Articles Posted in Discrimination

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.

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.

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.

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.

Disability SymbolsNew Jersey employees are protected against discrimination under federal and state laws, as well as municipal anti-discrimination ordinances in many cities around the state. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) covers a broad range of protected categories, including disability. In addition to prohibiting discrimination based on an employee’s disability, the law also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. A jury recently found in favor of a former corrections officer in a New Jersey disability discrimination lawsuit, awarding her about $11.8 million in damages. Pritchett v. State of New Jersey, No. L-002189-13, complaint (N.J. Super. Ct., Mercer Cty., Oct. 10, 2013).

Under the NJLAD, an employer cannot discriminate against a worker “because such person is or has been at any time disabled.” N.J. Rev. Stat. §§ 10:5-4.1, 10:5-12. This applies to people with disabilities and people who are “perceived as having a disability.” Victor v. State, 4 A.3d 126, 142 (N.J. 2010). The NJLAD’s definition of a “disability” is also “significantly broader” than that of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Id. at 142 n. 11. Exceptions apply when a particular person’s particular disability “would prevent such person from performing a particular job.” N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-29.1; Raspa v. Office of Sheriff, 924 A.2d 435, 442-43 (N.J. 2007).

The NJLAD also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, provided this does not “impose an undue hardship on the operation of its business.” N.J.A.C. 13:13-2.5(b). Reasonable accommodations might include modifications of facilities and equipment for accessibility, flexible or modified work schedules, or reassignment of certain job duties. Factors employers may consider when determining whether something constitutes an undue burden include the nature of their business, the size of their operation and facilities, and the potential cost of the accommodations.

cannabisMore than half of the states in the U.S., including New Jersey, allow the use of marijuana for certain medical purposes with a doctor’s prescription, but it remains a strictly controlled substance under federal law. This has raised questions about the rights of an employee who uses marijuana in accordance with a doctor’s instructions. Does an employer violate anti-discrimination laws if they terminate or otherwise discriminate against an employee solely because of a lawful medical marijuana prescription? New Jersey’s employment laws still offer little protection, but proposed legislation and court decisions in nearby states suggest that the legal landscape is changing.

The New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act (NJCUMMA), N.J. Rev. Stat. § 24:6I-1 et seq., became law in 2010. It defines an exception to the New Jersey criminal statutes dealing with the possession and use of marijuana. It is largely silent on the question of employment. New Jersey employers can cite several justifications for terminating employees who are known to use marijuana, even if only for medical purposes. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, for example, and some employers may be obligated by federal laws or federal regulations to monitor employees’ drug use.

Most regulations requiring employers to drug-test their employees are based on safety concerns, along with an assumption that anyone using marijuana is abusing it. A worker who shows up to work high, endangering themselves and others, is not the same as a responsible medical marijuana patient. The law has not yet caught up to this distinction. A pair of bills pending in the New Jersey Legislature, A2482 and S2161, would amend the NJCUMMA to make it “unlawful to take any adverse employment action against an employee” with a valid medical marijuana prescription, unless the employer can show “by a preponderance of the evidence that the lawful use of medical marijuana has impaired the employee’s ability to perform [their] job responsibilities.”

Grand CanyonThe wage gap between men and women has received considerable media attention recently, and new legislation is attempting to improve conditions. Federal law prohibits disparate pay based on gender, but it leaves several loopholes. A new law in New York City is intended to close one of these loopholes by prohibiting employers from asking job applicants for salary history or from using salary history to determine a new employee’s compensation. This practice often perpetuates the wage gap without specifically violating equal pay laws, since female employees’ salary histories are often likely to reflect lower rates of pay than male colleagues. Several jurisdictions around the country have enacted similar laws. New York City’s law will take effect on October 31, 2017.

The federal Equal Pay Act (EPA) of 1963 prohibits employers from paying employees of different sexes at different rates “for equal work” in jobs that require “equal skill, effort, and responsibility…under similar working conditions.” 29 U.S.C. § 206(d)(1). It makes exceptions, however, for wages that are determined based on seniority, merit, “quantity or quality of production,” or “a differential based on any other factor other than sex.” Id. This last exception arguably applies to decisions based on salary history, since the applicant’s gender is not a direct factor in the employer’s calculations. A federal appellate court reached this conclusion recently in Rizo v. Yovino, No. 16-15372, slip op. (9th Cir., Apr. 27, 2017).

New York state law resembled the EPA until 2015, when the legislature passed a bill limiting the “factor other than sex” exception. Under the amended statute, the “factor” cannot be “based upon or derived from a sex-based differential in compensation,” and it must “be job-related…and…consistent with business necessity.” N.Y. Lab. L. § 194(1)(d). Furthermore, a complainant can challenge any “employment practice that causes a disparate impact on the basis of sex.” Id. The New Jersey Legislature passed a bill in 2016 that would have made similar amendments to equal pay provisions, found in N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12. The governor conditionally vetoed the bill, and the legislature failed to override the veto.

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divorceThe New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) protects employees from discrimination based on a wide range of factors, including marital status. Courts have generally held that this means employers cannot discriminate against an employee solely because that employee is unmarried, married, divorced, or separated. Last year, the New Jersey Supreme Court considered whether this provision also applies to an employee who is in the process of getting a divorce. In a 6-0 decision, the court ruled that it does apply. Smith v. Millville Rescue Squad, 139 A.3d 1 (N.J. 2016). While the court recognized that a divorce case can be chaotic and disruptive, it held that an employer cannot fire a worker if their divorce case has no direct impact on their job or their job performance.

The NJLAD prohibits discrimination on the basis of “marital status, civil union status, [or] domestic partnership status,” among many other factors. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(a). It does not, however, define the term “marital status.” The court’s opinion in Smith reviews other state antidiscrimination statutes, finding that the states that provide a definition of “marital status” differ considerably in the scope of their definitions. Hawaii, for example, defines it simply as “the state of being married or being single,” while Colorado’s much broader definition includes being “in the process of having a marriage or civil union dissolved or declared invalid.” Smith, 139 A.3d at 10, quoting Haw. Rev. Stat. § 378-1 and Colo. Rev. Stat. § 24-34-301(4.5).

The plaintiff in Smith worked for the defendant for about 17 years as a paramedic and emergency medical technician (EMT). He was a volunteer for the first seven years and a paid employee for the following 10 years, from 1996 to his termination in 2006. His wife also worked for the defendant during this time. According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff “commenced an extramarital affair with [a] volunteer” under his supervision in 2005. Smith at 5. The volunteer ceased working for the defendant, but the affair reportedly continued, “leading to irreconcilable discord between plaintiff and [his wife].” Id.

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world mapA New Jersey teacher’s lawsuit for alleged national origin discrimination took an unusual turn in a recent court hearing, according to media reports. The plaintiff alleges that she was subjected to disparate treatment and retaliation because of her Palestinian heritage. Hashem v. Hunterdon Cty., et al., No. 3:15-cv-08585, 2d am. complaint (D.N.J., Oct. 19, 2016). During a hearing in early 2017, the defendants reportedly claimed that the case lacks merit because Palestine is not a “nation,” and therefore the plaintiff cannot claim “Palestinian” or “Palestinian-American” as a national origin. While this does not appear to be a prominent element of the defendants’ legal arguments, it captured media attention, and it raises important questions about how U.S. and New Jersey employment laws define “national origin.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) both expressly identify national origin as a protected category for discrimination claims. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a), N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(a). The term “nation” can have multiple meanings, depending on the context. It can refer to a sovereign country, such as the United States, Canada, or Mexico. It can also refer to a group of people with a shared heritage, language, or culture who do not have their own distinct country, like the Indian tribes of the United States, the First Nations of Canada, and trans-national regions like Kurdistan. Palestine, with its limited international recognition and “non-member observer” status at the United Nations, would seem to fit the second definition.

Since “countries” can come into being and cease to exist, multiple courts have held that “national origin” is not limited to countries in existence at the time of a discrimination claim. In Pejic v. Hughes Helicopters, a court held that Serbians were a protected class at a time when Serbia was part of Yugoslavia. 840 F. 2d 667, 673 (9th Cir. 1988). Serbia had been independent in the early 20th century and would become independent again in the 1990s. The Pejic court cited a district court decision finding that Louisiana Acadian—a/k/a Cajun—is a national origin under Title VII. Roach v. Dresser Ind. Valve & Instrument Division, 494 F. Supp. 215, 218 (W.D. La. 1980).

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