SERVING OUR CLIENTS AND COMMUNITY DURING COVID-19

Articles Posted in retaliation

For the past year, employees have been undergoing medical screenings and answering questions about their personal health to gain access to their physical workplaces. Employers can lawfully request their health status or require them to take leave from work if they appear to have symptoms of COVID-19. Despite laws protecting employee privacy and the dignity of being in control of our own medical decisions, the public health emergency resulting from the spread of COVID-19 has drastically changed the landscape when it comes to employment decisions based on disability or perceived disability, the duty to reasonably accommodate and the prohibition against workplace retaliation.

6AE55F99-A017-42B1-BEAB-4D7220445832-300x169The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a federal agency that enforces workplace anti-discrimination laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. The Americans with Disabilities Act makes discrimination based on disability illegal and protects from retaliation individuals who exercise their rights under that law. Other laws, including state and local laws, such as the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and the New York City Human Rights Law, provide employees with additional protections. Anti-discrimination laws continue to apply during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they must coexist with guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and state and local health authorities concerning, among other things, an employer’s right to access employees’ medical information and perform health screenings in the workplace. The intertwining of anti-discrimination laws and public health regulations in the current climate has created a question about whether a COVID-19 infection or perceived infection qualifies an employee for anti-discrimination protection based on disability. The answer will be different depending on whether federal or state law governs the employment relationship, and if state law, which state.

Disability discrimination occurs under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act when an employer treats an employee unfavorably because he or she has a disability, has a history of a disability (such as cancer that has entered remission), or because the employer believes the employee has or used to have a disability. However, not all medical conditions equate to disabilities under the legal definition of the term. A person can show that he or she has a disability in one of three ways: (1) he or she has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking, hearing, learning, or limits the operation of a major bodily function); (2) he or she has a history of such a disability (past depression that is currently being successfully treated); or (3) he or she is subject to an adverse employment action (such as demotion, termination or a change in job duties or pay) due to the employer’s belief that he or she has a physical or mental impairment that is more than something minor and temporary.

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. 

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.

In recent celebrity employment law news, former reality television star, Angelina Larangeira (nee Pivarnick) settled a federal employment discrimination lawsuit against the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) for $350,000. Pivarnick has been working as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) in Staten Island since 2016, where she alleges she was the victim of sexual harassment and assault. Specifically, Pivarnick sued the FDNY as well as one of her supervisors, Lieutenant Jonathan Schechter, alleging a hostile work environment and severe sexual misconduct that took place between 2017 and 2018.

IMG_2433-300x171In the Complaint, Pivarnick alleges that she was subjected to “repeated and unwelcome sexual advances, degrading comments about her body, vulgar sexual comments, inappropriate questions about her private relationships and, in one instance, the groping of an intimate part of her body without her consent”. This sexual misconduct allegedly took place in person at her work and via text message, when her supervisor sent her a message stating, “Your ass looked amazing and I wish I wasn’t working or in uniform because I definitely would’ve kissed those amazing lips”. As in many sexual harassment cases, Pivarnick was also assaulted. In her pleadings, she alleged that in May 2018, her supervisor groped her buttock and “made contact with her vaginal area.”

At the time her suit was filed, Pivarnick released a statement: “I suffered severe sexual harassment while working for EMS and was retaliated against by my management when I complained internally. It should go without saying that what I experienced has nothing to do with television or entertainment. Like all women, I am entitled to be treated with dignity and respect at work, and I should not have to accept unwanted sexual advances, crude comments about my body, or physical assault.” In response to news of her settlement breaking, Pivarnick stated, “I said when the case was filed that it had nothing to do with television or entertainment and that remains true. Sexual harassment is serious and has devastating consequences for so many women. It has for #MeToo. Although I experienced horrendous treatment at EMS, I’m pleased with the resolution of my case and I look forward to using my voice to speak about the need to protect all women from sexual harassment.”

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation this month that makes it a crime to use 911 as a tool to intimidate another person based on his or her race. The bill, which has already taken effect, was introduced to the State Senate on June 29, 2020. It amends and expands the state’s existing false public alarm statute to include false incrimination and filing a false police report as forms of bias intimidation when they are done in an attempt to intimidate or harass an individual or group of individuals because of race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity.

IMG_5257-300x169Bias intimidation has long been a crime in New Jersey, and it occurs when a person is the target of a crime specifically because of his or her race or other protected status. When this additional layer of intent is present in the commission of a crime, it is commonly referred to as a “hate crime”. The penalties for committing a hate crime or bias intimidation are usually harsher and in addition to the penalties for committing the underlying offense. The reason for the harsher penalties is that the charge of bias intimidation is generally considered a crime of one degree higher than the most serious underlying offense. For instance, let’s assume that a Caucasian man ran his car into an African American man as he crossed the street, causing serious bodily harm, and the Caucasian man did so because of his race. Because assault by auto resulting in serious bodily injury is a crime of the fourth degree, the Caucasian driver is subject to 18 months in prison and a $10,000 fine for assault by auto. When the additional charge of bias intimidation is considered, he is now facing an additional 3-5 years in prison and $15,000 fine.

The state’s new law addressing racially-motivated 911 calls and false police reports appears to work slightly differently, however, by merging bias intimidation with the underlying crime. The statute (found at N.J.S. 2C:33-3), has been amended to add:

As drastic changes to the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) result in mail delivery delays, some postal workers have chosen to speak publicly about how these changes are impacting their work environment. Given the highly-politicized news coverage of postal service changes leading up to what is expected to be a largely mail-in presidential election, postal workers who refuse to remain silent may face retaliation from their employer.

IMG_0999-300x169Last month, Frank Bollinger, a union official representing approximately 900 members of South Jersey Area Local 0526, gave an interview to NJ Advance Media in which he described the problems he saw at work and the negative impact they were having on both his union members and the general public. After the interview was published, Mr. Bollinger received a threatening letter from his employer that indicated his job might be in trouble for speaking publicly about workplace issues. Specifically, management responded to Bollinger’s interview by sending him a letter demanding his appearance at an investigative interview. The letter had a threatening tone, reading in part that the investigative interview would be Bollinger’s “Day in Court” and that he was facing “a very serious matter.” After NJ Advance Media published a second story, outing the employer’s letter to Mr. Bollinger, management at the USPS backpedaled and backed down. Although the post office management has since canceled the investigative interview, Mr. Bollinger questioned whether he could be disciplined for speaking out or if his speech was protected under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

The NLRA, however, does not apply to federal, state, or local government employees, many agricultural workers, or employees who work on interstate railroads and airlines. Congress enacted the NLRA in 1935 to protect the rights and general welfare of private sector employees, encourage collective bargaining, and curtail certain private sector labor management practices that were harming workers and the U.S. economy. It is considered an unfair labor practice for an employerto interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of their rights under the NLRA. Under the NLRA, employees have the right to organize, form labor organizations and labor unions, appoint representatives to engage in collective bargaining, and engage in other “concerted activities” for the purpose of collective bargaining or other workplace safety and fairness issues. Concerted activities are activities that bring workers together as a cohesive group to address work-related issues. Some examples of concerted activities are talking with co-workers about wages and benefits, circulating a petition to improve hours, participating in a concerted refusal to work in unsafe conditions, and joining with co-workers to talk directly to the employer, to a government agency, or to the media about problems in the workplace. An employer cannot fire, discipline, threaten or “coercively question” an employee for any of these activities. A single employee may also engage in protected concerted activity if he or she is acting on the authority of other employees, bringing group complaints to the employer’s attention, trying to induce group action, or seeking to prepare for group action. However, a private sector employee is not protected under the NLRA if he or she says or does something egregiously offensive or knowingly false, or if he or she publicly disparages the employer without any underlying labor controversy.

This month the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NJCASA) released its report, “It’s Everywhere, It’s Everything: The Report of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 2020 Survey on Misogyny & Sexual Misconduct in New Jersey Politics.” The report publishes survey results received from employees within New Jersey’s political sphere regarding their experiences of sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace. It also makes recommendations for improving workplace culture around sexual harassment and misconduct, including increased education and training, the development of transparent, predictable reporting processes, and the creation of a culture of accountability in NJ politics.

IMG_4994-300x168Survey respondents held a variety of positions within state politics, including advocates and activists, state government employees, campaign staffers, lobbyists, partisan political operatives, staffers to elected officials, those holding elected office themselves, legislature employees, and county and municipal government employees. The largest reporting groups were advocates and activists (16%), state government employees (13%), campaign staffers (13%) and partisan political operatives (13%). The vast majority of respondents were white (85%), non-immigrant (94%), heterosexual (81%), cisgender (79%), highly-educated (89%) women (78%). As the report acknowledges, this means that this particular study provides a window into the sexual harassment and misconduct experienced and witnessed by a highly privileged group, and indicates that despite holding such privilege, these respondents were often without the proper resources to prevent, report, or obtain justice in the face of harassment and misconduct in the workplace. The report stressed the importance of interpreting the results as framed and informed by one specific type of woman.

It comes as no surprise that most survey participants (57%) reported having either experienced and/or witnessed sexual harassment and misconduct during their work in NJ politics, and that women are far more often the targets of this misconduct and more likely to report it than men. By occupation, 75% of county government employees reported experiencing harassment, and 77% of campaign staffers and 76% of lobbyists reported witnessing it. When defining the specific types of harassment encountered, verbal remarks and misogynistic comments were the most frequently reported and combined make up 45% of the total. Three percent of respondents reported having been raped. State government employees reported that misogyny is “very prevalent” in their workplaces.

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.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many New Jersey employees to work in unsafe work environments.  Facing increased risk of exposure, many employees are rightfully concerned that they will become infected or infect others because of their employer’s failure to have in place proper safety measures limiting the spread of COVID-19 at the workplace. Not surprisingly, many New Jersey workers who are forced to work in unsafe working environments have voiced objections to their employers, governmental officials and others concerning the unsafe work environments. With the increased number of employee complaints, many complainants are left wondering whether they have any legal protection against their employers who have taken adverse employment action against them in retaliation for their complaints. While we indeed may be living in unprecedented times, the COVID-19 pandemic is not a defense available to employers who choose to retaliate against employees for making reasonable and good faith complaints concerning unlawful workplace issues. Luckily for New Jersey workers, the state’s strong whistle-blower laws can provide employees with legal protections should they be fired from their jobs for complaining about unsafe work environments, improper quality of patient care or other unlawful business activities.

IMG_3937-300x169The New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act is often described as being one of the most far-reaching, pro-employee, whistleblower statutes in the United States.  The purpose of the New Jersey anti-retaliation law is to protect whistleblowers from being retaliated against when they disclose, complain, object to or refuse to participate in certain actions at the workplace that he or she has a reasonable belief to be either unlawful, in violation of public policy or improper quality of patient care, should the employee be a licensed or certified health care professional.  A retaliatory action can manifest in the form of a demotion, suspension, termination or other forms of adverse action that would dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of unlawful retaliation.

Governor Murphy’s Executive Order No. 107 may also provide COVID-19 whistleblowers with additional legal support that their COVID-19 related complaints are protected under the New Jersey whistleblower law.  While Executive Order No. 107 bans many non-essential retail businesses from operating during the pandemic, it also places obligations upon essential or non-retail businesses and how they need to operate their business during the pandemic. For example, all businesses must accommodate their workforce, wherever practical, for telework or other work-from-home arrangements.  Additionally, for employees who cannot perform their job duties via telework or work-from-home, businesses should make best efforts to reduce staff on site to the minimal number necessary to ensure that essential operations can continue. Many businesses are ignoring these requirements in running their business during the pandemic.

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