Articles Posted in Discrimination

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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A Day Without Immigrants - Long line of protestersThe past few months have seen numerous high-profile protests around the country, both in opposition to and support of the new administration in the White House. At least two major protests have called for nationwide strikes or walkouts. In February 2017, A Day Without Immigrants called attention to the significant role of immigrants in the nation’s workforce. This month, A Day Without a Woman did the same with regard to women in the workplace. Similar protests have occurred in this country and in countries around the world for many reasons across the political spectrum. It is not clear how many people participated in the recent events, but they appeared to have a noticeable impact. They also resulted in some participants losing their jobs specifically because of their participation, which raises the question of whether, and to what extent, state and federal employment laws protect this sort of activity. A quick review of a few statutes shows that no simple answer exists. For any individual, the answer may depend on their particular employer’s policies.

Antidiscrimination laws, like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), protect employees from adverse actions by their employers based on specified categories, such as race, sex, and national origin. The NJLAD provides much broader protections than Title VII, but neither specifically addresses political views or activities. An employer who terminates or otherwise penalizes an employee for participating in a strike like the ones mentioned above might not violate state or federal antidiscrimination laws. A claim could hypothetically be possible if the employer’s actions indicate bias based on a protected category. The two recent strikes deal specifically with the protected categories of national origin and sex. This sort of claim would probably be a long-shot without solid evidence of an employer’s bias, but it is a possibility.

Laws protecting employees’ right to engage in labor activities are likely to be a better option, but the amount of protection they offer is also not clear. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) states that workers have the right to engage in “concerted activities” aimed at collective bargaining or “mutual aid or protection.” 29 U.S.C. § 157. Employers may not unreasonably interfere with employees who are exercising these rights, nor may they discriminate against employees who do so. It would be hard to make the case that events like A Day Without Immigrants have collective bargaining as their ultimate goal, but they do plausibly serve the purpose of “mutual aid or protection” for workers.
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LGBT flag mapTitle VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, and sex. Congress and the Supreme Court expanded the definition of “sex discrimination” in the 1970s and 1980s to include pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment. The efforts to broaden Title VII’s concept of sex discrimination effectively stopped there. Neither Congress nor the federal judiciary has responded to calls to apply Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination to discrimination based on sexual orientation. A New York federal judge ruled against a Title VII claim for sexual orientation discrimination last year. Christiansen v. Omnicom Group, 167 F.Supp.3d 598 (S.D.N.Y. 2016). The plaintiff in that case is now asking the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York to reconsider its own precedent.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency charged with enforcing Title VII and other federal employment statutes, has ruled that sexual orientation is covered by Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions. While it acknowledged that the statute does not explicitly mention sexual orientation as a protected category, the EEOC held that the proper question was “whether the [employer] has relied on sex-based considerations or taken gender into account when taking the challenged employment action.” Baldwin v. Foxx, App. No. 0120133080, dec. at 6 (EEOC, Jul. 15, 2015). This ruling is largely symbolic, however, since it is not binding on any federal court.

Two decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court have expanded the concept of sex discrimination under Title VII in ways that could support an interpretation that the statute already prohibits sexual orientation discrimination. In Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, the court held that “sex stereotyping” can support a claim of sex discrimination, such as if “an employer…acts on the basis of a belief that a woman cannot be aggressive, or that she must not be.” 490 U.S. 228, 250 (1989). The court ruled in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services that sexual harassment between members of the same sex can violate Title VII, as long as the plaintiff can “prove that the conduct at issue was not merely tinged with offensive sexual connotations, but actually constituted discrimination because of sex.” 523 U.S. 75, 81 (1998).

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Lower Manhattan AerialFederal and state employment statutes protect employees from discrimination on the basis of sex and other protected traits, and they also prohibit retaliation for reporting alleged violations of these laws. Protections against retaliation also extend to workers who act as “whistleblowers” by reporting suspected financial crimes. A lawsuit in New York City combines allegations of sex discrimination with whistleblower retaliation claims under two major financial laws. The plaintiff’s complaint describes an alleged culture of unequal treatment based on gender, including unequal pay and job responsibilities. She further alleges that a supervisor harassed her to obtain information to use in insider trading, and the defendant terminated her in retaliation for reporting the matter. The lawsuit asserts causes of action under state and federal anti-discrimination laws and federal financial statutes.

The plaintiff asserts sex discrimination, harassment, and retaliation claims under a New York state law, which is similar to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(a). She is also alleging gender-based pay discrimination under the Equal Pay Act of 1963, 29 U.S.C. § 206(d). She has reportedly filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and she will add claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a), once the administrative process is complete.

The plaintiff is also claiming violations of the whistleblower protection provisions in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, 15 U.S.C. § 78u- 6(h)(1); and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, 18 U.S.C. § 1514A. Employers that are subject to these laws cannot terminate or otherwise retaliate against an employee for reporting alleged financial fraud or impropriety, for participating in an investigation of alleged financial impropriety, or for disclosing information to a government agency in the manner required by law. Both statutes allow private causes of action by aggrieved employees.

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