What Duty Does an Employer Have to Protect Employees from Infectious Diseases?

October 24, 2014

3492450507_dc58b824fc_o.jpgConcern over infectious diseases has captured the imagination of much of the country in recent months, particularly with regard to Ebola virus disease (EVD). Only a handful of EVD cases have been reported in the U.S., and health officials and experts have repeatedly stated that the disease is unlikely to pose a serious threat to the country. Other diseases, such as influenza, pose a far greater threat in the U.S. but generally receive less media attention. Regardless, since a disease outbreak is on the nation's mind, it raises the question of what legal duties employers owe to protect their employees from infectious diseases. The answer depends largely on the type of employer.

The first case of EVD in the U.S. was diagnosed at a hospital in Dallas, Texas in September 2014. That patient has since died, and two nurses who treated him were subsequently diagnosed with EVD. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is investigating reports that health care workers treated the initial EVD patient for about three days, from September 28 to September 30, without wearing protective equipment. As many as 70 workers were exposed to the patient during that time, but only the two nurses have tested positive for the disease. EVD is not airborne and can only be transmitted through direct contact with an infected person's blood or other bodily fluids.

The actions and preparedness of the Dallas hospital, including an alleged lack of safety protocols, drew a harsh rebuke from the hospital's nurses. The incident has raised concerns about whether the hospital took adequate precautions to protect its workers from infection. Laws like the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), 29 U.S.C. § 651 et seq., require employers to provide reasonable protection against occupational diseases. This could apply to workers in health care and other fields where ordinary job duties make exposure to infectious diseases likely. See American Dental Ass'n v. Martin, 984 F.2d 823 (7th Cir. 1993).

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Court Rejects Proposed Settlement in Class Action Lawsuit Alleging Wage Fixing by Silicon Valley Employers

October 23, 2014

San_Jose_Skyline_Silicon_Valley.jpgA U.S. district judge in California rejected a proposed settlement in a class action lawsuit that accuses multiple technology companies of colluding to suppress wages, saying that "the total settlement amount falls below the range of reasonableness." In re High-Tech Employee Antitrust Litigation, No. 5:11-cv-02509, order at 6 (N.D. Cal., Aug. 8, 2014). The proposed settlement agreement with the defendants Adobe, Apple, Google, and Intel included over $300 million in damages, far short of the $9 billion in damages estimated by the defendants earlier this year. The plaintiffs originally filed suit in California state court for alleged violations of state antitrust law. After the defendants removed the case to federal court, they amended the complaint to add a cause of action under the federal Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1 et seq.

The plaintiffs are employees of major technology companies, including the four parties to the proposed settlement as well as Intuit, Lucasfilm, and Pixar. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) began investigating many of these companies in 2009, based on allegations that they had entered into agreements with each other not to recruit or hire each other's employees. The purpose of these schemes was to avoid competition for employees and thereby keep salaries low. As the Wall Street Journal noted at the time, hiring a competitor's employees, sometimes known as "poaching," is common in the technology industry. In 2010, the DOJ settled its claims against many of the companies named in the current lawsuit, but the settlement did not include compensation or damages for employees affected by the schemes.

Five software engineers filed suit against the defendants in Alameda County Superior Court in May 2011. The defendants removed the case to federal court several weeks later, and in September 2011 the plaintiffs amended the complaint to include federal antitrust claims. The lawsuit alleged a class of salaried employees who worked for the defendants during the time period from 2005 through 2009, but not retail employees or corporate officers or directors.

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EEOC Targets Auto Supply Chain in Race and Disability Discrimination Claims

October 16, 2014

Auto_Parts_Store.jpgA pair of lawsuits brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against a company that operates a nationwide chain of auto supply stores alleges race and disability discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. One case involves the transfer of an employee from one store to another as part of an alleged effort to reduce the number of black employees at the first store. The other case alleges failure to provide reasonable accommodations for two employees with disabilities, and the termination of one of them after making a complaint.

The complainant in the race discrimination case worked at a retail location in southwest Chicago. The employer "involuntarily transferred" him to a store location on the far south side of the city, allegedly "as part of an effort to eliminate or limit the number of black employees" at the southwest Chicago store. EEOC v. AutoZone, Inc. ("AutoZone I"), No. 1:14-cv-05579, complaint at 3 (N.D. Ill., Jul. 22, 2014). The company allegedly believed that the southwest Chicago store's customers "preferred to be served by non-black, Hispanic employees." Id. The complainant objected to the transfer to the south Chicago store and ultimately refused to agree to it. At that point, the defendant terminated his employment.

The EEOC alleges that the defendant's actions "deprive or tend to deprive [the complainant] and other black individuals of employment opportunities because of their race." Id. at 3-4. The lawsuit asserts a cause of action for race discrimination, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(2). It seeks a permanent injunction against further employment practices that discriminate based on race, new policies and training programs geared towards alleviating past and preventing future race discrimination, and monetary damages paid to the complainant.

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Adjunct Professors Face Challenges in Trying to Unionize

October 9, 2014

1382196361.pngAdjunct professors, generally defined as non-tenure-track and part-time, are becoming increasingly common at two- and four-year colleges and universities around the country. As their numbers grow, however, they are struggling with a lack of job security, low pay, and few benefits. Some of them are successfully demanding better treatment, and several unions are offering their support and assistance. They face some difficult legal obstacles, however, including Supreme Court precedent that limits the applicability of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and claims by some schools that more recent Supreme Court decisions allow them to prevent their adjunct professors from holding union elections.

An article published by Al-Jazeera America in July 2014 describes the experiences of several adjunct professors and describes how faculty employment has changed in recent years. Approximately 30 percent of the 1.8 million faculty members employed by U.S. colleges and universities hold tenure-track positions, meaning that their position offers them the possibility of promotion to "full" professor with a very high degree of job security. Only 24 percent of faculty members actually have tenure, a decrease from about 45 percent in the 1970s.

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Question of Whether EEOC Must Make a Good Faith Effort to Conciliate Will Go to Supreme Court

October 3, 2014

Mediation_HKEMC_Venue_003.jpgTitle VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employees to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC must make an effort to resolve the dispute with the employer before it may file suit on behalf of the complainant, or authorize the complainant to do so directly. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(b), (f). Federal circuit courts of appeals have reached different decisions regarding whether a defendant may raise "failure to conciliate" as an affirmative defense. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to a case that rejected an employer's attempt to assert this defense, and it will hear the matter during the October 2014 session. EEOC v. Mach Mining, LLC (Mach I), No. 11-cv-879, mem. order (S.D. Ill., Jan. 28, 2013); rev'd EEOC v. Mach Mining, LLC (Mach II), 738 F.3d 171 (7th Cir. 2013); cert. granted Mach Mining v. LLC (Mach III), No. 13-1019 (Sup. Ct., Jun. 30, 2014).

The EEOC filed suit for alleged sex discrimination against Mach Mining, on behalf of the complainant and a class of female job applicants. The lawsuit alleged that the company "had never hired a single female for a mining-related position" and "did not even have a women's bathroom on its mining premises." Mach I, mem. order at 1. It further claimed that the company's policy of hiring new employees based on referrals from current employees caused a disparate impact on women in violation of Title VII. The EEOC filed a motion for summary judgment on the defendant's affirmative defense, which claimed that the EEOC had failed to make a good-faith effort at conciliation before filing suit.

The district court noted that several federal circuit courts of appeal had ruled that Title VII allows appellate courts to review the EEOC's efforts at conciliation. The usual remedy for failure to conciliate would be to stay the proceedings for further conciliation. The Seventh Circuit had not considered the issue at that time. New York courts are bound by cases like EEOC v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 650 F.2d 14, 18-19 (2nd Cir. 1981). The Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes New Jersey, has not ruled on the issue.

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U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Former Public Employee's Favor in Whistleblower Retaliation Case

September 30, 2014

Metal_whistle_Two_Short_Whistling.svg.pngA community college violated a program director's First Amendment rights, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, when it fired him after he testified during an investigation of corruption in the program. Lane v. Franks, et al, 573 U.S. ___, No. 13-483, slip op. (Jun. 19, 2014). The court held that the plaintiff did not give up his rights under the First Amendment when he accepted public employment. It remanded the plaintiff's case against the community college to the trial court for further proceedings, but it affirmed the lower courts' findings that the college president, named as an individual defendant, had limited immunity for acts performed in an official capacity. Despite this, the case is an important victory for whistleblowers in the government.

The plaintiff, Edward Lane, was hired in 2006 as the Director of Community Intensive Training for Youth (CITY), a statewide program run through Central Alabama Community College (CACC) to assist underprivileged youth. CITY was facing serious financial problems at the time, according to the court's opinion, which prompted Lane to audit the program's expenses. He discovered about $177,000 paid to Democrat state representative Sue Schmitz between February 2003 and October 2006, with little record of any actual work done by her. When Schmitz reportedly refused Lane's demand to show up for work at CITY's office in Huntsville, Lane fired her. This allegedly drew threats of retaliation from Schmidt and the attention of the FBI.

In November 2006, Lane testified to a federal grand jury, which later indicted Schmidt on multiple counts of mail fraud and theft. Lane testified under subpoena at her trial in August 2008. When the jury failed to reach a verdict, prosecutors tried Schmidt again, and Lane testified again. Schmidt was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison. In January 2009, CACC President Steve Franks terminated 29 probationary CITY employees, including Lane, citing budget shortfalls. He then rescinded all but two of those terminations. Lane was one of the two who were not reinstated.

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EEOC Alleges in Religious Discrimination Lawsuit that Employer Required Employees to Participate in Religious Activities

September 24, 2014

Parthenon_from_south.jpgA Long Island company unlawfully discriminated against its employees on the basis of religion, according to a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). EEOC v. United Health Programs of America, et al, No. 1:14-cv-03673, complaint (E.D.N.Y., Jun. 11, 2014). The employer allegedly required employees to participate in religious activities that were not related to their employment duties, and terminated those who refused to fully participate. The EEOC is claiming violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. The case raises important questions of what constitutes "religious practices" under Title VII.

A family member of the defendant's owner created a "belief system" called "Onionhead." United Health, complaint at 3. UHP employees are allegedly expected to participate in daily activities related to Onionhead, such as "praying, reading spiritual texts, [and] discussing personal matters with colleagues and management." Id. The defendant's owner's aunt, identified in the EEOC's complaint as "Denali," led the Onionhead activities and made monthly visits to the workplace, at which time employees were allegedly required to meet with her individually and participate in group sessions.

Numerous employees did not want to participate in Onionhead activities and "experienced these practices as both religious and mandatory." Id. at 4. Two employees identified in the EEOC's complaint, both of whom worked as managers, objected to the Onionhead activities in 2010. They were both allegedly moved from offices to "the open area on the customer service floor," id. at 5, and their responsibilities were changed from managerial duties to answering phones. The defendants terminated both employees within days.

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Court Rules that Restaurant Franchise Must Pay Employees in Money, Not Pizza

September 18, 2014

Blondie's_pepperoni_pizza_slice.JPGA court has fined a pizza restaurant franchise in Australia, and its owner, a total of $334,000 in Australian dollars (AUD), which is approximately $310,653 in the United States (USD), after finding that the restaurant had underpaid its employees hundreds of thousands of dollars. This amount is in addition to unpaid wages, for a total judgment of about $600,000 AUD. The mostly-teenage workforce received free or discounted pizza, sometimes instead of actual pay. The Fair Work Commission (FWC) brought claims against the franchise owner for violations of the country's wage and hour laws, resulting in the rulings from the Federal Circuit Court of Australia. Fair Work Ombudsman v. Bound for Glory Enterprises, et al, [2014] FCCA 432 (Jun. 6, 2014); Fair Work Ombudsman v. Zillion Zenith Int'l Pty Ltd, et al, [2014] FCCA 433 (Jun. 6, 2014).

The franchise owner, Ruby Chand, operates two La Porchetta franchises in Melbourne, in the state of Victoria, Australia. He operates the restaurants through two companies, Bound for Glory Enterprises (BFG) and Zillion Zenith International (ZZI). At least one employee filed a complaint about underpayment of wages. This resulted in an investigation by the FWC, which performs roles in the Australian federal government similar to those of the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the National Labor Relations Board.

The FWC's investigation reportedly found that Chand and the two companies had underpaid 111 employees during a period from July 2009 to February 2012. Employees would often get free or "half-priced" food and beverages in exchange for a lower hourly rate, a finding that Chand apparently did not dispute. During this time, the FWC also found that Chand claimed government subsidies of about $45,000 AUD, ostensibly for hiring new employees.

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Hundreds of Cities Enact Ordinances Prohibiting Sexual Orientation Employment Discrimination When States Fail to Take Action

September 16, 2014

3711612611_74ed7eaa1d_z.jpgAbout half of all U.S. states, including New Jersey, and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation prohibiting employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation. In many states, these laws also protect gender identity and expression. Federal law still does not provide explicit protection in these areas. City and county governments have stepped up in many of the states that lack statewide protection. Some city ordinances only apply to public employment, and some only cover sexual orientation. Many, however, apply to both public and private employment and cover gender identity as well as sexual orientation.

A rather dramatic fight over the issue occurred recently in Pocatello, Idaho, where voters narrowly defeated a proposal to repeal an ordinance that the voters passed last year. The ordinance went on to survive a court challenge and a recount.

At least eight cities in Idaho have enacted non-discrimination ordinances that include both sexual orientation and gender identity in both public and private employment. The Human Rights Campaign lists five: Boise, Coeur d'Alene, Ketchum, Moscow, and Sandpoint. Idaho Falls passed a non-discrimination ordinance in September 2013, and Victor, a small town near the Wyoming state line, enacted one in June 2014. Pocatello's ordinance, described in more detail below, passed two public votes in the space of one year. At least two Idaho cities, Meridian and Nampa, prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in public employment only. Lewiston and Twin Falls limit protection to discrimination based on sexual orientation in public employment.

Voters in Pocatello, a town of just over 50,000 in the southeast part of the state, passed the ordinance by a popular vote in June 2013. It amended the municipal code to include sexual orientation and gender identity in the list of protected classes, finding that "discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression must be addressed, and appropriate legislation enacted." Pocatello City Code § 9.36.010(A).

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Former Sales Executive Obtains $11.6 Million Verdict in Wrongful Termination Lawsuit

September 12, 2014

teamwork-294584_640.pngA former sales executive obtained a substantial verdict in May 2014 in a lawsuit against Microsoft, which accused the software company and a consultant of employment discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliation, and defamation. Mercieca v. Rummel, et al, No. D-1-GN-11-001030, third am. pet. (Tex. Dist. Ct., Travis Co., Apr. 12, 2013). He alleged a conspiracy to make false allegations of sexual harassment against him, which resulted in a hostile work environment and discriminatory treatment. The company then retaliated against him, eventually constructively terminating him, after he formally complained about the hostile work environment.

The plaintiff worked for Microsoft for 17 years in offices around the world. At the time of the events described in the lawsuit, he was a Senior Sales Executive in the company's Austin, Texas office. He claimed that he had an excellent reputation within the company and had received multiple awards for sales performance, customer service, and service to the company.

In the fall of 2007, Lori Aulds was named Regional Sales Director, which made her the plaintiff's direct supervisor. The two of them, according to the plaintiff, had a sexual relationship that ended several years prior to her promotion. She allegedly remarked about her current relationships to the plaintiff and tried to get him involved in disputes with her new significant other, despite his insistence that it made him uncomfortable.

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Workers in Wage-Theft Lawsuit Obtain $21 Million Settlement from Walmart Service Contractor

September 11, 2014

Modern_warehouse_with_pallet_rack_storage_system.jpgA group of workers in several warehouses owned by Walmart recently settled a lawsuit against the company that operates the warehouses under a contract with the retailer. The settlement includes $21 million in back pay, interest, and penalties, and that amount will reportedly be the sole responsibility of the contractor. The plaintiffs initially sued the contractor and several affiliated companies for alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., and California labor statutes. The court granted their motion to amend their complaint to include Walmart itself under the theory that the contractors and it were joint employers of the plaintiffs. Carrillo, et al v. Schneider Logistics, Inc., et al, No. 2:11-cv-08557, third am. complaint (C.D. Cal., Jan. 11, 2013).

The plaintiffs worked in warehouses owned by Walmart in Eastvale, California at various times between approximately January 2003 and February 2012, according to their most recent complaint. Schneider Logistics, Inc. and several other businesses had contracts with Walmart to provide warehousing, trucking, and other services at the warehouses. The plaintiffs were employees of one or more of the contractors, in the sense that they received paychecks and other features of employment from one or more of those companies.

The allegations against the defendants included dangerous working conditions, minimum wage violations, and failure to pay overtime. The plaintiffs further alleged that the defendants failed to keep accurate payroll records, and even falsified records, in an effort to conceal wage violations and unlawfully withhold earnings from workers. In October 2011, the initial group of plaintiffs filed the lawsuit on behalf of themselves and more than 200 other workers who consented to suit under the FLSA. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).

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City Ordinances Limit Employers' Ability to Refuse to Hire Applicants Based on Criminal History

September 10, 2014

checkbox_checked.pngAs many as one in four Americans has a criminal record that could turn up during a job search. Lack of employment opportunities is a substantial factor in the difficulty people with criminal history face, including an estimated recidivism rate of 70 percent. We, as a society, are nowhere near consensus on whether the primary purpose of our criminal justice system is punishment or rehabilitation. What seems clear, however, is that barriers preventing people with criminal records from getting jobs, particularly when an applicant's criminal record has no rational relationship to the job in question, make reentry into society all the more difficult. Cities and states around the country, including two New Jersey cities, have enacted laws limiting when employers may ask about or consider criminal history.

The "Ban the Box" campaign promotes laws that prohibit employers from asking about criminal history during the initial phase of the job application process. The campaign's name refers to the checkbox for criminal history found on many job applications. Federal anti-discrimination law does not expressly prohibit discrimination based on criminal history, and consideration of prior convictions might be necessary for certain jobs. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has held, however, that use of criminal history in employment decisions may violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in other ways, such as if it results in disparate treatment of employees or job applicants based on race or other protected categories.

The first statewide law prohibiting employment discrimination based on criminal history was adopted in Hawaii. An employer may ask about criminal history if it "bears a rational relationship to the duties and responsibilities of the position," but only after extending a "conditional offer of employment." HI Rev. Stat. § 378-2.5. As of May 2014, 11 more states have enacted similar laws. At least 66 local jurisdictions have also enacted ban-the-box ordinances, including New Jersey's own Newark and Atlantic City.

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Department of Labor Data Identify Employers with Most Wage Law Violations, Demonstrate Difficulties of Enforcement in "Fissured Workplaces"

September 9, 2014

Subway_restaurant_Pittsfield_Township_Michigan.JPGFast food franchises top the list of wage and hour violators for the past thirteen years, according to a CNN analysis of data obtained from the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the federal Department of Labor (DOL). CNN identified Subway, McDonald's, and Dunkin' Donuts as the franchises with the most investigations, violations, and fines from 2000 to 2013. All three of these companies are franchises with thousands of locations around the country, meaning that the parent companies are not responsible for employment matters at many individual restaurants. Franchisees, independent businesses that operate one or more restaurants under a franchise agreement with a parent company, are usually the ones held liable for wage violations. The system of allowing hundreds or thousands of small businesses to operate individual franchises is part of what is sometimes called the "fissured workplace," which makes widespread enforcement of minimum wage and other employment laws difficult.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., requires payment of a minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour, to employees. States and cities may set the minimum wage at a higher rate. Employers must pay hourly workers time-and-a-half for overtime, generally defined as more than forty hours in a week. Common violations include requiring additional, unpaid work from employees, such as time spent changing into or out of work uniforms or equipment. When added to paid hours, this additional time may reduce an employee's effective hourly rate below minimum wage. The WHD investigates alleged violations of these wage laws, and employees may bring lawsuits to recover back pay and other damages.

Subway has more than 26,000 locations in the U.S., the most of any fast food franchise. CNN's analysis of the WHD data found more than 1,100 investigations of Subway franchisees from 2000 to 2013, which identified about 17,000 violations of the FLSA and resulted in employee reimbursements of over $3.8 million. Common violations included requiring deduction of a thirty-minute lunch break, regardless of whether the employee took a break, and refusing to pay employees for required closing procedures.

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Current and Former NFL Cheerleaders Sue Teams for Wage Violations

September 9, 2014

Service_members_unfurl_flag_at_NY_Jets_first_home_game_at_new_Meadowlands_Stadium.jpgFormer cheerleaders for the National Football League (NFL) have filed multiple lawsuits in New Jersey, New York, California, Ohio, and Florida for alleged violations of state and federal wage laws. Allegations include unpaid work, misclassification as independent contractors, and minimum wage violations. A report by Amanda Hess in Slate notes that cheerleading for professional football began as a volunteer activity, at a time when no one made much money from the sport. While players and coaches have significantly increased their income, cheerleaders are still paid almost as though they were volunteers.

A former Oakland Raiders cheerleader, who goes by Lacy T. in her complaint, filed the first lawsuit, Lacy T. v. The Oakland Raiders, et al, No. RG14710815, complaint (Cal. Super. Ct., Alameda Co., Jan. 22, 2014). She worked as a "Raiderette" during the 2013-14 football season and allegedly received $125 per game no matter how many hours she worked. She also claimed that cheerleaders do not receive any pay until the end of the Raiders' season in January. Her lawsuit identified a class of cheerleaders employed as Raiderettes from January 22, 2010 to the present, and asserted causes of action for violations of minimum wage, overtime, and other provisions of the California Labor Code.

The U.S. Department of Labor found in March that the team is a "seasonal" employer, and therefore is exempt from federal minimum wage laws. California labor law, however, does not have this exemption. A second lawsuit against the team, Caitlin Y., et al v. The National Football League, et al, No. RG14727746, complaint (Cal. Super. Ct., Alameda Co., Jun. 4, 2014), makes similar wage-related allegations, but also claims sexual harassment and other unlawful practices.

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Wrongful Termination May Expose Employers to Defamation Claims

July 22, 2014

Censored_section_of_Green_Illusions_by_Ozzie_Zehner.jpgFederal, state, and local employment statutes prohibit employers from discriminating based on certain protected categories, such as race, sex, or religion. In some situations, an employer may want to fire an employee, but lacks a non-discriminatory basis for doing so. If that employer makes a false statement regarding the employee as a pretext or justification for termination, the employer could be liable for defamation if the statement was made to the public. Defamation law allows an individual to recover damages for false statements, made with knowledge of their falsity, that cause actual harm.

In both New Jersey and New York, the elements of a defamation claim are (1) a false statement, (2) unprivileged or unauthorized publication to a third party, (3) negligence with regard to the statement's falsity, and (4) actual harm to the subject of the statement. Lee v. Bankers Trust Co., 166 F.3d 540, 546 (2d. Cir. 1999); Dillon v. City of New York, 261 A.2d 34, 38 (NY App. 1999). "Publication" may include written publication, known as libel, or a verbal statement to one or more people other than the subject, known as slander.

New Jersey, along with many other states, follows the "single publication" rule, meaning that a cause of action for defamation begins to accrue when the statement is first published. Barres v. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 74 N.J. 461, 462-63 (1977). This rule generally applies to statements published on the internet. Churchill v. New Jersey, 876 A.2d 311, 319 (NJ App. 2005).

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