Articles Posted in Employment Contracts

Class actions and collective actions allow numerous individuals with similar claims to bring a single lawsuit against a common defendant, rather than hundreds or thousands of individual lawsuits. A New Jersey employee, for example, could file a collective action on behalf of themselves “or other employees similarly situated” for violations of state minimum wage law. See N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:11-56a25. This offers many benefits for plaintiffs, particularly in situations where the cost of filing suit individually, when compared to the potential recovery, would make it too expensive to assert one’s legal rights. One could also argue that class actions help defendants by consolidating all claims against them into a single lawsuit, rather than hundreds or thousands of lawsuits. That is not how employers and other defendants usually see class actions, however, and they frequently argue against allowing employees to pool their claims in a single lawsuit. The U.S. Supreme Court recently sided with employers regarding collective arbitration, similar to collective or class actions. Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, 584 U.S. ___ (2018).

The ruling in Epic Systems arose from a conflict between two federal statutes: the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) of 1925, 9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq.; and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935, 29 U.S.C. § 151 et seq. The FAA generally states that arbitration clauses in written contracts “involving commerce” are “valid, irrevocable, and enforceable.” 9 U.S.C. § 2. Courts have authority to order parties to such a contract to participate in arbitration, and to enforce the recommendations of the arbitrators. A court may only vacate or modify an arbitration award on grounds specified by the statute. See id. at §§ 10, 11. The Supreme Court held that the FAA applies to contracts executed under both state and federal law in Southland Corp. v. Keating, 465 U.S. 1 (1984).

The NLRA protects the rights of workers to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining—i.e. to form or join labor unions—and “to engage in other concerted activities for” those purposes. 29 U.S.C. § 157. It is an “unfair labor practice” for employers to “interfere with” or “restrain” employers engaged in these protected activities. Id. at § 158(a)(1). Courts have given rather broad interpretation to the meaning of “concerted activities.” The question in Epic Systems concerned whether collective arbitration was a “concerted activity” protected by the NLRA, or whether the FAA required enforcement of arbitration clauses in individual employment contracts.
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The court system in the U.S. is often described as “overburdened.” Courts therefore encourage litigants to pursue a variety of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methods. Many employers in New Jersey and around the country often include clauses in employment contracts requiring a form of ADR known as arbitration in disputes with their employees. Both federal and New Jersey employment laws establish a preference in favor of enforcing arbitration clauses but require that an employee receive adequate notice. A federal district court in New Jersey ruled on two separate motions to compel arbitration by an employer in a wrongful termination case. First, the court ruled that a genuine issue of fact existed as to whether the plaintiff received adequate notice of an arbitration agreement. Schmell v. Morgan Stanley & Co., Inc. (“Schmell I”), No. 3:17-cv-13080, op. (D.N.J., Mar. 1, 2018). It later denied a motion “to compel arbitration…to resolve disputed issues of fact related to arbitration.” Schmell v. Morgan Stanley & Co., Inc. (“Schmell II”), No. 3:17-cv-13080, op. at 2 (D.N.J., May 30, 2018).

The arbitration process involves presenting a dispute to one or more trained ADR professionals, often former judges, who conduct a proceeding similar to a trial and render a decision. If the parties have agreed in advance, this decision is binding. Arbitration offers some advantages over litigation, but it is often perceived as favoring employers, who typically have more resources to pay arbitration fees. New Jersey law holds that an employee is not bound by an arbitration clause if the employee “does not sign or otherwise explicitly indicate his or her agreement to it.” Schmell I, op. at 4, quoting Leodori v. CIGNA Corp., 814 A.2d 1098, 1106 (N.J. 2003).

The plaintiff in Schmell began working for the defendant in 2006. During his employment, he wrote “a self-help book that referenced his history with drug and alcohol abuse and ultimate recovery.” Schmell I at 1. In June 2017, according to the plaintiff, he presented the defendant with a draft of the book. The defendant allegedly threatened termination if he did not make certain edits. The plaintiff claims that he made the requested edits, but the defendant still terminated him on October 31, 2017. The book was published on November 14. The plaintiff filed suit one month later, alleging discrimination on the basis of disability because of his history of addiction.

Businesses have an obligation to protect their assets and interests, but not in ways that damage their employees. New Jersey employers can protect their interests with covenants not to compete, also known as noncompete clauses, which limit employees’ ability to work for, or become, a competitor after their employment ends. A bill pending in the New Jersey Legislature would significantly restrict the enforceability of noncompete clauses. An Assembly committee reported favorably on A1769 in May 2018, while the Senate counterpart, S635, is still awaiting a committee hearing.

In order for a noncompete clause to be enforceable under current New Jersey employment law, it must be reasonably limited in both time and geographic scope. A noncompete clause that purported to prohibit a former employee from ever working for a competing company anywhere in New Jersey would be unenforceable on its face because it is not even close to being reasonably limited to the protection of the employer’s interests at the moment the employee ceases to be employed. If the noncompete clause only restricted employment with a competitor within, for example, five miles of the employer’s location for six months, it would probably be enforceable. Even then, however, noncompete clauses often require workers to relocate or change fields solely to avoid liability to their former employer.

A1769 and S635 state that noncompete clauses “driv[e] skilled workers to other jurisdictions” and “requir[e] businesses to solicit skilled workers from out-of-State.” The Assembly Labor Committee made some changes to the bill, but most provisions remain the same as in S635. The bill establishes a 10-part test that a noncompete clause would have to meet in order to be enforceable:
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Businesses entrust a considerable amount of information, along with the value represented by that information, to their employees. Employers have an interest in protecting their intellectual property, trade secrets, and other proprietary information. Employment laws in New Jersey and New York allow restrictive covenants in employment contracts that reasonably limit certain activities by former employees. From an employee’s point of view, the overzealous enforcement of restrictive covenants imposes an undue burden on their ability to make a living in their chosen field. Courts often give close scrutiny to employers’ efforts to enforce restrictive covenants. Last summer, a Manhattan federal court refused to enforce several non-compete clauses against a group of former employees in a New York employment dispute. In re Document Technologies Litigation (“DTL”), No. 17-cv-2405, op. (S.D.N.Y., Jul. 6, 2017).One common type of restrictive covenant used in employment agreements is the “covenant not to compete,” also known as a non-compete clause. An employer may worry that, when an employee leaves their job, they will take the knowledge and contacts they have gained and either go to work for a competitor or start their own competing business. In order to be enforceable, a non-compete clause must have a reasonable duration and a limited geographic scope. A non-compete clause stating that a former employee cannot work for any competing business anywhere in the state of New Jersey for a period of 10 years is unlikely to be enforceable, but one that restricts competition within 10 miles of the employer’s location for six months might be considered reasonable. Other common restrictive covenants include agreements not to solicit the employer’s clients or customers (non-solicitation), and agreements not to disclose certain information learned during an individual’s period of employment (non-disclosure).

The plaintiff in DTL “is a global provider of electronic discovery (‘e-discovery’) services for law firms and corporate legal departments,” with about 7,000 employees. DTL, op. at 2. The defendants include four former employees and the competing company that hired them after they quit their jobs with the plaintiff. The individual defendants signed employment agreements with the plaintiff that included one-year non-compete and non-solicitation clauses and a non-disclosure clause. According to the court’s opinion, the individual defendants had become “dissatisfied with their employment” with the plaintiff as early as 2014. Id. at 3. They resigned from the plaintiff and signed employment agreements with the competing company in January 2017, with the understanding that they would not begin work until the following year, after the non-compete had expired.

In February 2017, the individual defendants began work on a spreadsheet containing names and contact information of their clients at the plaintiff. They planned to meet to discuss sales strategies at the new employer, but a cease and desist letter from the plaintiff prevented this meeting from taking place. The plaintiff filed suit in April 2017 and sought a preliminary injunction enforcing the restrictive covenants.

When an employee ceases to work for an employer, many employers will want to protect their investment in that employee in any way they can. Nondisclosure agreements and trade secret laws cover confidential and proprietary information that employees might obtain during their employment. Employees who bring a particular set of skills or knowledge, and who might obtain additional valuable skills through their work for the employer, could potentially have a negative impact on the employer’s business if they took that knowledge to a competitor. Some employers therefore try to protect themselves with noncompete agreements, which state that the employee may not accept employment with a competitor after they leave the employer. New Jersey employment laws only allow enforcement of noncompete agreements when they have strict limitations, such as a limited geographic area and a limited duration. A New Jersey Superior Court judge in Bergen County recently ruled in favor of a former employee who was seeking to invalidate a noncompete clause. Abuaysha v. Shapiro Spa, No. L-000988-18, complaint (N.J. Super. Ct., Bergen Cty., Feb. 1, 2018)

Injunctive relief is one of the main methods of enforcing a noncompete agreement. Employers often file suit against a former employee and seek a preliminary injunction, but it is also possible for a former employee to file suit first. In order to obtain a temporary injunction in New Jersey, a movant must establish four elements:  (1) “irreparable harm” without the injunction, (2) a settled legal right underlying the movant’s claim, (3), “a reasonable probability of ultimate success on the merits,” and (4) a balance of hardships faced by the parties that favors granting the injunction. Crowe v. De Gioia, 90 N.J. 126, 132-34 (1982). In the case of noncompete agreements, courts must look closely at the second and third parts of this test.

New Jersey courts use the “Solari/Whitmyer test,” named for two New Jersey Supreme Court decisions, to determine whether a noncompete agreement is enforceable. Solari Industries, Inc. v. Malady, 55 N.J. 571 (1970); Whitmyer Bros., Inc. v. Doyle, 58 N.J. 25 (1971). This test has three parts:  (1) protection of legitimate employer interests, (2) no undue hardship on the employee, and (3) no injury to the public. When determining whether a noncompete agreement protects the employer’s interests, the court has noted that an “employer has no legitimate interest in preventing competition as such.” Whitmyer, 58 N.J. at 33. Examples of legitimate interests include protection of confidential information, trade secrets, and customer relationships. Id. The geographic limits, duration, and other restrictions in a noncompete agreement must be “no broader than necessary to protect the employer’s interests.” Cmty. Hosp. Grp., Inc. v. More, 183 N.J. 36, 58-59 (2005).

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) enables workers to organize themselves for the purpose of collective bargaining with their employers. A current dispute between a major telecommunications company and its employees’ union alleges that the company is planning mass layoffs, in violation of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the parties, and with the alleged intent of “diminish[ing] the Union’s bargaining strength.” Commc’ns Workers of Am. (CWA) v. AT&T Southwest, No. 1:17-cv-01221, complaint at 6 (W.D. Tex., Dec. 30, 2017). The union also filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). AT&T Southwest, No. 16-CA-212398, charge (NLRB, Dec. 29, 2017). The case grew out of assertions made by prominent telecommunications companies regarding recent political issues, including recent tax cuts and changes to federal “net neutrality” rules. While the defendant employer claims the layoffs are due to a lack of work, the plaintiff asserts that the telecommunications business is booming. The issues raised by the lawsuit are likely to affect New Jersey labor rights as well.

Under the NLRA, employers may not interfere with workers’ efforts to organize, nor may they discriminate or retaliate against employees who engage in protected activity. The law also requires employers to collectively bargain with representatives chosen by the employees in accordance with its provisions. Once an employer and the employees’ representatives have entered into a CBA, it is binding on both parties. The NLRA allows claims to enforce CBA provisions and to collect damages for breaches. It also allows recovery of damages for various unfair labor practices described in § 8 of the statute, 29 U.S.C. § 158.

The plaintiff in CWA describes itself in its complaint as a labor union authorized to bring suit on behalf of the defendant’s employees under § 301 of the Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947. 29 U.S.C. § 185. The parties entered into the current CBA in April 2017. According to the complaint, a representative of the defendant’s labor relations department informed the plaintiff in December 2017 of the defendant’s intention to lay off 152 individuals employed as “Premises Technicians” (PTs) in at least four states. CWA, complaint at 4. The defendant’s representative cited “a reduction in workload” as the reason. Id.

New Jersey employment statutes and other laws around the country prohibit employers from taking certain adverse actions against employees. Antitrust laws can provide relief for workers when a direct employer-employee relationship might not exist. Laws like the Sherman Act prohibit companies that ostensibly compete with one another from making agreements that impede competition. This is often known as “collusion.” Agreements among companies not to hire one another’s workers, for example, hurt workers by limiting their job opportunities. Colin Kaepernick, a professional football player who has been a controversial public figure in the past year or so, is making similar allegations in a grievance filed against the National Football League (NFL). He is a free agent, but no team has signed him since the controversy gained prominence. Rather than a lawsuit under a law like the Sherman Act, the player is alleging violations of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the players’ union and the NFL. The case could have a national impact, since NFL teams are located all over the country, including two that play in New Jersey.

The Sherman Act prohibits businesses from making “contract[s]…or conspirac[ies] in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States.” 15 U.S.C. § 1. Agreements among market competitors that deliberately restrict or restrain trade, such as price-fixing, clearly violate the Sherman Act. In situations in which the alleged restraint is less obvious, courts use the “Rule of Reason” to determine whether the restriction is anti-competitive or not. Addyston Pipe & Steel Co. v. United States, 175 U.S. 211 (1899).

Agreements among NFL teams could constitute unlawful collusion under a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. The court held that the creation of a single business entity to handle product licensing for all 32 NFL teams “constitute[d] concerted action that is not categorically beyond the coverage of §1.” American Needle, Inc. v. National Football League, 560 U.S. 183 (2010). It held that courts should apply the Rule of Reason to determine whether such agreements violate antitrust law. While that case dealt with intellectual property, it established that NFL teams are distinct entities that might have distinct economic interests.

Workers 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.

Federal law does not require employers to provide employees with benefits like retirement plans, but it regulates employers that choose to do so. Employers may be liable to employees for failing to meet the requirements set by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq. A federal court awarded $750,000 in damages in an ERISA claim for a failure to inform an employee of certain details of a life insurance plan. Erwood v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., et al., No. 2:14-cv-01284, opinion (W.D. Pa., Apr. 13, 2017). The case was in a Pennsylvania court but relied in part on New Jersey employment law claims.

ERISA covers a wide range of employment benefits, including retirement plans, deferred income plans, life insurance, and health insurance. Employers must designate an administrator, who has the duty of providing a summary of any covered plan, along with other information, to each beneficiary. 29 U.S.C. § 1021(a). Anyone who “exercises any discretionary authority or discretionary control respecting management of such plan” owes fiduciary duties to the beneficiaries. Id. at §§ 1002(21)(A), 1104(a).

If a plan does not provide any specific remedy for breaches of fiduciary duties or other violations, ERISA allows various forms of relief for aggrieved beneficiaries. Id. at § 1132(a)(3). These may include reformation of the plan and other equitable remedies, as well as “a surcharge remedy “extended to a breach of trust committed by a fiduciary.” Erwood, op. at 14, quoting CIGNA Corp. v. Amara, 563 U.S. 421, 440-42 (2011). See also Horan v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., No. 3:12-cv-07802, opinion (D.N.J., Jan. 30, 2014).

In 2015, a group of technology companies settled a class action filed on behalf of thousands of employees for about $415 million. The lawsuit alleged that the defendants violated antitrust laws by entering into “anti-poaching” agreements, by which they agreed not to solicit or hire each other’s employees. These types of agreements make it difficult, if not impossible, for workers to advance in their fields, and they also tend to drive wages downward. More recently, a putative class action that partly originated in New Jersey made similar allegations against two major electronics companies. Frost v. LG Corp., et al., No. 5:16-cv-05206, complaint (N.D. Cal., Nov. 8, 2016). A judge granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case in April 2017, based on pleading defects, but will allow the plaintiffs to make corrections in an amended complaint. The case remains a good example of how state and federal antitrust laws can affect employment.

The main federal antitrust statute is the Sherman Act, originally enacted by Congress in 1890 in an effort to address monopolistic practices across the country. It prohibits any “contract…in restraint of trade or commerce among the several states,” 15 U.S.C. § 1, and allows both civil and criminal penalties. The New Jersey Antitrust Act uses almost identical language to describe prohibited contracts. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 56:9-3. The attorneys general at the state and federal levels are empowered to investigate and prosecute anticompetitive practices, and both state and federal laws allow civil causes of action by aggrieved parties.

The Frost lawsuit is actually a consolidation of two lawsuits filed in California and New Jersey. It asserts claims on behalf of three classes of employees:  nationwide, in California, and in New Jersey. The two defendant employers are American subsidiaries of South Korean companies. Their parent companies are also named as defendants. The lead plaintiff for the New Jersey class worked for one of the defendants in Englewood Cliffs for about eight years, beginning in 2006.

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