’s inappropriate behavior toward other women, which resulted in two verbal reprimands. Other employees also raised concerns that the supervisor would attempt to kiss employees under the mistletoe during Christmas time.

The United States has historically been plagued by systematic employment discrimination based on protected characteristics that often take the form of unjustifiable wage disparity. The Diane B. Allen New Jersey Equal Pay Act attempts to curb this practice in New Jersey by placing strict regulations in situations where employers pay their employees disparate wages, and imposing large penalties on employers who violate this statute. Governor Phil Murphy signed the bill into law on April 24, 2018 in hopes of creating a work environment in the state that fosters pay equity. It takes effect, today, July 1, 2018.

The Equal Pay Act amends the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination to strengthen protections against discrimination by specifically prohibiting unfair pay practices based on gender, race, or other characteristics. It restricts employers from paying employees who are members of protected classes reduced wages in comparison to non-protected class employees by making it unlawful for women to be paid less than their male counterparts simply because of their gender. An employer may utilize differing compensation rates only pursuant to:

  • A seniority or merit system

The United States has been slowly progressing towards equity when it comes to employment policies that outlaw gender, disability, and other types of discrimination. Despite this advancement, there are a few areas that have shown reluctance to moving forward. One such industry is that of professional sports.  As a result of the nature of sports related occupations, issues such as disability, gender, and pregnancy discrimination have proven difficult to overcome. Athletes who are considering starting a family must contemplate the reactions of their sponsors, fans, and coaches, and they fear the cancelling of sponsorships as well as receiving less playing time from their coaches. Fortunately, a recent situation arose in women’s professional tennis that forced the United States Tennis Association to quickly consider changes to pregnancy and discrimination policies.

Arguably the greatest female tennis player in history, Serena Williams has won twenty-three Grand Slam singles titles since 1999, as well as four Olympic gold medals and seventy-two total career singles titles. Williams recently took a leave of absence from competing as she became pregnant and gave birth to her child, Olympia, in September of 2017. She also unfortunately experienced severe complications from this pregnancy that added to the physical strain of giving birth. Despite her record-breaking athletic history, she returned from pregnancy leave to find that she was unseeded in the French Open this year. In professional tennis, seeds are awarded to the highest ranked players of the year, and unseeded players encounter additional obstacles in the tournament, such as facing highly competitive players very early on in the tournament. For such a successful and powerful athlete as Williams, not being awarded a seeded spot following her pregnancy was not only disrespectful, but also viewed as discriminatory.

As a result of the backlash that the actions of the French Open have received, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) has announced that they plan to alter their seeding procedure in order to take into account additional factors that may have influenced an athlete’s ranking, which will include pregnancy and the complications that arise from the condition. Wimbledon already reserves and occasionally exercises the right to alter computer calculated seeding if they feel there are additional factors (such as pregnancy) that should be taken into consideration. In support of Wimbledon’s practice, the President and Chairwoman of USTA, Katrina Adams, explained that players should not be penalized for exercising their rights to start a family, and that the new US Open policy will help the sport to achieve greater equality and strike down discriminatory practices. Adams compared the French Open’s actions to the business environment, stating that forcing a player to return from maternity leave to a lower ranked position would be the same as having a business executive return to an entry level position. If this happened in any company in the United States, the employer would be guilty of pregnancy discrimination. Why is this not the case with the Women’s Tennis Association?

Two recent New Jersey court cases further demonstrate that unlawful workplace harassment can occur in any industry, at any level, targeting employees of all demographics. Despite this fact, some workplaces are more susceptible to experiencing harassment than others. One such industry is the restaurant and hospitality industry. According to a recent study conducted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, more restaurant and hospitality workers submitted complaints of workplace harassment than any other industry specified in the study. To some, this may seem predictable because of the frequency of late shifts, the presence of alcohol, and a reliance on tips in this industry.

One recent lawsuit that has received attention from local media originated from an employee of the well known Snuffy’s Steakhouse in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. In a complaint recently filed, Alston Shakera v. Snuffy Pantagis ENT. Inc., Alston alleged that she came out of the bathroom to find a busboy exposing himself, and then physically grabbing her when she refused his advances. Prior to this, Alston had been subject to a consistent pattern of sexually harassing comments and unwanted contact by both coworkers and customers. While this may seem like an extreme example of workplace sexual harassment, experts say that employees of restaurants are subject to unwanted touching and lewd remarks or text messages at a particularly high rate.

The restaurant industry is clearly not the only workplace plagued by unlawful harassing behavior. In another recent sexual harassment lawsuit filed against the Mountainside Police Department, several employees have alleged they were subjected to severe harassment and torment stemming including regular homophobic comments, sexual advances and even aggravated assault.

The New Jersey Appellate Division has reversed the trial court’s dismissal of an out of state resident’s claim of age discrimination under New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  The decision is an important reminder to employers that New Jersey’s strong public policy to eradicate discriminate in all its ugly forms may extend to non-New Jersey residents who suffer from discrimination that is protected under the New Jersey state law.

In the case Trevejo v. Legal Cost Control, Inc., and John Marquess, the employee, Susan Trevejo, lived in Massachusetts and worked remotely from her home for the employer, whose principal place of business was located in Haddonfield, New Jersey.  In claiming that she had standing to sue under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, Ms. Trevejo pointed out the fact that she was provided a company computer to connect to the company’s corporate server in New Jersey and a company phone to communicate with other company employees, some of whom lived and worked in New Jersey.  The employer argued that Ms. Trevino was never a resident of New Jersey at any point in her employment, never lived in New Jersey and never sought or received any benefits from the state of New Jersey.  The employer also pointed out the fact that although Ms. Trevejo had traveled to New Jersey for business at times during her employment, she had not done so any time from 2009 through 2015.

Twelve years into her employment, the employer terminated Ms. Trevejo’s employment. In response, Ms. Trevejo filed a lawsuit alleging age discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  During the lawsuit, Ms. Trevejo’s employment lawyers requested broad discovery to prove she was entitled to pursue her age discrimination claims under New Jersey’s discrimination laws, including the nature and substance of her electronic and other virtual contact and connection to the employers’ New Jersey office as part of her day-to-day work activities.

Governor Phil Murphy has signed into law the “Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act”, which is rightfully being touted as the strongest equal pay law in the United States.  The New Jersey Equal Pay Act amends the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination to specifically protect employees from discriminatory pay practices.  It provides severe penalties to employers who violate the new law.

The New Jersey Equal Pay Act, which will be effective immediately on July 1, 2018, specifically prohibits employers from paying employees less than other employers because of their gender, race or other protected class.  Employers must be able to refute a claim of wage discrimination by showing that any difference in pay is based upon a seniority system, a merit system or other legitimate bona fide factors (e.g. training, education, experience, quality or quantity of work).

The new law also provides some significant changes to the applicable statute of limitations.  For example, the New Jersey Equal Pay Act strengthens the statute of limitations for claims based on pay equity to a period of six (6) years as opposed to the two (2) year statute of limitations

It is not uncommon for employers to make an employee’s execution of an arbitration agreement a condition of their employment at the inception of the employee’s employment. But what happens when, in the midst of employment, an employer all of a sudden demands an employee’s agreement to an arbitration agreement under the threat of termination? Does an employee have to sign the arbitration agreement in order to remain employed?  What if the employee refuses to sign the arbitration agreement and, as a result, is suspended and not permitted to return to work by their employer?

A recent New Jersey Superior Court has held that an employer cannot take adverse employment action against an employee who refuses to sign an arbitration agreement that requires her to waive her statutory rights under the Law Against Discrimination.

In Cator v. Hotel ML/Coco Key West Resort et al., Plaintiff, a black female, had made complaints about race discrimination during the course of her employment. During the same time period, her employer implemented a new policy mandating, as a condition of her continued employment, that all current and prospective employees execute an arbitration agreement. Plaintiff refused to execute the arbitration agreement and waive her statutory rights to have her claims of race discrimination adjudicated in a court of law and by a jury of her peers. In response to her refusal to sign the arbitration agreement, the employer suspended her from work and advised her that she would not be permitted to return to work unless and until she signed the arbitration agreement. As a result, the employee filed a lawsuit for claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  One of the claims was specifically whether an employer unlawful retaliates against an employee for refusing to sign an arbitration agreement that waives their statutory rights under the law.