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Employees within the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office could face serious disciplinary action as a result of a workplace complaint investigation conducted by an outside law firm in response to unlawful employee conduct. The investigation was prompted by a series of offensive social media posts shared by Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office employees, posted on Facebook and within their internal workplace messaging app, “Slack”.

Under New Jersey law, employers must maintain an effective policy against unlawful harassment and discrimination at the workplace. With an effective anti-harassment policy in place, harassment investigations may shield an employer from hostile work environment claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination is one of the nation’s strongest legal protections for employee civil rights against discrimination and threats of harassment, including sexual harassment. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination requires employers to investigate all complaints of harassment and discrimination promptly, thoroughly and completely.

Serious hostile work environment concerns emerged at the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office after racist jokes’ and offensive social media comments raised tensions amongst assistant prosecutors. In March 2021, the initial internal investigation began with an examination of Assistant Prosecutor Bill Specht and Agent Kelly Sisk over  “offensive and sickening” posts the two  allegedly made on social media and shared via Slack. Screenshots from March 2021, were shared of Specht’s conversations within the workplace Slack chatroom, writing that “Infoshare identifies as Mexican. It sleeps when the sun is hottest.” Specht additionally shared a number of racially offensive Facebook posts, following the police killing of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake. These posts alluded to the exoneration of law enforcement officials in officer-involved shootings, an especially controversial subject for someone in his position.  

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held on July 29, 2021, that a white employee’s lawsuit against his former employer for workplace retaliation under Title VII could move forward. This decision is especially notable because it is the first time the Third Circuit has issued a directive on race-based associational discrimination. In the case Kengerski v. Harper, No. 20-1307, 2021 WL 3199225 (3d Cir. July 29, 2021) the plaintiff employee alleges he was fired in retaliation for complaining about his supervisor’s racist remarks targeting his bi-racial grandniece and Black and Asian coworkers.

Title VII Retaliation vs. Harassment Claims

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that prohibits employment discrimination and harassment based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. It applies to all employers with fifteen or more employees, except for employees of the federal government, and it is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Under Title VII, an employer may not discriminate with regard to any term, condition or privilege of employment, including recruiting and hiring, deciding who to promote and transfer, assigning work, measuring performance, providing benefits and disciplining or firing. It means that no employee or job applicant can be treated differently in the workplace due to his or her protected characteristics. Importantly for the Kengerski plaintiff and others similarly situated, it also means that no employee, even if he or she is not part of a protected class, can be discriminated against at work based on his or her association with someone else who is part of a protected class. This unlawful practice is called “associational discrimination”.

SUPREME COURT UNANIMOUSLY RULES THAT SUPERVISOR’S USAGE OF RACIAL SLURS AGAINST EMPLOYEE ON ONLY TWO OCCASIONS ARE ENOUGH TO ESTABLISH SEVERITY IN A HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT CASE

In an unanimous opinion, the New Jersey Supreme Court has held that the use of offensive racist slurs on two occasions could meet the severe and pervasive standard required to establish a claim for hostile work environment under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The is being viewed by New Jersey employment lawyers as a victory to employee rights and their right to a work environment free of discrimination.  In denying summary judgment on behalf of the employer, the race workplace discrimination case will now proceed to trial with the ultimate outcome to be decided by a jury. 

IMG_1E2345D1B7BA-1-300x225In the case, Rios, Jr. v. Meda Pharmaceutical, Inc., the employee claims that on two separate occasions, his direct supervisor called him a “sp*c” and this conduct amounted to a hostile work environment. After he reported both instances to Human Resources (HR), the supervisor placed him on a performance improvement plan and he was eventually fired.  At the end of discovery, the employer filed a motion for summary judgment to dismiss the case arguing that only two incidents were not pervasive or severe to constitute an actionable claim for hostile work environment.  The trial court granted the motion and dismissed the lawsuit. 

In Manchester, a township in Ocean County, New Jersey where 92% of its approximately 43,000 residents are white, a star high school basketball player’s attempt to speak out against issues of race discrimination and inequity was shut down by the Board of Education. At the most recent Board meeting, star basketball player Destiny Adams, presented a thoughtful speech to the Board to persuade them that the girls basketball team should be permitted to wear Black Lives Matter sweatshirts during the pregame warmup to their first game of the season, which took place Tuesday, January 26. Destiny was supported at the meeting by her mother, an attorney, and her father, the principal of Manchester High School, both of whom also spoke. Without discussing her proposal among the members of the Board or taking an official vote on it, the Board denied her request, stating that warmup gear may only display the school’s name.

fullsizeoutput_3c-1-300x169In speaking to news media, Destiny said of the Board’s decision, “They told me no, but that can’t really silence me, so we needed to find a way around it”. In fact, Destiny and most of her teammates wore Black Lives Matter sweatshirts prior to their season opener last night against Jackson Liberty High School despite the Board’s ruling. Destiny and another teammate also wore socks that said Black Lives Matter, while another player wrote Black Lives Matter on her sneakers.

According to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, what players wear during pregame warmups is determined at the school’s discretion. From a legal standpoint, the question is how to balance public school students’ First Amendment right to freedom of expression with a school’s right to ensure the school environment is not disrupted and the rights of one student do not infringe on the rights of another.

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.

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.

Earlier this week, New Jersey’s Assembly and Senate passed a ban on discrimination associated with hair. Discrimination based on hair has been popping up in courtrooms and legislatures across the country. Once Governor Murphy signs off, it will be unlawful to discriminate based upon hair.

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In several states, bills have been proposed to increase protections from hair based discrimination. The New Jersey State Assembly Labor Committee approved a bill this past summer to ban discrimination based upon hairstyles and textures that are traditionally associated with race and is considered a form of race discrimination. The bill was prompted by a December 2018 incident involving a New Jersey high school wrestler forced by a referee to cut his hair, styled in locs, or forfeit the match. The bill was proposed by Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, Hudson County’s representative, following the outrage surrounding the wrestler’s forced hair cut—performed publicly by the referee, in front of spectators. The bill, originally introduced this summer that was recently passed, amends the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination to reflect that “race” is inclusive of traits “historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture, hair type, and protective hairstyles.” “Protective hair styles includes, but is not limited to, such hairstyles as braids, locks, and twists.”

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination prohibits employers and places of public accommodation from discriminating against employees and other persons.  While race has long been recognized as a protected class of persons protected by the state discrimination law, the New Jersey law will specifically prohibit discrimination based upon hair, if the governor signs it into law.

On the morning of July 10, 2019, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo signed new legislation into law providing protections for equal pay for women and increasing protections against race and gender based employment discrimination. The legislation was signed at the ticker-tape parade for the United States Women’s National Soccer Team, who won the World Cup on July 7th and have made headlines in recent months regarding gender-based pay disparity. The passage of these bills was a symbolic action of solidarity between New York State and the U.S. Women’s National Team, who filed an equal pay lawsuit in Federal Court earlier this year. After signing the legislation into law, Governor Cuomo stated, “We say to the U.S. Soccer League, and we say to FIFA, if you don’t pay women what you pay men, then you have no business in the state of New York.”

These three bills, signed this past summer, are part of a larger effort by the New York State to provide greater protections to employees in the state, aiming to prohibit employment discrimination based on gender and race. These laws will hopefully mark the development of a more employee-friendly workplace environment within the state. As New York is the third largest contributing state to America’s national GDP, such an improvement would be significant. New Jersey has also adopted significant employee-friendly legislation in the past two (2) years, including the New Jersey Equal Pay Act, the S121 Non-Disclosure Bill, Paid Sick Leave and amendments to the New Jersey Wage Payment and New Jersey Wage and Hour law. Following these enactments, New York’s similar enactments will serve to further enhance the protections for employees within both states, and across the region.

The first of two bills Governor Cuomo signed on July 10, Senate Bill 5248, prohibits wage differentials based on protected class status. It requires equal pay for substantially similar work when performed under similar working conditions. Similar to the New Jersey Equal Pay Act, the bill only allows for a differential rate of pay when it is based on a seniority or merit system, a system that measures earnings by quantity or quality, or a bona fide factor consistent with business necessity. Additionally, the bill lowers the burden of proof for a person claiming discrimination and provides a civil penalty for violations of the act. The stated purpose of the law is to prevent irrelevant factors – such as gender – from influencing employers in their salary distribution decisions. The passage of this law came after a wave of equal pay lawsuits have shaken governments across the United States. The bill will go into effect 90 days after its enactment.

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.

ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Good Morning America and probably even your own Facebook page, have been flooded with varying opinions on the Miami bullying/harassment scandal. This blog entry is written by our New Jersey Employment Lawyers to analyze the facts, as reported, to determine whether a hostile work environment existed that would be in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

For those who have been living under a rock for the week, Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin left his employment with the Miami Dolphins as a result of, at least in part, constant harassment and bullying directed at him from his teammates. It has been reported that Mr. Martin checked himself into a hospital as a result of suffering from emotional distress caused by the harassment. One teammate in particular, Richie Incognito, has been suspended indefinitely for his role in the harassment and bullying. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has appointed the prominent attorney, Ted Wells, to conduct an independent investigation into allegations of harassment and bullying within the Miami Dolphins.

Based upon the allegations that have reported, Mr. Wells’ investigation should reveal that Jonathan Martin was subjected to a hostile work environment that would be in violation of New Jersey law. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination makes it unlawful to discriminate against an employee on the basis of protected characteristics, which include race, color, disability and sexual orientation. In other words, the discrimination must be based upon one of these protected characteristics in order for the harassment to be against the law. In the landmark case of Lehman v. Toy ‘R’ Us, Inc. 132 N.J. 587 (1993), the New Jersey Supreme Court defined a hostile work environment based upon sexual harassment as discriminatory conduct that a reasonable person of the same sex in the plaintiff’s position would consider sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and to create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. The Lehman decision held that New Jersey employers must maintain an effective policy against unlawful harassment/discrimination. An effective policy requires, inter alia, that employers investigate complaints of harassment promptly, thoroughly and completely. All complaints of sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination must be fully investigated.

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