Articles Posted in Civil Rights

Employment in New Jersey is considered to be “at will,” meaning that an employer can terminate an employee for any reason, or no reason at all, as long as they do not violate any employment statutes or contractual provisions. Some government employees have an additional layer of protection under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, or the Fifth Amendment in the case of federal government employees. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes New Jersey, ruled on a Due Process claim against Passaic County and several county officials in early May 2019. The ruling, along with several earlier Third Circuit decisions, offer some ideas about how a civil service employee could assert a constitutional claim based on deprivation of a property interest.

The Due Process Clauses of the Fifth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment prohibit the government, its agencies, and its officials from depriving people “of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” An employee must establish that they have a property interest in some aspect of their employment, and that their employer wrongfully deprived them of it. A 1972 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, Bd. of Regents v. Roth, found that establishing a property interest requires “a legitimate claim of entitlement,” rather than merely “a unilateral expectation.”

The Third Circuit cited Roth in a 2006 decision holding that, in an at-will employment state, a person’s job is not inherently a property interest protected by the Constitution. The court ruled that the question of entitlement to a benefit, including retaining one’s job, is a matter of state law. Since the case originated in an at-will employment state, the plaintiff did not have a protected property interest in their job. The court also found that an employee could still demonstrate the deprivation of a constitutionally-protected liberty interest, based on the manner in which their employer terminated them or took some other adverse action. That particular case involved a claim of defamation against the employer. The court left open the possibility that various claims in tort or other law could support a Due Process claim.
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A new law protecting New Jersey public sector unions, which was signed into law by Governor Phil Murphy in May 2018, faces a legal challenge based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision one month later. The law, entitled the Workplace Democracy Enhancement Act (WDEA), establishes standards for interactions between public-sector unions and government employers, and addresses several controversial issues. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, 585 U.S. ___ (2018), however, could represent a significant reduction in the power of public-sector unions. A lawsuit filed by several union members against their union and various state government officials argues that Janus invalidates certain provisions of the WDEA. Thulen, et al v. AFSCME, et al, No. 1:18-cv-14584, complaint (D.N.J., Oct. 3, 2018). The lawsuit is among the first to test how Janus will impact New Jersey employees’ rights.

Federal and state laws protect workers’ rights to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining, and either to form a union or to join an existing union that can negotiate with management on their behalf. The WDEA declares that any public sector union chosen as “the exclusive representatives of employees in a collective negotiations unit” must “hav[e] access to and be[] able to communicate with the employees it represents.” P.L. 2018, c. 15 § 2 (N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:13A-5.12). The law requires public employers to allow union representatives to have reasonable access to employees, and to provide certain employee information to the union within a specified time frame.

Public-sector union members may authorize their employer to deduct union membership dues from their paychecks. The WDEA provision at issue in Thulen involves a restriction on employees’ ability to withdraw authorization for this payroll deduction. An employee may only withdraw authorization by giving written notice to the employer “during the 10 days following each anniversary date of their employment.” Id. at § 6, amending N.J. Rev. Stat. § 52:14-15.9e.

The U.S. Constitution limits the government’s ability to infringe on a range of rights, including the First Amendment right to free speech. In the context of New Jersey employment matters, this usually places far more limits on public employers than private employers. As a general rule, a private employer does not infringe on an employee’s freedom of speech if they discipline or fire that employee because of statements they have made. Since public employers are part of the government, they have less leeway with regard to employee speech. A lawsuit filed earlier this year, however, alleges that a private employer violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights by firing her because of her speech. Briskman v. Akima, LLC, No. 2018-5335, complaint (Va. Cir. Ct., Fairfax Cty., Apr. 4, 2018). The plaintiff claims that the defendant fired her “out of fear of unlawful retaliation by the government for constitutionally protected speech,” id. at 8, and that this makes her termination a violation of her First Amendment rights.

Caselaw has largely established broad protections for the free speech rights of public employees with regard to their employment. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, a public employee who speaks out about “issues of public importance” cannot be subject to termination by their employer, unless their statements were “knowingly or recklessly” false. Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563, 574 (1968). This does not apply, however, when the employee is speaking in their official capacity as a government employee. Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006).

Private employers have fewer restrictions with regard to disciplining employees, including terminating them, for statements they have made. This often applies even when the statement or statements at issue involved matters of public concern that were unrelated to the employee’s position with the employer. Some exceptions apply, such as when the speech involves activities protected by the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 157, or when a state or local anti-discrimination law includes protections for “political activities,” N.Y. Lab. L. § 201-D. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that termination for an employee’s political activities, or their refusal to participate in political activities, could violate public policy. Novosel v. Nationwide Ins. Co., 721 F. 2d 894 (3rd Cir. 1983).

In New York City and New Jersey, employment laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race and multiple other factors. Race discrimination in employment remains a serious problem all over the country, despite advances in the past 50 years. Some organizations, which were once quite open about their willingness to discriminate on the basis of race, still retain elements of that culture to this day. A putative class action filed late last year in a Manhattan federal court alleges that the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) has a long history of discrimination against African American employees and job applicants. Richardson, et al. v. City of New York, No. 1:17-cv-09447, complaint (S.D.N.Y., Dec. 1, 2017).

The New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) prohibits employers from discriminating against employees and job applicants “because of the actual or perceived…race…of any person.” N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-107(1)(a). This provision is similar to those found in federal law and in state laws all over the country, including New Jersey race discrimination laws. The federal Civil Rights Act of 1991 protects the right to “make and enforce contracts” on equal terms, regardless of race, which includes employment contracts. 42 U.S.C. § 1981. A government employer, such as a city, state, or federal agency, that engages in employment discrimination on the basis of race may also be liable for civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The Richardson complaint describes a history of race discrimination in the FDNY, claiming that only “token integration” started in the 1960s. Richardson, complaint at 1. It notes two prior class actions alleging race discrimination against the FDNY in the hiring of firefighters. The first involved discrimination against African American and Hispanic firefighter applicants. Vulcan Society of New York City Fire Dep’t, Inc. v. Civil Serv. Comm’n, 490 F.2d 387 (2d Cir. 1973). The injunction issued by the court expired in 1977, and the city allegedly resumed discriminatory hiring practices for firefighters. The U.S. Department of Justice eventually filed suit, resulting in a ruling “that the FDNY’s hiring procedures discriminate against black applicants.” United States v. City of New York, 683 F.Supp.2d 225, 250-51 (E.D.N.Y 2010).

Federal 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.

The typical employer/employee relationship includes an expectation that an employee will, at a bare minimum, not actively undermine their employer’s business. Employers may have legal recourse, for example, against employees who misappropriate trade secrets or other proprietary or sensitive information. In some situations, however, the law encourages going public with information about a company’s activities, such as when the company is engaging in illegal activities. Employees who report unlawful activities by their employers are commonly known as “whistleblowers.” Federal and state laws protect whistleblowers against employer retaliation when they report alleged fraud involving government programs. A pharmaceutical company recently agreed to settle a lawsuit filed in a New Jersey federal court, alleging fraud against Medicare and Medicaid. U.S., et al. ex rel Corsi, et al. v. Omnicare, Inc., No. 1:14-cv-01136, complaint (D.N.J., Feb. 21, 2014). The whistleblowers will share a portion of the settlement, in addition to receiving damages for unlawful retaliation.

The federal False Claims Act (FCA) imposes civil liability for false claims submitted to the government, with damages of $5,000 to $10,000 for each violation. 31 U.S.C. § 3729. Most states have comparable laws for fraud against state programs. See, e.g., N.J. Rev. Stat. § 2A:32C-1 et seq. The FCA allows employees to recover damages for “retaliatory actions” by employers in response to protected whistleblowing activities. 31 U.S.C. § 3730(h).

The FCA also allows whistleblowers to file suit on behalf of the government against their employer for the actual alleged fraud. This means that the whistleblowers can claim a portion of the damages for the fraud claims, as well as their own claims for damages. This type of lawsuit is known as a “qui tam suit,” and the individual or individuals filing it are known as “relators.” Once a relator has filed suit under the FCA, the government has the option of intervening in the case.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to three consolidated cases addressing the enforceability of class action and collective action waivers in employment arbitration agreements. Many employment agreements include provisions stating that both employees and employers will submit any employment-related dispute to a neutral arbitrator. A waiver bars employees from filing or joining a class action related to their employment. The Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), 9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq., appears to authorize this type of provision, but a waiver might violate the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 151 et seq. The Supreme Court has recently upheld class action waivers in consumer contracts, and it may have agreed to hear this case in order to resolve any uncertainty resulting from those rulings.

In a class action, a plaintiff or group of plaintiffs sues on behalf of a larger group of similarly situated persons. This allows people who lack the resources to file suit, or whose individual claims are too small to justify the expense of suing, to pool their claims into a single lawsuit. Federal law establishes four criteria for certifying a class:  (1) the class must be numerous enough to make individual lawsuits, or individual joinder of plaintiffs, impractical; (2) the class members must have common legal or factual questions; (3) the claims of the lead plaintiffs must be typical of the other class members; and (4) the lead plaintiffs must be able to “fairly and adequately” represent the class members and their interests. Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a).

Arbitration is a method of alternative dispute resolution. Instead of filing suit, the parties submit their dispute to one or more arbitrators, who are usually legal professionals with knowledge of the subject matter at issue. The arbitrator will conduct a hearing, which might resemble a trial in many ways, and recommend an outcome. Employment contracts may require binding or non-binding arbitration. The results of binding arbitration are not subject to review by a court, absent evidence of misconduct by the arbitrator. A common criticism of arbitration is that the process tends to favor whomever is paying the arbitrator’s fees.

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Controversies over vaccinations can intersect with employment law when employers require them for their employees. Anti-discrimination statutes like the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) may offer some protection for employees who decline employer-mandated vaccinations for certain reasons. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently considered whether a plaintiff could claim religious discrimination under the NJLAD based on an employer policy that allowed medical and religious exemptions for the annual flu shot but not secular exemptions. Brown v. Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Ctr., No. A-4594-14T2, slip op. (N.J. App., Oct. 3, 2016). While the court did not accept the claim, it left the door open and offered useful guidance for how NJLAD religious discrimination claims might work in this type of situation.

Some people cannot get vaccinations for medical reasons, such as allergies or immune system disorders, while others decline vaccinations for religious reasons. Still others may have objections to a vaccination requirement that are neither religious nor medical. The NJLAD prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of numerous factors, including “creed.” N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(a). Religious discrimination claims under the NJLAD are possible for disparate treatment related to religious beliefs, but it remains unclear how this might apply to flu shot refusals.

In 2014, the Appellate Division found that an employment policy that only allowed religious exemptions to a flu shot requirement violated the First Amendment. Valent v. Bd. of Review, Dept. of Labor, 91 A.3d 644 (N.J. App. 2014). While the case dealt with an adverse employment action, the decision did not specifically cite the NJLAD. The plaintiff worked in a hospital that allowed religious exemptions to the flu shot requirement, provided the employee wore a surgical mask when interacting with patients. The plaintiff offered to do the same, but the hospital declined her request for an exemption because her objection to the flu shot was not based on a religious belief. It then fired her for violating the flu shot policy. The court found that the policy violated the plaintiff’s “freedom of expression” by “improperly endorsing the employer’s religion-based exemption…and rejecting the secular choice proffered by [the plaintiff].” Id.

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Employees in the U.S. have the right to organize themselves as a union or to join an existing labor union in order to negotiate with their employers regarding working conditions and various other features of employment. At the federal level, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), 29 U.S.C. § 151 et seq., secures these rights and prohibits interference by employers. Laws vary from state to state, however, regarding whether union membership may be made mandatory. “Right-to-work” laws in many states allow employees to elect not to join the union, while other states allow employers and unions to enter into “union security agreements.” Neither New Jersey nor New York has right-to-work laws. A well-known restaurant in Manhattan’s Times Square offers a recent example of how labor organizing can work. Amid multiple complaints and allegations of poor working conditions, 50 restaurant employees recently announced that they had voted to form a union.

The NLRA protects workers’ rights “to self-organization,” to form their own labor organization or to join an existing one, to choose representatives to engage in collective bargaining with their employer, and to “engage in other concerted activities” directed toward these purposes. 29 U.S.C. § 157. Employers are prohibited from interfering with or restraining employees in the exercise of these rights. Id. at § 158(a)(1). The law also prohibits various coercive acts by employers and labor unions, and it protects the rights of workers engaged in strikes or other activities authorized by their union. It leaves certain matters, however, up to the states.

Right-to-work laws state that workers may not be required to join a union. The NLRA allows union security agreements between unions and employers, which may place certain obligations on employees. Federal law does not allow “closed shops,” in which the employer can only hire union members. “Union shops,” in which employees must join the union after being hired, are allowed under the NLRA but are prohibited by right-to-work laws.

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Interactions between employers and labor unions generally fall under the purview of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), 29 U.S.C. § 151 et seq., which protects workers’ rights in regard to various labor organizing activities nationwide. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has imposed additional restrictions on employers and labor unions in certain situations. Executive Order No. 19 (EO19), issued in July 2016 and entitled “Labor Peace for Retail Establishments at City Development Projects,” requires covered employers and employees to enter into “labor peace agreements.” EO19 has come under criticism by various business interests, and it could be subject to court challenge.

The NLRA protects the rights of workers to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining and to engage in “concerted activities” toward that end. 29 U.S.C. § 157. Employers are generally prohibited from interfering with employees’ exercise of these rights or discriminating or retaliating against employees for union-related activity. Id. at § 158(a). The NLRA does not specifically say, however, that an employer cannot state its opposition to a union representing its employees. Employers are generally permitted to state a case for or against union organizing. It is theoretically then left to the employees to decide for themselves.

Before discussing how EO19 affects union organizing activities in New York City, it is important to note the limitations on its coverage. It only applies to “city development projects” that are larger than 100,00 square feet if commercial, or larger than 100 units if residential. “Covered employers” include retail and food-service businesses operating on the premises of a covered city development project, provided that they have at least 10 employees and occupy at least 15,000 square feet. Although EO19 only applies to business establishments physically located in New York City, it could affect New Jersey-based businesses that operate retail or food-service locations there.

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