Articles Posted in Retaliation

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.

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.

WhistleThe 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.

hospitalEmployment statutes often use broad language that leaves much open to interpretation. The federal and state agencies charged with administering and enforcing these statutes develop their own interpretations of the statutes, which may or may not match the interpretations of the court system. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that courts must defer to agencies’ interpretations of the statutes that they administer, provided that those interpretations do not exceed the agencies’ legal authority. This is known as the “Chevron doctrine,” after the court’s decision in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837 (1984). The Third Circuit based a recent decision, which involved a Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) discrimination claim, on Chevron. Egan v. Delaware River Port Authority, No. 16-1471, slip op. (3rd Cir., Mar. 21, 2017).

The FMLA requires covered employers to provide unpaid leave to qualifying employees for specific medical- and family-related reasons. The statute is heavy on qualifications regarding which employers are covered, how and when employees qualify for leave, and which situations provide a valid basis for requesting leave. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) has promulgated additional rules and procedures for determining who is entitled to leave. See 29 U.S.C. § 2611 et seq., 29 C.F.R. Part 825. Employers cannot interfere with the rights guaranteed by the FMLA, and they may be liable to aggrieved employees for damages if they do. 29 U.S.C. §§ 2615, 2617.

In the context of employment litigation, the Chevron doctrine comes into play with regard to rules promulgated by agencies like the WHD to help identify statutory violations. See Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452 (1997). The regulation at issue in Egan involved the evidence required to prove discrimination and retaliation under the FMLA. The WHD has interpreted the statute as prohibiting employers from “us[ing] the taking of FMLA leave as a negative factor in employment actions.” 29 C.F.R. § 825.220(c). The question before the Third Circuit involved whether the plaintiff had to prove that his FMLA leave directly resulted in an adverse employment action.

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confidential fileThe balance of power between an employee and an employer is usually very uneven in favor of the employer. At times, laws intended to help businesses can inadvertently harm employees. The Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) of 2016 gives businesses important tools for protecting their proprietary information, but it could also give employers an additional advantage over their workers. Congress therefore added provisions to the DTSA granting immunity to whistleblowers and others reporting suspected legal violations. A court recently ruled on an employee’s immunity claim, possibly for the first time since the law’s passage.

The DTSA amends federal criminal laws dealing with the theft of trade secrets, 18 U.S.C. § 1831 et seq., to allow the owners of trade secrets to file civil lawsuits for the misappropriation of trade secrets. The law defines “trade secret” broadly to include both tangible and intangible information that the owner “has taken reasonable measures to keep…secret” and that “derives independent economic value” from being kept secret. Id. at § 1839(3). The intentional theft of a trade secret may be prosecuted as a felony. The owner of a trade secret can sue in federal court for injunctive relief and other damages, including “the seizure of property necessary to prevent the propagation or dissemination of the trade secret.” Id. at § 1836(b)(2)(A)(i).

The unauthorized disclosure of a trade secret is not always based on criminal or otherwise wrongful intent. Sometimes, disclosure might be necessary to prevent even greater legal violations. People who have access to trade secrets and disclose them to government officials or others, with the intent of reporting suspected unlawful activity, are commonly known as “whistleblowers.”

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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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scales of justiceA wrongful termination lawsuit in a New Jersey state court resulted in a jury verdict awarding the plaintiff $8.45 million in September 2016. This amount consisted of compensatory damages for emotional distress of $2.45 million, as well as $6 million in punitive damages. The plaintiff alleged that her employer, a government agency in Hudson County, New Jersey, terminated her after she sought treatment for depression, despite the fact that two mental health professionals had stated that she was fit to return to work. The New Jersey Civil Service Commission (CSC) ruled that the county had wrongfully terminated her and awarded her back pay. Matter of Malta-Roman, Hudson Cty. Dept. of Family Svcs., Docket No. 2013-2883, decision (N.J. Civil Svc. Comm., May 7, 2015). The plaintiff also filed a civil lawsuit, which resulted in the jury verdict. Malta-Roman v. Hudson Cty., No. L-001361-14, complaint (N.J. Super. Ct., Hudson Co., Mar. 24, 2014).

This case highlights two tracks that employment law claims can take. The plaintiff brought a claim before the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law (OAL) and the CSC. Filing an administrative claim is a prerequisite for many employment law claims. A person claiming employment discrimination, for example, must first file a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a comparable state or local agency. The agency may decide to pursue the matter on the claimant’s behalf. If it does not, it may issue a “right to sue” letter, which allows the claimant to file a civil lawsuit. Since the plaintiff in Malta-Roman was a county employee, she had to use certain administrative procedures before going to court.

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timerThe New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) protects workers in this state from a wide range of unlawful employment practices. In order to assert their rights and claim damages, individuals must follow procedures outlined in the LAD, as well as case law interpreting the statute. This includes a two-year statute of limitations for filing suit. The New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled that an employment contract may not limit the protection offered by the LAD by reducing this time period from two years to six months. Rodriguez v. Raymours Furniture Co., No. A-27 Sept. Term 2014, 074603, slip op. (N.J., Jun. 15, 2016). The court held that any such restriction “defeats the public policy goal” of the LAD. Id. at 4.

The LAD prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of various protected categories, including race, sex, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and disability. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12. It also prohibits retaliation against an employee for asserting their rights, such as by making an internal complaint to a human resources official or an external complaint to state or federal officials.

An individual may file a complaint with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, or they may file suit in Superior Court against an employer for alleged violations of the LAD. The statute does not specify a time frame during which a complainant must file suit, but the state Supreme Court has determined that the applicable statute of limitations is two years. Montells v. Haynes, 627 A.2d 654, 133 N.J. 282 (1993).

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policeThe U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a New Jersey police officer who claimed that his employer violated his First Amendment rights. Heffernan v. City of Paterson, 578 U.S. ___ (2016). This case is particularly notable because the underlying action by the plaintiff’s employer was based on a mistake. The employer thought the plaintiff was engaging in a “constitutionally protected political activity,” Heffernan, slip op. at 1, by supporting a political candidate opposed by the police chief. The district court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the plaintiff on the grounds that, since he was not actually engaging in constitutionally protected speech, his employer could not have deprived him of any constitutional right. The Supreme Court reversed this ruling based on a 1994 case, which held that an employer’s subjective belief is the controlling factor.

The First Amendment’s guarantee of “freedom of speech” means, in part, that the government cannot punish a person for the content of their speech. In an employment law context, this protects public employees like the plaintiff, a police officer. Government employers are generally prohibited from taking adverse action against an employee for acts that are protected by the Bill of Rights. This restriction does not necessarily apply to private employers, since the First Amendment only restrains government actions. Congress enacted a statute in the 19th century giving individuals the right to file suit against a government official for the “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” while acting in an official capacity. 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The plaintiff in Heffernan was a 20-year veteran of the police department in Paterson, New Jersey. He was assigned to work in the police chief’s office in 2005, according to the court’s opinion. The mayor, who had appointed both the chief and the plaintiff’s direct supervisor, was running for reelection at the time. The plaintiff was reportedly “a good friend” of the mayor’s challenger. Heffernan, slip op. at 2.

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