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On October 4, 2018 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) released the preliminary report of the sexual harassment data they collected for fiscal year 2018 (ending September 30, 2018).  This report shows that the #MeToo movement has had a widespread impact on reporting of sexual harassment and related workplace abuses.

The EEOC is the federal agency of the United States charged with administering and enforcing civil right laws against workplace discrimination including claims of sexual harassment, unlawful discrimination and retaliation.  Individuals who have suffered wrongful termination or discrimination at the workplace can file a charge with the EEOC by themselves or through the assistance of a private employment lawyer.  The EEOC was formed in 1965 and maintains its headquarters in Washington, DC with offices throughout the United States, including New Jersey.

Over the course of the past year, there has been a seismic shift in the way that sexual harassment has been viewed and addressed across all aspects of our society in large part due to the #MeToo movement.  Nowhere has this change been seen more drastically than in the incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace.  In the past year there has been a reckoning across the United States, with a clear message being sent to harassers that discriminatory and harassing behavior and conduct will no longer be tolerated at the workplace, our schools or in any other circumstances.

An extensive independent investigation into the Dallas Mavericks has substantiated numerous claims of sexual harassment and other serious workplace misconduct within the organization over a span of over 20 years.  In response to the findings, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has apologized to all the women involved and promised that the organization will be better in addressing issues of sexual harassment in the future.  Mr. Cuban will also pledge $10 million to women’s groups in response to the findings of report.

Incidents of sexual harassment first became public in a February 20, 2018 Sports Illustrated article titled “Exclusive: Inside the Corrosive Workplace Culture of the Dallas Mavericks.  In the article, SI details various allegations of severe and pervasive sexual harassment within the Maverick organization. The allegations included more than a dozen current and ex-employees referring to the sexual harassment, domestic violence and other serious misconduct within the workplace as being as an “open secret.” Many of the incidents of the sexual harassment came from Team President and CEO, Terdema Ussery, who was accused of sexually harassing employees from the very beginning of his employment in 1998 when he became President and CEO.  The allegations against Mr. Ussery included him repeatedly positioning employees for sex, unwelcomed touching of employees during meetings and other incidents of sexual harassment.  Mr. Ussery left the Mavericks in 2015 to take a position with Under Armour as president for global sports.  It has been reported thecomeback.com/nba/mavericks-former-president-terdema-ussery-accused-serial-sexual-harassment.html that Mr. Ussery was accused of sexual harassment at Under Armour and resigned after two months in the position.

The Dallas Mavericks responded to the SI story by hiring prominent employment lawyers from the law firms of Lowenstein Sandler and Krutoy Law, P.C. to conduct a thorough investigation into the allegations in the article and all other any issues of serious misconduct.  According to the investigation report, the employments lawyers conducted interviews of 215 witnesses during the seven-month long investigation.  The employment lawyers reviewed 1.6 million documents and emails with the assistance of an independent forensics firm.  They also reviewed human resource files, employee handbooks, policies and training and other information on the hiring, firing, promotions salaries, salary increases and bonuses provide to employees.

The New Jersey Appellate Division has reversed a trial court’s determination that barred an employee from pursuing punitive damages in an arbitration proceeding.  While reversing the trial court’s determination concerning the issue of punitive damages, the court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit by holding that the plaintiff knowingly agreed to arbitrate her sexual harassment claims by waiving her right to a jury trial as set forth in the employment agreement. As a result, the employee will now pursue her sexual harassment claims in a private arbitration, but will be permitted to pursue her claims for punitive damages in the arbitration proceedings.

In the case of Milagros Roman v. Bergen Logistics, LLC,the employee, Ms. Roman, alleges that she experienced sexual harassment during her employment with Bergen Logistics.  Roman began her employment as a human resource generalist in 2015.  In April, 2017, Roman alleges that she was subjected to sexual harassment from her immediate supervisor and was terminated form her employment in retaliation for rebuffing the sexual advances.  Roman subsequently filed a complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey for claims sexual harassment, retaliation, hostile work environment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The employer responded by filing a motion to dismiss and to compel Roman to bring her claims in a private arbitration proceeding based upon an employment agreement that she signed in which she waived her right to a jury trial.  The employment agreement also included a provision that barred Roman from pursuing punitive damages in any action against the employer.  Specifically, the agreement read the employee and the employer agreed not to “file or maintain any lawsuit, action or legal proceeding of any nature with respect to any dispute, controversy or claim within the scope of [the] Agreement,” and that “BY SIGNING [THE] AGREEMENT [PLAINTIFF] AND THE COMPANY ARE WAIVING ANY RIGHT, STATUTORY OR OTHERWISE TO A TRIAL BY JURY.” The trial court granted the employer’s motion and dismissed Roman’s claim and also found that the arbitration agreement’s clause that waived Roman’s right to pursue punitive damages as enforceable.

The United States Court of Appeals Third Circuit has reversed a district court’s dismissal of a disability discrimination lawsuit brought by a registered nurse against her former employer. In the lawsuit captioned Aleka Ruggiero v. Mount Nittany Medical Center, the registered nurse claims that she was unlawfully terminated from her employment in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) for being terminated after refusing to get required vaccination because of her disability.

The plaintiff, Aleka Ruggiero, was employed as a registered nurse at Mount Nittany Medical Center before being terminated in July of 2015. According to the Complaint, Ms. Ruggiero suffers from severe anxiety and eosinophilic esophagitis, which limited her certain areas of life, including her ability to eat, sleep and engage in social communications. Despite her disabilities, Ms. Ruggiero was able to perform her job duties.

However, Ms. Ruggiero was required by the medical to receive a vaccination for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (the “TDAP”) vaccination as a result of her position as a nurse.  After not obtaining the vaccination prior to the deadline mandated by the hospital, Ms. Ruggiero provided a medical note from her doctor that medically exempted her from having to receive the vaccination. Mount Nittany Medical Center rejected the doctor’s note and requested further detail concerning Ms. Ruggiero’s medical inability to get the TDAP vaccination. After the treating doctor provided further information from the treating doctor, the medical center again rejected it as insufficient.  The medical center also rejected Ms. Ruggiero’s request to wear a surgical mask while at work as a different form of reasonable accommodation. After rejecting both reasonable accommodations requests, Ms. Ruggiero was eventually terminated after she missed the new imposed deadline to obtain the TDAP vaccination.

New Jersey lawmakers have introduced a bill that will prohibit an employer from requiring that victims of discrimination, retaliation and harassment to keep their claims confidential as part of a settlement. Employers routinely require that non-disclosure provisions are included as a material term of any settlement agreement in cases of sexual harassment and other employment discrimination.  Bill No. 121, if passed, will render any confidentiality provision contained in a settlement agreement as unenforceable.

Earlier this year, the federal government passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Acts (“TCJA”).  In an apparent response to the #MeToo movement, the TCJA included a provision that prohibits employers from taking a deduction for attorney fees’ and costs that are incurred in any sexual harassment or sexual abuse case if the settlement agreement includes a non-disclosure provision.  While this provision was clearly aimed at curbing the use of the non-disclosure provisions in sexual harassment lawsuits, it did not prohibit the use of non-disclosure provisions all together.  Under TCJA, an employer can still require a victim of sexual harassment or abuse to keep any settlement of his or her claim confidential if they are willing to forgo the tax deduction.

Bill No. 121 takes it much further by making any confidentiality provision in any settlement agreement that attempts to conceal discrimination, retaliation, or sexual harassment, null and void.  Under the bill, an employer must include a prominent notice that the clause is unenforceable if they choose to add it to any settlement agreement.  The bill also prohibits an employer from taking any retaliatory action against an employee who refuses to sign an employment agreement that contains any illegal non-disclosure clause.

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.