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COVID-19 RESOURCE CENTER FOR NJ EMPLOYEES

New Jersey is an “at will employment” state, meaning that employers can fire an employee for any reason, or no reason at all, provided that they do not violate the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) or other applicable laws or regulations. Private employers are subject to laws like the NJLAD and any contractual relationships they have with their workers. Public employers, including many government entities at the city, county, and state level in New Jersey, may also be bound by constitutional protections for due process and civil rights. A recent settlement between a New Jersey public school district and a former teacher illustrates how public employers may have additional obligations to their employees. The former teacher alleged that the school district scapegoated her for a controversy over the alleged censorship of a student’s yearbook photo. She claimed violations of her free speech and due process rights.

Both the U.S. and New Jersey Constitutions protect certain civil rights against infringement by the government. This may include infringement of employees’ civil rights by government employers. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right to free speech. Section 6 of the New Jersey Constitution specifically states that “[e]very person may freely speak, write and publish his sentiments on all subjects.” The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees due process and equal protection at all levels of government.

These protections would not be worth much without some method of enforcement. The New Jersey Civil Rights Act (NJCRA) allows individuals to file suit against the government for civil rights violations by government agents or employees. See N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:6-2. This law is similar to § 1983, the federal statute that allows lawsuits for deprivation of civil rights.
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Workers are often best able to negotiate with their employers for better pay, safer or improved working conditions, and other features of employment when they can do so as a group. Many employers prefer, however, that their employees not do this. Federal and New Jersey labor laws protect workers’ right to organize for various purposes, including advocacy on co-workers’ behalf. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) investigates and adjudicates alleged violations of workers’ rights under federal law. A recent investigation by the NLRB found that a major online retailer violated the rights of two workers who advocated for better working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. While it is not a formal decision by the Board, it could offer guidance to workers advocating for change at employers in New Jersey and around the country. If you have concerns regarding wage or labor practices at your place of employment, consider reaching out to a New Jersey employment lawyer to discuss your situation.

Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), found at 29 U.S.C. § 157, guarantees the right of employees to “self-organization.” They can join an existing labor union or form their own. They can use collective bargaining procedures in negotiations with their employers. Finally, they can “engage in other concerted activities” related to “collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” The term “concerted activities” can cover a broad range of acts.

Under § 8(a)(1) of the NLRA, id. at § 158(a)(1), an employer commits an “unfair labor practice” if they restrain or interfere with any activities that are protected by § 7. Section 8(a)(3) bars employers from discriminating against employees because of “membership in any labor organization.” New Jersey has even more extensive protections for employee organizing. See, e.g. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:13A-5.3, 34:13B-2.
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New Jersey employment laws bar discrimination based on disability. An employer cannot fire an employee or subject them to other adverse actions because of an injury, illness, or other condition that significantly affects their lives. State law uses a broad definition of “disability” that includes physical and mental conditions. Two lawsuits currently pending in New Jersey’s federal district court allege disability discrimination based on use of prescribed medication. One suit involves a plaintiff with a prescription for medical marijuana. The other involves an amphetamine-based medication used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The defendant in both cases is a major online retailer that operates multiple warehouses and distribution centers in New Jersey.

“Disability,” according to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), includes “any mental, psychological, or developmental disability…which prevents the typical exercise of any bodily or mental functions,” or which can be identified “by accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques.” N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(q). The statute requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees’ disabilities. Failure to do so is an unlawful practice under the NJLAD.

New Jersey passed a law in 2009 authorizing the distribution and possession of small amounts of marijuana for medical purposes with a doctor’s prescription. As originally written, the law stated that it did not require employers “to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace.” It was not clear whether this meant the literal use of marijuana while at work, or if it allowed employers to enforce policies regarding marijuana use regardless of an employee’s medical needs. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that a plaintiff could bring a disability discrimination claim under NJLAD based on lawful medical marijuana use. The New Jersey Legislature also amended the statute to remove the language about employers and accommodations.
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Employers in New Jersey use increasingly high-tech methods to monitor their employees throughout the work day. Some of these methods raise concerns about employee privacy, especially systems that collect biometric data. “Biometrics” refers to the automated use of physical characteristics to identify individuals. For example, many smartphones give users the options of unlocking their devices with fingerprint or facial recognition software. Some employers use this kind of technology to control access to worksites or track employees’ time. This means that each time an employee passes a checkpoint or enters the employer’s premises, the employer captures an image of their face, fingerprint, or other unique identifying feature. Employees have an interest in knowing how employers are using this information, and how securely they are storing it. Currently, no law in New Jersey regulates the collection, storage, and use of biometric data. A bill pending in the New Jersey Assembly would address this issue and provide a path forward for New Jersey employment lawyers and their clients.

Under New Jersey law, employers may not intrude into areas where employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Unreasonable searches of private areas in the workplace, such as an employee’s locker, may violate an employee’s legal rights. Surveillance of phone or computer use is allowed by law, as long as it is reasonably related to the employer’s business. Video monitoring of common areas is not unusual, particularly in retail or warehouse settings. Intrusive surveillance that serves no legitimate business purpose could be unlawful. In extreme cases, such as video monitoring of a restroom or changing area, it could even be criminal.

Biometric surveillance is, in one sense, an extension of video surveillance. Since it results in the collection of data that could be used to identify specific individuals, it is also analogous to the collection of Social Security numbers and other information best kept private. Few states currently have laws addressing the collection of biometric data. Illinois enacted the first such law, the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), in 2008. Other states have passed similar laws since then. BIPA remains the only law that allows private causes of action for violations.
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New Jersey employment laws ensure that employers pay minimum wage to all non-exempt employees, as well as a greater rate of pay for overtime hours. These laws only apply to “employees.” Employee misclassification happens when an employer wrongly classifies an employee as an “independent contractor.” State law has a clear definition of “employee” for the purposes of wage and hour law, which sets strict limits on employers’ ability to designate someone as an independent contractor. At the federal level, the definition is not as clear. Beginning in late 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) developed a rule defining “employee” and “independent contractor” for the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The final rule, published in January 2021, was far more favorable to employers than New Jersey’s rule. When the new presidential administration took over in late January, it postponed the effective dates of all new administrative rules. The DOL has since sought to withdraw the new rule.

The FLSA requires employers to pay their non-exempt employees a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, and to pay them at one-and-a-half times their usual rate for work that exceeds forty hours in a week. See 29 U.S.C. §§ 206(a)(1), 207(a). Exemptions include people employed in professional or executive capacities, and various other specific jobs. Id. at § 213. The statute is specific about only applying to “employees,” but it does not provide particularly clear definitions of “employ” and related terms. It defines “employ” as “to suffer or permit to work,” and “employee” as “any individual employed by an employer,” with some exceptions. Id. at §§ 203(e)(1), (g).

New Jersey law states that employers should consider their workers to be employees unless they meet all three parts of the “ABC test,” named for the definition of “employee” found in N.J. Rev. Stat. §§ 43:21-19(i)(6)(A), (B), and (C):
A. The worker, not the employer, controls the time and manner of their work;
B. The worker’s services are either not part of the employer’s “usual course of business,” or they do their work away from the employer’s regular business premises; and
C. The worker has their own “independently established” business operation.
This definition tends to favor classification as an employee. The New Jersey Supreme Court adopted it for wage and hour claims in a 2015 decision. State regulators and the New Jersey Legislature have incorporated it further into state law.

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New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed a bill into law in February 2021 that creates a legal framework for the recreational use of cannabis by adults in the state. Voters paved the way for the new law when they approved Public Question 1 by a substantial margin on Election Day in 2020. The Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance, and Marketplace Modernization Act (CREAMMA) establishes standards for licensing businesses to distribute and sell marijuana products for recreational use. It directs the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) to work out the details through regulations. Medical marijuana has been legal in New Jersey since 2009, but the law was unclear about employee protections until the state legislature amended it in 2019. CREAMMA includes explicit protections against “adverse actions” by employers based on activity that is now legal. If you feel you’ve been treated unfairly by your employer over use of cannabis, please contact a New Jersey employment discrimination lawyer today.

The Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act (CUMMA) established a system for the production, distribution, sale, and possession of small amounts of marijuana for medical use under a doctor’s supervision. Section 14 of the law stated that nothing in the law “shall be construed to require…an employer to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace.” In early 2020, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that, despite this language, a person using medical marijuana in compliance with CUMMA could assert a claim for disability discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD).

The New Jersey Legislature passed the Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act (CUMCA) in 2019, after the events that were the subject of the 2020 state supreme court ruling. CUMCA removed the language in § 14 about not requiring employers to accommodate medical cannabis use. It bars employers from discriminating against employees because they are registered medical marijuana users. It does not bar workplace drug testing, but states that employees who test positive for cannabis must have an opportunity to produce a prescription.

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The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is charged with enforcing the federal statute that governs employees’ right to organize, engage in collective bargaining, and engage in other related activities. Its General Counsel (GC) investigates alleged violations of both employees’ and employers’ rights. The members of the Board itself adjudicate complaints filed by employees, employers, and labor unions. The recent change in presidential administrations brought some changes to positions at the NLRB, including a new acting GC. At the beginning of February 2021, the acting GC issued a memorandum, GC 21-02, rescinding several memoranda from the previous administration. At least one of the rescinded memos could impact New Jersey employee claims and affect similar cases throughout the country. GC 18-04 interpreted a 2017 decision by the Board regarding complaints about employer handbook policies.

Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), codified at 29 U.S.C. § 157, protects employees’ “right to self-organization,” to form or join labor unions, to engage in collective bargaining with their employers, “and to engage in other concerted activities” directed at these rights. Under § 8(a) of the NLRA, id. at § 158(a), employers may not restrain employees from exercising their rights under the statute, nor may they discriminate or retaliate against employees who engage in protected activities or complain about alleged violations.

The 2017 decision by the NLRB mentioned earlier dealt with a “facially neutral rule” in an employee handbook that allegedly violated workers’ rights under § 7. The rule in question restricted the use of cameras on the employer’s property. This included cell phones with cameras. An administrative law judge (ALJ) ruled that the rule violated § 8(a)(1) of the NLRA, finding that “employees ‘would reasonably construe’ the rule to prohibit Section 7 activity.”

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Arbitration agreements are a common feature in many employment contracts. Under an arbitration agreement, the employee and employer agree to submit any disputes to the arbitration process, either before or in place of filing a lawsuit. Advocates for employees’ legal rights tend to view arbitration as favoring employers for a variety of reasons. While both federal and state law generally favor enforcing arbitration agreements, New Jersey courts sometimes apply extra scrutiny to make sure they are fair to employees. A decision issued by the New Jersey Supreme Court (NJSC) in the summer of 2020 offers a cautionary example of how courts may follow the strict letter of the federal and state arbitration statutes, even when it might seem unfair to the employee. The Appellate Division had ruled in 2019 that an arbitration agreement was unenforceable under the law of contracts. In a 5-1 ruling, the NJSC reversed that decision.

Both federal and state law provide that arbitration agreements are presumed to be enforceable and irrevocable, unless a party can show “a ground that exists at law or in equity for the revocation of a contract.” 9 U.S.C. § 2, N.J. Rev. Stat. § 2A:23B-6. Even if, as is often the case, an employee has no opportunity to negotiate the specific terms of an arbitration agreement, courts will likely find it to be enforceable as long as there was a “meeting of the minds,” meaning that both parties knowingly agreed to all of the contract’s provisions.

In 2003, the NJSC ruled that an employee can only waive statutory rights, such as the right to a trial in a court of law, through “an explicit, affirmative agreement that unmistakably reflects the employee’s assent.” The court further held in 2014 that an arbitration agreement “must be clear and unambiguous” about an employee’s agreement “to arbitrate disputes rather than have them resolved in a court of law.”
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Both federal and New Jersey employment laws prohibit employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of religious affiliation, beliefs, or practices. Employers must accommodate employees’ religious practices to the extent that doing so is not an “undue hardship” on their business. As with many other areas of antidiscrimination law, what exactly constitutes an “undue hardship” is a matter of ongoing dispute. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) goes into some detail about certain types of accommodations employers must make for religious observances. Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964 contains fewer details, but the U.S. Supreme Court has provided interpretation on several important points. Two petitions for certiorari currently pending before the court ask it to reconsider its own precedent regarding employers’ obligation to accommodate religious practices. The 1977 decision Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison (“TWA”) held that “requir[ing an employer] to bear more than a de minimis cost” to accommodate an employee’s religious practice “is an undue hardship.”

Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, while the NJLAD uses the term “creed.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a), N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(a). The NJLAD does not offer a specific definition of “creed.” Title VII defines “religion” as “all aspects of religious observance and practice,” up to the point that an employer cannot accommodate an employee because of “undue hardship.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j).

The Supreme Court’s ruling in TWA addresses a question specifically mentioned by the NJLAD. State law expressly states that, subject to an “undue hardship” exception, an employer cannot require an employee to stay at work on a day that they “observe[] as [their] Sabbath or other holy day.” N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(q)(2). In this context, an “undue hardship” involves:
– Excessive expense, difficulty, or interference with business operations; or
– Violation of a seniority system or collective bargaining agreement. Id. at § 10:5-12(q)(3).

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The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) establishes a national minimum wage and sets standards for overtime compensation. While New Jersey has set a higher minimum wage than the federal rate, the FLSA still plays a critical role in many New Jersey wage and hour disputes. It allows workers to file “collective actions,” which are similar in many ways to class actions. A petition for certiorari is currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court and asks the justices to address ambiguity in the FLSA’s provision on collective actions. The employer in the case filed the petition in August 2020, but both parties have asked the court to defer consideration of the petition while they engage in settlement negotiations. If they reach a settlement, the employer has indicated that it will withdraw the petition, meaning that the court will not hear the case.

The federal minimum wage has been at its current level, $7.25 per hour, since July 2010. See 29 U.S.C. § 206(a)(1)(C). The provisions regarding overtime have remained largely unchanged since Congress first enacted the statute in 1938. Employers must pay non-exempt employees at one-and-a-half times their regular rate for work time during a week that exceeds forty hours. Id. at § 207(a)(1).

Employers who violate the minimum wage or overtime provisions of the FLSA may be liable for the amount of unpaid wages, plus an equal amount as unliquidated damages. If, for example, an employer withholds $1,000 in overtime compensation from an employee, a court may order them to pay that employee $2,000 in damages. The FLSA allows an employee to file suit on their own behalf and for other “similarly situated” employees who have consented in writing to inclusion in the lawsuit. Id. at § 216(b). The statute does not define “similarly situated.”

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