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The field of employment law extends beyond claims under statutes like the Fair Labor Standards Act or the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law. Employment law includes almost any legal issue involving an employer-employee relationship or almost any similar relationship. A pair of lawsuits between a pop singer and her producer demonstrate how “employment law” can encompass a wide range of issues. No express employer-employee relationship exists in the cases, but the singer’s lawsuit alleges that the producer has made it essentially impossible for her to work. The producer responded by filing his own lawsuit, alleging breach of contract and other claims.Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 11.21.35 AM

The singer, who uses the stage name “Kesha” and previously used the name “Ke$ha,” has built a rather extensive body of work as a singer, songwriter, and performer. She released her first full-length album in 2010, but her career has been less active in recent years. She attributes that apparent slowdown in her career to a conflict with her producer, who does business under the name “Dr. Luke.”

In her complaint, Kesha states that she first signed a contract with Dr. Luke in 2005, when she was 18 years old. She alleges that he “has sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally abused” her for the past decade, “to the point where [she] nearly lost her life.” Sebert v. Gottwald, et al., 1st am. complaint at 2 (Cal. Super. Ct., L.A. Co., Jun. 8, 2015). The allegations include “sexual advances” and “forc[ing her] to take drugs and alcohol in order to take advantage of her sexually while she was intoxicated.” Id. at 7. The “abuse and control” allegedly continued after she got her “big break” in 2010. Id. at 8. She also alleges numerous acts by the producer that have hindered her career in recent years, such as by preventing her from releasing albums or touring.

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The relationship between an employer and an employee is not nearly as simple as an exchange of labor for wages. It involves a complicated set of interests that frequently come into conflict with one another. Employees often gain valuable skills and information during the course of their employment with a particular business, and any business has an interest in preventing competition. Some employers require their employees to sign an agreement restricting their ability to work for a competitor during or after their term of employment. This could be a separate agreement or a clause in an employment contract. While this sort of agreement clearly benefits an employer, employees need to be able to earn a living in their field. New Jersey courts strictly limit the enforceability of non-competition agreements, sometimes called “non-competes.”runners-305624_640

Known as a “restrictive covenant” in formal legal terms, a typical non-compete states that an employee may not accept employment from any competitor of the employer, typically within a defined geographic area and for a defined period of time. Employers may be able to obtain injunctive relief and monetary damages against a former employee who violates a non-compete. While non-competes have long appeared in employment contracts for jobs that involve high levels of education, training, or experience, they are reportedly becoming more common in a much wider range of jobs—including sandwich makers and summer camp counselors. As non-competes have become more common, so has litigation challenging their enforceability.

As of the summer of 2015, only four states have enacted statutes banning or severely limiting non-competes. See Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 16600; Haw. Rev. Stat. § 480-4(d) (as amended by H.B. 1090, eff. Jul. 1, 2015); N.D. Cent. Code § 9-08-06; 15 Okla. Stat § 15-219A. New Jersey has no statute dealing with the issue, but New Jersey courts have established a set of criteria for determining whether a non-compete is enforceable. Courts will only enforce a non-compete if, first and foremost, it limits the ban on competition to a reasonable geographic area for a reasonable time period. Community Hosp. Group, Inc. v. More, 869 A.2d 884 (N.J. 2005); Solari Industry v. Malady, 264 A.2d 53, 56 (N.J. 1970); Whitmyer Bros., Inc. v. Doyle, 274 A.2d 577 (1971).

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By Jürg Vollmer / maiak.info Reusse (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsThe digital newsroom at the cable and satellite news network Al Jazeera America (AJAM) voted on whether to unionize in late September 2015. A tally of the votes in early October showed that the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of unionizing, with 32 people voting in favor and five voting against. The journalists will become members of the News Guild of New York (NGNY), which has represented print journalists since the 1930s and has recently begun a major effort to support digital journalists who want to organize. Digital journalists at web publications like Salon, Gawker, and Vice have also recently voted to unionize. AJAM opposed the journalists’ unionization vote and has announced its intention to dispute the eligibility of some who participated in the vote.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), 29 U.S.C. § 151 et seq., protects the right of employees to organize in order to engage in collective bargaining with the management of their employers. See 29 U.S.C. § 157. The law applies to most employers in the country, defining “employer” as almost any person or organization that employs people, except for the U.S. government, state and local governments, Federal Reserve Banks, and businesses subject to the Railway Labor Act (45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq.). 29 U.S.C. § 152(2). Labor unions, when they act as employers, are also subject to the NLRA. The law created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to enforce its provisions.

AJAM, which is headquartered in Manhattan, launched in 2013 as a competitor to cable news networks like CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. On September 3, 2015, a majority of employees in the network’s digital newsroom asked the company to voluntarily recognize the NGNY as their representative for collective bargaining purposes. Employees described “a troubling lack of transparency, inconsistent management, and lack of clear redress” from their employer. After several weeks, the company reportedly declined to grant the requested recognition to the union, which led to the employees’ vote.

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By Tomwsulcer (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia CommonsA New Jersey federal lawsuit, Clem v. Case Pork Roll Co., No. 3:15-cv-06809, complaint (D.N.J., Sep. 11, 2015), alleges unlawful discrimination on the basis of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-1 et seq. The case raises two important points regarding disability discrimination. First, the alleged disability in question is obesity and certain related conditions. No court has ever found obesity, in and of itself, to be a disability covered by the ADA, but recent amendments to that law, as well as court decisions and other developments, raise the possibility that conditions related to obesity could qualify. Additionally, the plaintiff’s husband, not the plaintiff, is the one with the alleged disability, but the ADA allows family members to assert claims in certain circumstances.

The plaintiff’s statement of the case includes a number of unpleasant physical details related to her husband’s condition. She states that her husband worked as the comptroller for the defendant, a pork product manufacturing and distribution company. In 2008, the defendant hired her as a part-time administrative assistant for her husband.

According to the complaint, the plaintiff’s husband, who weighed about 420 pounds at the time, underwent gastric bypass surgery in October 2010. This resulted in multiple side effects, including “extreme gas and uncontrollable diarrhea.” Clem, complaint at 3. The symptoms grew worse, the plaintiff claims, in 2013, resulting in numerous complaints from the company’s president to her and her husband. Both the president and the owner allegedly began harassing the plaintiff about her husband’s condition. The company terminated the plaintiff’s husband at the end of February 2014, and the plaintiff resigned the same day.

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By American Newspaper (http://www.guyana.org/features/shape_guyana.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsArbitration clauses, by which the parties to a contract agree to submit disputes to an arbitrator or arbitration panel before filing suit, or in lieu of litigation entirely, are becoming increasingly common in both consumer and employment contracts. Arbitration is a form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) that has some similarities to the litigation process, but it is conducted almost entirely outside the court system. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently issued a ruling that clarifies the requirements for the validity of an arbitration clause in an employment contract, holding that the clause must state a “clear and unmistakable” waiver of an employee’s right to a jury trial. Milloul v. Knight Capital Group, et al., No. A-1953-13T2, slip op. at 15 (N.J. App., Sep. 1, 2015).

New Jersey courts, as a matter of policy, encourage litigants and prospective litigants to use arbitration and other ADR methods. The New Jersey Arbitration Act, N.J. Rev. Stat. § 2A:23B-1 et seq., sets basic guidelines for arbitration. A neutral third party, known as an arbitrator, reviews both sides’ claims and defenses, and he or she may conduct a proceeding that is similar to a trial before rendering a decision. Arbitrators are often former judges with experience in conducting trials, as well as training and certification through various private arbitration organizations. State and federal laws do not require licensing for arbitrators the way they do for attorneys and other professionals, although courts may set their own criteria.

Some arbitration clauses state that the result of an arbitration is binding on the parties. In that case, a court’s authority over the matter is limited to ratifying the arbitration decision, unless it finds evidence of fraud, bias, or misconduct during the arbitration process. See N.J. Rev. Stat. §§ 2A:23B-22, 23, 24. When an arbitration clause appears in an employment contract, much as when one appears in a consumer contract, the employee is often not in a position to negotiate the details of the clause, due to both a lack of bargaining power and a lack of understanding of what the clause means. Arbitration clauses are the subject of much criticism, partly because of this disadvantage.

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office-495808_640.jpgThe Second Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes New York City, issued a ruling in September 2015 that takes a broad view of whistleblower protections under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (“Dodd-Frank”). Berman v. Neo@Ogilvy LLC, et al, No. 14-4626, slip op. (2d Cir., Sep. 10, 2015). Dodd-Frank protects individuals who report possible securities law violations from retaliation by their employers, but its definition of a whistleblower is ambiguous. The court resolved the ambiguity in favor of the employee. The ruling conflicts with a ruling from another circuit court, see Asadi v. G.E. Energy (USA), LLC, 720 F.3d 620 (5th Cir. 2013), so the U.S. Supreme Court may have to weigh in at some point in the future.

Dodd-Frank created a “Whistleblower Program,” administered by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which provides incentives for individuals who report suspected violations of federal securities law. 15 U.S.C. § 78u-6. The law also states that an employer may not retaliate against an employee who makes a report. Id. at § 78u-6(h)(1).

Most statutes that prohibit retaliation in this manner address both internal reporting, such as to a compliance officer or human resources department, and external reporting, such as to a regulatory or law enforcement agency. Dodd-Frank, however, defines a “whistleblower” as “any individual who provides…information relating to a violation of the securities laws to the [SEC]…” Id. at § 78u-6(a)(6). Given its plain meaning, the statute leaves people who report internally unprotected. This was the issue presented to the Second Circuit in Berman.
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3886153891_a4b4a65d87_z.jpgThe National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), 29 U.S.C. § 151 et seq., protects the rights of private-sector workers to organize into unions, to engage in collective bargaining, and to take collective action when needed. The law generally provides workers with a cause of action against their employers for violations of the NLRA. Employees of companies that are franchisees of a much larger company, or that are under contract with another company, may find their rights under the NLRA limited because of how the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has interpreted the word “employer” in recent years. In August 2015, the NLRB ruled that a company and its subcontractor were “joint employers” of the subcontractor’s employees for purposes of the NLRA. Browning-Ferris Industries of Cal., Inc., et al. (“Browning-Ferris II“), 362 NLRB No. 186 (2015).

The NLRB held in its recent ruling that it had established a general standard for joint employment over 30 years ago, based on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in NLRB v. Browning-Ferris Industries of Pa., Inc. (“Browning-Ferris I“), 691 F.2d 1117 (3d Cir. 1982). The central question is whether the two companies “share or codetermine those matters governing the essential terms and conditions of employment.” Id. at 1123. Since 1982, the NLRB has “imposed additional requirements for finding joint-employer status” that, according to the NLRB, have no legal basis or justification. Browning-Ferris II at 1.

The respondents in the present case are a waste management company (WMC) and a staffing company (SC). The WMC operates a recycling facility that receives about 1,200 tons of material per day that must be sorted into waste, recyclable material, and usable commodities. It directly employs about 60 people, most of whom work outside the facility and who already have union representation. The SC, under a contract with the WMC, provides about 240 workers to work in the plant itself. The contract states that the workers are solely the employees of the SC. The union is seeking to represent these workers.
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Shelter_Island_The_Woods_the_Sound_and_the_Distance.jpgA federal lawsuit brought by a job applicant against a hotel and its owner claims unlawful discrimination on the basis of disability. Anderson v. HotelsAB, LLC, et al., No. 1:15-cv-00712, complaint (S.D.N.Y., Jan. 30, 2015). The plaintiff alleges that the hotel owner stated during her job interview that he would not hire her because she has a disabled son. Her complaint alleges a single cause of action for employment discrimination under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL), N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-101 et seq. It names the two limited liability companies (LLCs) that own and operate the hotel, as well as the individual owner of the LLCs, as defendants. In late August 2015, a judge denied a motion by the defendants to dismiss the case.

The plaintiff applied for a job as controller for the defendants, which own and operate a hotel located on Shelter Island, near the eastern end of Long Island. According to the plaintiff’s complaint, the job would involve working from the defendants’ Manhattan office from October through April, and at the hotel on Shelter Island from May through September. The plaintiff lived in Connecticut at the time she applied for the job.

After several telephone interviews, the plaintiff visited the hotel in August 2014 for an in-person interview with several hotel officers. The hotel owner arrived to meet her and allegedly began “posing extremely personal questions” about her marriage and living arrangement and repeatedly calling her a “crazy person.” Anderson, complaint at 5. When asked about her “ideal job,” the plaintiff states that she mentioned running a nursing home because of her disabled son, who lives in Maine. She alleges that the owner “abruptly ended the interview” at this point, telling her that she could not “devote adequate time to her professional responsibilities.” Id.
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Olsen_twins_hollywood_star.jpgA former intern for the company founded by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, commonly known as the Olsen Twins, has filed a putative class action against the company in a Manhattan state court. Lalani v. Dualstar Entm’t Group, LLC, No. 158205/2015, complaint (N.Y. Sup. Ct., N.Y. Co., Aug. 7, 2015). The lawsuit alleges that the company unlawfully classified workers as interns and therefore did not pay them any wages. It asserts causes of action under state minimum wage law. People employed as interns often forego wages in favor of academic credit or specific job training. Courts are beginning to enforce the right of interns to be treated as paid employees if they are not receiving an educational benefit from the job. See, e.g. Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, No. 1:11-cv-06784, mem. order (S.D.N.Y., Jun. 11, 2013) (finding that production interns on the film Black Swan were entitled to compensation).

The Olsen Twins first became famous by jointly playing the character Michelle Tanner on the ABC sitcom Full House from 1987, when they were barely one year old, until 1995. They reportedly founded Dualstar, the defendant in the present case, at age six in 1993. Since then, they have built a massive business that includes films, clothing, and other products, and that is valued at around $1 billion.

According to her complaint, the lead plaintiff worked for the defendant from May through September 2012. Her job duties included office administrative tasks and support of paid employees. She claims that she worked five days a week for approximately 50 hours each week and received no compensation for the work she performed. She also received no “academic or vocational training” through her work for the defendant. Lalani, complaint at 5.
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Drano_Lake_accessible_fishing_platform_signage.jpgThe Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. The ADA helps ensure that people with disabilities have access to public buildings, public transportation, and private businesses considered “public accommodations.” It also protects disabled workers against discrimination and requires employers to provide them with reasonable accommodations. The difficulty tends to come in the applicability of the ADA’s definition of “disabled” to a particular worker, or the reasonableness of a requested accommodation under its specific circumstances. It is worth taking a moment to review the ADA and the ways it has been interpreted and adapted over the years.

In numerous ways, the ADA has literally changed the landscape of the country. Title II of the ADA requires government buildings and public transportation to allow access by disabled individuals. This might include wheelchair ramps, elevators, or assistance for people with impaired vision or hearing. Title III establishes similar requirements for “public accommodations”–private businesses that offer products or services to the general public, such as hotels, restaurants, theaters, grocery stores, gas stations, bus depots, libraries, parks, schools, day care centers, and golf courses. 42 U.S.C. § 12181(7). Title IV requires telecommunications service providers to make services available to people with hearing and speech impairments. 47 U.S.C. § 225.

Title I of the ADA prohibits employment discrimination based on disability. It also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for disabled workers. Title V includes a prohibition on retaliation for asserting rights under any of the ADA’s provisions. Congress has added to the ADA’s protections with subsequent laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), which both became law in 2008.
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