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cannabisIn 2009, the New Jersey Legislature authorized the possession and use of small amounts of marijuana for medical purposes with a doctor’s prescription. Federal law, however, still classifies marijuana as a controlled substance with no recognized medical use. This has led to considerable uncertainty in the area of employment law, such as whether states that allow medical marijuana use also protect workers against discrimination based on drug use that, while legal under state law, still violates federal law. So far, no New Jersey court has found that state antidiscrimination law covers lawful medical marijuana use, but at least one such claim is currently pending in state court. The defendant in that lawsuit is arguing that the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) preempts any state laws addressing employment discrimination claims. A federal court in Connecticut recently rejected a similar argument in Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operation Company, No. 3:16-cv-01938, ruling (D. Conn., Aug. 8, 2017). While this ruling does not directly affect New Jersey courts, it could have an impact on future cases.

The New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act (NJCUMMA), N.J. Rev. Stat. § 24:6I-1 et seq., establishes procedures for medical professionals to prescribe marijuana. It also exempts qualifying medical professionals and their patients from liability under the state’s criminal and civil laws dealing with marijuana. Id. at §§ 2C:35-18, 24:6I-6. It does not specifically mention employment. A pair of bills introduced in the New Jersey Legislature, A2482 and S2161, would add specific employment protections for medical marijuana patients, but they have never received hearings.

Under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, federal law generally takes precedence over conflicting state laws. The CSA’s classification of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, 21 U.S.C. § 812(c)(I)(c)(10), has caused much confusion in this regard. Preemption by federal law is a major part of the defendant’s argument in a lawsuit filed by a medical marijuana patient alleging violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). Wild v. Carriage Services, No. L-000687-17, complaint (N.J. Super. Ct., Bergen Cty., Jan. 30, 2017). In a motion to dismiss filed in February 2017, the defendant in Wild argues that the NJCUMMA directly conflicts with the CSA. Courts have dismissed several similar lawsuits recently on procedural grounds that do not address the merits of the medical marijuana claims. See Barrett v. Robert Half Corp., No. 2:15-cv-06245, order (D.N.J., Feb. 21, 2017); Wiltshire v. Breunig, et al, No. L-000052-16, complaint (N.J. Super. Ct., Cape May Cty., Feb. 5, 2016).

volunteersNew Jersey employment laws protect workers’ rights in multiple areas, including wages and hours of work, discrimination and harassment, and retaliation for reporting suspected wrongdoing by an employer. Many of these laws apply specifically to “employees,” but no single definition of “employee” exists. Some statutes only cover paid employees, while others also apply to independent contractors, unpaid interns, or volunteers. The legal status of unpaid workers, including both interns and volunteers, has been the subject of multiple court battles. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently held that the state’s whistleblower statute, the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), does not apply to unpaid volunteers. Sauter v. Colts Neck Volunteer Fire Co. No. 2, No. A-0354-15T1, slip op. (N.J. App., Sep. 13, 2017). In light of this decision, it is worth reviewing how various employment statutes in New Jersey view unpaid volunteers and interns.

“Volunteer” Versus “Intern”

Some laws make a distinction between volunteers and interns. Generally speaking, an internship provides some form of educational benefit to the worker, possibly including course credit at an educational institution, and it may be paid or unpaid. Even when an internship is unpaid, the worker is considered to gain an educational benefit. A volunteer position, on the other hand, is usually undertaken for primarily altruistic reasons, or at least without the expectation of any specific return.

arrowsWhen lawmakers and their staffs draft proposed legislation, they must consider any and all possible interpretations of the language they use. Even then, the legislative process may alter or amend a bill in ways that affect the potential meaning of certain words or phrases. Confusion over ambiguities in some statutes is inevitable. The U.S. Supreme Court recently granted certiorari in a case that involved a dispute over the meaning of the word “whistleblower” in the anti-retaliation provisions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, or “Dodd-Frank.” The lower-court decision from the Ninth Circuit deferred to the interpretation of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which applied a broad definition of the term. This conflicts with a Fifth Circuit decision finding that Dodd-Frank’s whistleblower protection is limited to a narrow definition provided within the statute. Thus, the status of New Jersey whistleblowers remains unclear pending the Supreme Court’s resolution of the issue.

Dodd-Frank creates incentives for “whistleblowers”—employees and other insiders—to report violations and protects them from retaliation. Employers may not terminate or otherwise retaliate against whistleblowers for reporting Dodd-Frank violations to the SEC, or for “making disclosures that are required or protected” by other statutes. 15 U.S.C. § 78u-6(h)(1). Reading this provision in isolation, one might think that it applies to people who report legal violations to the SEC, other government agencies, or company management. An earlier subsection, however, defines “whistleblower” specifically as someone who reports securities law violations to the SEC. Id. at § 78u-6(a)(6). The dispute before the Supreme Court concerns whether Dodd-Frank’s anti-retaliation provision only applies to this narrow definition of “whistleblower,” or whether it uses a broader definition.

The plaintiff worked for the defendant as a Vice President. He made several reports to his superiors “regarding possible securities law violations by the company,” and he was fired shortly afterwards. Somers v. Digital Realty Trust, Inc., 850 F.3d 1045, 1047 (9th Cir. 2017). He sued for retaliation under Dodd-Frank. The district court held that he was a “whistleblower” within the meaning of the statute, even though he did not make a report to the SEC. The Ninth Circuit affirmed this ruling on several grounds.

protestersFederal and state anti-discrimination laws protect workers against discriminatory employment practices based on numerous factors. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) identifies more protected categories than the equivalent federal statute, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Several recent news stories have involved employers who terminated workers because of political views that they expressed. In one case, an employee of a tech company lost his job after posting a memorandum criticizing the company’s gender diversity efforts on a company message board. In August 2017, several companies fired employees for participating in a rally in Virginia that prominently displayed symbols associated with explicitly racist organizations. People have also had their employment threatened or terminated for views and activities on the opposite side of the political spectrum. This raises questions about how, or whether, anti-discrimination laws protect workers against adverse actions by their employers because of their political views.

The terms “political views” and “political speech” have no distinct definitions for legal purposes. They broadly refer to individuals’ opinions on matters of public concern, as well as statements they make and activities in which they participate that involve those matters. “Speech” can include more than just spoken statements in this context, such as written statements and participation in advocacy.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from punishing people based on the content of their speech, or saying things the government does not like. Private employers are not bound by this restriction. Public employees might be able to assert free-speech claims, but private employees cannot. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) prohibits private employers from taking adverse action against employees for speech or advocacy related to labor organizing. Whistleblower protection laws, like the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), protect employees who speak out about legal violations by their employers.

A person’s job can be one of the most important features of their identity. When two people meet for the first time, for example, one of the first questions asked is very often “What do you do?” One’s job serves other purposes, such as the obvious purpose of providing income to support oneself and one’s family. Finding a job is important, but losing a job can be devastating. New Jersey labor laws protect workers in many aspects of the employer/employee relationship, including limiting the ability of some employers to fire numerous employees all at once. Laws like the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act of 1988 apply to large employers that are planning a mass layoff of employees. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled on a claim brought under the WARN Act involving a company that had been sold as part of a bankruptcy case. In re AE Liquidation, Inc., No. 16-2203, slip op. (3rd Cir., Apr. 4, 2017).

After Layoff - EmptyThe WARN Act applies to businesses with at least 100 full-time employees. 29 U.S.C. § 2101(a)(1). Covered employers must provide advance notice to employees prior to a “mass layoff.” The statute defines a “mass layoff” as the termination of a large number of employees within a 30-day period that is not related to a plant closing. For the WARN Act to apply, the layoff must affect either (1) at least 50 full-time workers, who constitute at least one-third of the total full-time workforce; or (2) at least 500 full-time employees. Id. at § 2101(a)(3).

An employer must provide at least 60 days’ notice to “affected employees” before undertaking a plant closing or mass layoff. Id. at § 2102(a). Aggrieved employees may recover damages for violations that include up to 60 days of back pay. Id. at § 2104. New Jersey has a similar law that requires additional disclosures from employers and allows claims for compensatory damages. N.J. Rev. Stat. §§ 34:21-3, 34:21-6.

train whistleEmployees of private companies owe a duty of loyalty to their employers, meaning that they may not act in a way that directly damages or conflicts with an employer’s interests. Employers are often within their rights to terminate an employee who breaches this duty. At the same time, however, employees are in a unique position to bring legal violations by their employers to light. Employees who report wrongdoing by their employers are commonly known as “whistleblowers,” and laws at the state and federal levels offer them protection against retaliation, including termination. A New Jersey employment lawsuit, which was recently removed from an Essex County court to a federal court, involves discrimination and retaliation claims by a former executive. Chandler v. Honeywell Int’l, No. L-004230-17, complaint (N.J. Super. Ct., Essex Cty., Jun. 9, 2017), removed to No. 2:17-cv-06173, notice of removal (D.N.J., Aug. 16, 2017). The plaintiff alleges that the defendant hired her to address discrimination problems but actually only intended to use her “as a false shield to deflect…inquiry by third parties.” Id., complaint at 5.

The New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:19-1 et seq., protects whistleblowers from retaliation and other adverse employment actions if they report legal violations by their employers. If an employee “reasonably believes” that an action or policy of their employer violates the law, or is otherwise fraudulent or criminal, CEPA prohibits retaliation against the employee for reporting the matter to a supervisor or government official. Id. at § 34:19-3(a). The statute also protects employees who testify or otherwise cooperate in an investigation of alleged wrongdoing by the employer, as well as employees who refuse to participate in acts that they reasonably believe to be illegal or fraudulent. Retaliation against employees for reporting suspected legal violations is also prohibited by the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12; the Civil Rights Act of 1991, 42 U.S.C. § 1981; and other statutes.

The plaintiff in Chandler began working for the defendant in July 2015 as the “Vice President, Organizational Development and Learning” in the company’s “Performance Material and Technologies business.” Chandler, complaint at 2. She alleges that the defendant consistently told her that it had hired her because of “a sincere desire to remedy” a pattern of “non diverse appointment of managers to its executive ranks.” Id. at 2-3. Once she began working for the defendant, however, she alleges that the company interfered with her efforts to do her job, including by questioning her qualifications and character. The defendant terminated her employment in December 2016, according to her complaint.

silhouettesWorkers asserting a cause of action against an employer under various employment statutes must establish multiple facts before any claim may proceed. Perhaps before anything else, they must demonstrate an employment relationship between the defendant and themselves. If a claimant is an independent contractor rather than an employee, the employer may have far fewer obligations, or none at all, under employment statutes and the common law. “Misclassification” involves classifying workers who meet a legal definition of an employee as independent contractors. A recent Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision allowed a New Jersey misclassification lawsuit to proceed, specifically addressing another early roadblock for complainants:  a contractual clause purportedly mandating arbitration of all disputes. Moon v. Breathless, Inc., No. 16-3356, slip op. (3d Cir., Aug. 17, 2017).

No precise definition of “employee” exists in state or federal law. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) defines an “employee” as “any individual employed by an employer,” and “employ” as “to suffer or permit to work.” 29 U.S.C. §§ 203(e)(1), (g). Different jurisdictions have therefore developed their own definitions of “employee” and “independent contractor.” New Jersey’s definition is quite expansive, holding that an individual is an employee unless they meet a three-part test:  (1) the employer lacks control over how the individual performs their job; (2) the individual’s job either is substantially different from the employer’s usual business activities or is not performed at the employer’s regular place of business; and (3) the individual has an “independently established trade, occupation, profession or business” that includes their work for the employer. Hargrove v. Sleepy’s, LLC, 106 A.3d 449, 458 (N.J. 2015).

Many employment contracts include clauses stating that both parties agree to arbitration of any disputes, often precluding the option of going to court. The arbitration process involves submitting a dispute to an arbitrator, a private individual with specialized training in dispute resolution. The process may involve something resembling a trial, in which each side presents arguments and evidence, and the arbitrator makes a decision. Whether the arbitrator’s decision is binding on the parties depends on the terms of the arbitration clause.

flick offState and federal laws protect workers from termination based on a protected category like race or sex, known as discriminatory termination; or because of participation in protected activities like reporting legal violations, known as retaliatory discharge. A claimant must make a prima facie case of a discriminatory or retaliatory purpose in order to get past a summary judgment motion. A federal court in New Jersey recently ruled in a plaintiff’s favor on claims of discriminatory discharge under state law and retaliatory discharge under federal and New Jersey wrongful termination laws. Ferren v. Foulke Mgt. Corp., No. 1:15-cv-03721, opinion (D.N.J., Feb. 16, 2017).

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of multiple categories, including disability. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(a). Unlawful discrimination includes discharging an employee solely or primarily because of a disability. It also prohibits retaliating against an employee because of a protected activity. The federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees that qualifying employees of covered employers may take unpaid leave for certain purposes, and it prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for taking authorized leave or reporting violations of the statute. 29 U.S.C. § 2615.

The plaintiff in Ferren began working for the defendant in 2001 as a lot attendant at a car dealership. His job duties included lot maintenance and customer service. He took medical leave in October 2014 for a shoulder injury, according to the court, after informing his supervisor that he would be having surgery and was invoking his rights under the FMLA. The plaintiff was scheduled to return to work in January 2015. He reportedly provided a doctor’s note to the supervisor in December 2014, which stated that the plaintiff should not lift more than five pounds and should refrain from certain other activities. The supervisor allegedly told the plaintiff to “go home and get better.” Ferren, op. at 3. On the plaintiff’s scheduled return date, he was laid off.

forestThe Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires covered employers to provide qualifying employees with a minimum amount of unpaid leave for certain reasons. It also prohibits employers from interfering with employees’ use of authorized leave, discriminating based on the use of leave time, or retaliating against an employee for using leave. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes New Jersey employment disputes involving federal law, recently ruled on a case alleging retaliation under the FMLA. It found that the district court should have given the jury an instruction regarding the “mixed-motive” theory of liability, which shifts the burden of proof to the defendant if a plaintiff demonstrates that their “use of FMLA leave was a negative factor in the employer’s adverse employment decision.” Egan v. Del. River Port Auth., 851 F.3d 263, 267 (3rd Cir. 2017).

Employees who meet a minimum requirement for number of hours worked during the preceding 12-month period are eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the FMLA. 29 U.S.C. §§ 2611(2), 2612(a)(1). This only applies, however, if the employer has at least 50 employees. Id. at § 2611(4). Many workers do not qualify for FMLA leave because their employer is not big enough, or they have not worked for the employer long enough to become eligible. The FMLA provides numerous protections to help ensure that employees who are able to accrue leave are able to use it. This includes a prohibition on retaliating against an employee who uses or attempts to use leave to which they are entitled. Id. at § 2615(a)(1), 29 C.F.R. § 825.220(c).

Courts have identified two general theories for discrimination and retaliation claims:  pretext and mixed-motive. In a pretext claim, a plaintiff asserts that an employer’s stated reason for an adverse action is false and is merely a pretext for an unlawful motive. A mixed-motive theory alleges that an employer had “both legitimate and illegitimate reasons” for the adverse action. Egan, 851 F.3d at 268 n. 1. The plaintiff must show that the “exercise of FMLA rights was ‘a negative factor’ in the employer’s employment decision.” Id.

Musical notesFederal law prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of numerous factors. Common examples of unlawful discrimination include refusal to hire, termination, or harassment in the workplace because of a claimant’s race, sex, religion, etc. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes New Jersey employment discrimination claims under federal law, recently ruled on the question of how much harassment a plaintiff must allege to maintain a claim for workplace harassment based on race. The defendant argued that a plaintiff must allege an ongoing pattern or multiple instances of harassment. The court, citing the plain language of precedent decisions, held that a single incident of race-based harassment can be sufficient to sustain a claim. Castleberry v. STI Group, No. 16-3131, slip op. (3rd Cir., Jul. 14, 2017).

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is probably the most well-known federal statute dealing with race discrimination in employment, but it is not the only one. The plaintiffs in Castleberry brought their claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 rather than Title VII. This statute addresses equal rights “to make and enforce contracts” and engage in certain other activities. It was originally enacted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and Congress amended it in the Civil Rights Act of 1991. This law added subsection (b), which clarifies that the contractual rights it protects include employment claims like wrongful termination.

The Castleberry lawsuit alleges workplace harassment on the basis of race in the form of a hostile work environment. The Third Circuit has defined a five-part test for establishing a hostile work environment based on race:  the plaintiff experienced (1) intentional discrimination based on race (2) that was “severe or pervasive,” (3) that “detrimentally affected the plaintiff,” (4) that would have a comparable effect on “a reasonable person” in a similar situation, and (5) that occurred in a situation in which respondeat superior liability would apply. Castleberry, slip op. at 5, quoting Mandel v. M & Q Packaging Corp., 706 F.3d 157, 167 (3d Cir. 2013). The Third Circuit’s analysis in Castleberry focused on the “severe or pervasive” element.

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