Articles Posted in New Jersey Supreme Court

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Liberty Anesthesia Associates, LLC (Liberty), an independent contractor that provides anesthesia services at the Jersey City Medical Center (JCMC), contracted plaintiff Karen Cole to provide anesthesia services at JCMC. Cole's employment agreement with Liberty included an arbitration provision. After JCMC revoked Cole's work privileges, Liberty terminated Cole's employment pursuant to their agreement. Cole filed a complaint against JCMC asserting statutory and common law claims. JCMC impleaded Liberty as a third-party defendant and filed an answer to Cole's amended complaint, asserting thirty-five affirmative defenses, none of which referred to arbitration. After discovery, which included interrogatories and depositions, both Liberty and JCMC moved for summary judgment. After Cole settled her claims with JCMC, the court entered summary judgment in Liberty's favor on two of four causes of action and scheduled trial. The issue before the Supreme Court was whether a defendant could compel arbitration pursuant to an arbitration agreement after being joined and actively participating in litigation between a party and a non-party to the arbitration agreement. The Supreme Court concluded that Liberty's active participation in the litigation for twenty-one months before invoking the arbitration provision on the eve of trial constituted a waiver of its right to arbitrate. View "Cole v. Jersey City Medical Center" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Doreen Longo worked in the sales department for East Coast News Corp, a company involved in distribution of "adult products." At one time, plaintiff had a pleasant relationship with her co-worker, defendant March Kercheval, but it deteriorated after Kercheval allegedly threatened to sexually assault her, suggested she trade sexual favors with a client, threw a chair, and told her he wanted to gouge out another co-worker's (their supervisor's) eyes. On several occasions, plaintiff told the supervisor she was terrified, but nothing was done. She later sent two e-mails to the supervisor asking for help and explaining that she feared Kercheval was becoming dangerous. Plaintiff sent a copy of her last e-mail to the general manager, Michael Savage, who told her he was too busy to do anything. One week later, plaintiff met with Kercheval, the owner of the company, and the head of Human Resources. The owner screamed at plaintiff and Kercheval, each of whom later received warning notices. Kercheval was fired. Shortly thereafter, plaintiff was told that her complaints about Kercheval disrupted the laid back office environment, and she was let go too. Plaintiff then filed suit under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act. The issue before the Supreme Court centered on whether an "upper management" jury instruction was required in deciding punitive damages in the context of the Act. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that an upper-management jury instruction was required to support a punitive damages award for claims under the Act. Punitive damages can only be awarded if the jury finds wrongful conduct under a clear-and convincing standard of evidence. The trial court failed to give the upper management instruction. Therefore, the Court reversed and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Longo v. Pleasure Productions, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Michael Battaglia worked for defendant United Parcel Service, Inc. (UPS) since 1985. He alleged he received a demotion in retaliation for making certain workplace complaints and comments. In suing UPS, he alleged that his demotion violated the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) and the Law Against Discrimination (LAD). Plaintiff also alleged breach of contract, relying on employee manuals stating that employees would not be disciplined for complaints. The trial court dismissed the contract claim for lack of evidence. Following numerous arguments over jury instructions, the court directed the jury that it could consider evidence involving credit cards, meal practices “and other things” on the CEPA claim. The jury found UPS liable on the CEPA and LAD claims, and awarded plaintiff $500,000 in economic damages and $500,000 in emotional distress damages. UPS made numerous post-trial motions, and the court granted its request for remittitur of the emotional distress award, reducing it to $205,000. The parties cross-appealed. The appellate panel affirmed the CEPA claim and dismissal of plaintiff's contract claim, but reversed the LAD verdict for lack of evidence. Upon review, the Supreme Court reversed the appellate court's decision to the extent that it dismissed the LAD claim and affirmed the CEPA verdict. Under the LAD, an employee who voices complaints and allegedly suffers a retaliatory employment action need only demonstrate a good-faith belief that the complained-of conduct violates the LAD. An identifiable victim of actual discrimination is not required. An LAD plaintiff may only recover an award for future emotional distress if evidence of permanency is offered in the form of an expert opinion. In order to succeed on a fraud-based CEPA claim, a plaintiff must reasonably believe that the complained-of activity was occurring and was fraudulent. View "Battaglia v. United Parcel Service, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Kelly Ruroede, a police officer on temporary sick leave, was suspended without pay and ultimately terminated from his employment based on numerous charges originally stemming from an off-duty verbal and physical altercation outside a restaurant and bar. The Borough of Hasbrouck adopted the recommendation of a disciplinary hearing officer and terminated him. Plaintiff appealed to the Superior Court; the Court found that the disciplinary hearing deprived plaintiff of due process, reversed, placed plaintiff on inactive-paid status, and remanded for a new hearing. The Appellate Division affirmed the superior court. In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the Borough challenged the Superior Court's decision. The Supreme Court concluded that the Superior Court erred by vacating the termination and ordering a remand. Furthermore, the Court concluded there was sufficient evidence presented at the disciplinary hearing to satisfy plaintiff's due process rights, therefore plaintiff's reinstatement to inactive-paid status was also in error. Both the Superior Court and Appellate Division were reversed. View "Ruroede v. Borough of Hasbrouck Heights" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Valeria Headen worked on a full-time ten-month basis as a food service worker for defendant Jersey City Board of Education (Board). She filed a complaint against the Board in 2009 alleging that because the District is governed by the provisions of the Civil Service Act (Act), she and potential class members were entitled to vacation leave under its provisions. Those provisions grant vacation leave to full-time "political subdivision employees" based on years of service, and they direct that a proportionate amount of leave be provided for part-time employees. Plaintiff's terms and conditions of employment were governed by a collectively negotiated agreement (CNA). Under the CNA, Headen and her fellow ten-month employee class members were classified as salaried employees. After discovery was completed, Headen filed a motion for partial summary judgment, and the Board filed a cross-motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted the Board's motion and denied Headen's motion. The Appellate Division affirmed, holding that provisions of the Act (N.J.S.A. 11A:6-3) did not apply to full-time ten-month school district employees. It reasoned that the term "political subdivision" in the vacation leave provision did not include school districts, and it concluded that laws addressing vacation leave in Title 18, suggested that the Legislature did not intend for Title 11A, Chapter 6 to apply to school district employees. Upon review on appeal, the Supreme Court concluded that the Act's paid vacation leave provisions applied to career service, non-teaching staff employees of school districts that have opted to be part of the civil service system, including ten-month employees such as plaintiff Valeria Headen. "Because the Act and its implementing regulations establish a floor for the amount of leave to be provided to such employees and a collectively negotiated agreement provided Headen with more than the minimum paid vacation leave to which she was entitled under the Act, her claims were properly dismissed." View "Headen v. Jersey City Board of Education" on Justia Law

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The issue before the Supreme Court in this matter was whether a plaintiff, who was removed from public employment after positing a claim of employer retaliation in a civil service disciplinary proceeding, should have been barred from seeking to circumvent that discipline through a subsequent Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) action also alleging retaliation. Plaintiff was terminated from his position following two close-in-time proceedings involving separate disciplinary matters before the Civil Service Commission (Commission). The first resulted in a demotion and the imposition of a sixty-day suspension. The second proceeding involved a distinct set of charges relating to plaintiff's abuse of sick leave. Following full discovery practice before the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) and the commencement of an evidential proceeding in the second matter, the employer moved for partial summary decision, which was granted by the administrative law judge (ALJ). The ALJ found it significant that despite plaintiff's defensive theme of employer retaliation, he did not provide support for that claim in his response to the employer's motion seeking partial summary judgment, and plaintiff's termination, for sick-leave misuse. "This matter raises significant and practical concerns about the intersection of administrative disciplinary proceedings and the important protection provided to whistle-blowing employees through CEPA. Although this matter does not present a textbook record for transparent application of the elements required for application of collateral estoppel, [the Supreme Court was] persuaded that preclusion should apply to plaintiff's subsequently filed retaliation claims against his former employer." The Court reversed the appellate court and held that under the facts of this case, plaintiff's CEPA action was barred. View "Winters v. No. Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Wade Stancil was injured in 1995 while employed by Orient Originals. He received workers' compensation benefits from his employer's compensation carrier, defendant ACE USA (ACE). In 2006, following a trial, the court of compensation determined that Stancil was totally disabled. In 2007, Stancil filed a motion in the compensation court seeking an order compelling ACE to pay outstanding medical bills. During a hearing on the motion, the compensation judge commented that ACE had a history of failing to make payments when ordered to do so. The compensation judge granted Stancil's motion, warned ACE against any further violation of the order to pay, and awarded Stancil counsel fees. The parties returned to the compensation court for a further proceeding relating to the disputed bills. After finding that the bills identified in the earlier order remained unpaid and that ACE's failure to make payment was a willful and intentional violation of the order, the court issued another order compelling ACE to make immediate payment and again awarding counsel fees. In 2008, Stancil underwent additional surgery and psychiatric treatment. Stancil's physician attributed the need for additional treatment to an earlier treatment delay caused by the carrier's delay in paying medical providers. N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 to -142 (the Act), is the exclusive remedy for the claims pled in the complaint and therefore no damages could be awarded. The trial court granted ACE's motion effectively denying payments for Stancil's 2008 treatment. The Appellate Division affirmed. The issue on appeal to the Supreme Court was whether the employee could sue the carrier for pain and suffering caused by the carrier's delay in paying for medical treatment, prescriptions, and other services. Upon review, the Court concluded that an injured employee does not have a common law right of action against a workers' compensation carrier for pain and suffering caused by the carrier's delay because: (1) the workers' compensation system was designed to provide injured workers with a remedy outside of the ordinary tort or contract remedies cognizable in the Superior Court; (2) in amending the Workers' Compensation Act in 2008, the Legislature rejected a provision that would have given the compensation courts broader permission to authorize a resort to the Superior Court and adopted a remedy that permits compensation courts to act through a contempt power; and (3) allowing a direct common-law cause of action against a carrier would undermine the workers' compensation system by substituting a cause of action that would become the preferred manner of securing relief. View "Stancil v. ACE USA" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Kenneth Van Dunk and his wife filed this suit in the Law Division after he suffered serious injuries in a trench collapse at a construction site workplace. Following discovery, the trial court granted summary judgment to the employer-defendants Reckson Associates Realty Corporation and James Construction Company, Inc. Based on its assessment of the totality of circumstances, the court concluded that plaintiff did not demonstrate an intentional wrong within the meaning of the Act, notwithstanding that the employer was issued a federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) "willful violation" citation as a result of the incident. The Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendants, and returned the matter to the trial court. The Supreme Court granted the Defendants' petition for certification seeking review of that judgment. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that the defendants' conduct fell short of an intentional wrong creating a substantial certainty of bodily injury or death. Therefore the workers' compensation statutory bar against common-law tor actions precluded this suit, and the appellate court's ruling was reversed.

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Defendant Jean Millman worked as a sales representative for Plaintiff Target Industries, an industrial bag company. Plaintiff Thomas F. Fox was Target's director of development and purchased all of its assets after Target filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1999. Plaintiffs asserted that Millman signed a confidentiality agreement when hired. Target terminated Millman on September 7, 2000. Several days later, Defendant Polymer Packaging Inc., an industrial bag company owned by Defendants Larry and William Lanham, hired Millman knowing that she had previously worked for Target. The Lanhams asserted that Millman assured them that she was not subject to the terms of either a confidentiality agreement or a non-compete clause. The Lanhams did not verify independently the truth of that assertion. The Lanhams conceded that Millman provided Polymer with a list of customers, but contended that she described it as a customer base that she had developed over the years, thereby implying that she had generated the list on her own. The list did not identify Target or bear any indication that it was not Millman's own, and the Lanhams did not further inquire into the genesis of the list. Millman sold products for Polymer to former Target customers and, before leaving Polymer in October 2004, was responsible for generating substantial sales for the company. The core dispute over the list gave rise to a series of rulings by the trial court prior to and following a jury verdict based on special interrogatories, all of which were affirmed by the Appellate Division. Plaintiffs' petition for certification to the Supreme Court asserted that it was error for the trial court to permit Defendants to raise the defense of laches. In particular, they argued that permitting a laches defense, in circumstances in which the statute of limitations had not expired, would erase clearly defined deadlines and therefore create ambiguity, lead to confusion and engender inconsistent results in application. Further, Plaintiffs asserted that the trial and appellate courts erred in rejecting the continuing violation doctrine, in misapplying settled precedents from the Supreme Court recognizing that customer lists are protected as trade secrets, and in failing to require Defendants to inquire independently about the proprietary nature of the customer list prior to utilizing it. Upon review, the Supreme Court held that the equitable doctrine of laches could not be used to bar an action at law that was commenced within the time constraints of an applicable statute of limitations. The case was reversed and remanded for a new trial.

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In 2007, the Legislature passed a series of reform measures designed to lower property taxes. Among other issues, the reforms attempted to address the problem of excessive benefits for high-level school administrators. The following year, the Commissioner of Education issued various regulations to implement the new laws. The regulations limited certain benefits in new contracts for high-level administrators, and also capped payments for accumulated unused sick leave. In 2008, Plaintiffs-Respondents the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, Dr. Terry Van Zoeren, Dr. Simon Bosco, Joseph Abate, Jr., and John Golden filed a complaint seeking to enjoin the use of the regulations, as well as other provisions in N.J.A.C. 6A:23A-3.1(e) on federal constitutional and state law grounds. The court denied the application for a preliminary injunction and dismissed the lawsuit. The court declined to exercise jurisdiction under the doctrine known as "Burford" abstention, to allow the state courts the opportunity to determine important questions of state law. The Appellate Division held that the challenged regulations impermissibly reduced the compensation of tenured assistant superintendents, in violation of the tenure statute, and improperly deprived certain administrators of vested rights. The Appellate Division also concluded that the challenge to the sick leave cap was partially mooted by a newly enacted law. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that the Legislature had the authority to modify terms and conditions for future contracts for public employment in a manner that did not raise constitutional concerns. Furthermore, the Legislature properly exercised its power when it directed the Commissioner to issue regulations for new contracts for superintendents and assistant superintendents. The regulations that followed were consistent with their respective enabling statutes and advanced the Legislature's goals. They also protected benefits that employees had already accumulated. Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division.