Justia Labor & Employment Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey

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Plaintiff Frank Chiofalo, a then-member of the New Jersey State Police (NJSP), filed a complaint under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) against his employer and certain supervisors (collectively, defendants). As the Assistant Administrative Officer of Troop B of the NJSP, Chiofalo was required to log documents that came in and out of headquarters and to collect reports from the Troop B commander. Chiofalo alleges he was subjected to adverse employment actions as retaliation for his engagement in protected activity related to two incidents. The first pertained to a claimed refusal to destroy internal NJSP documents. In 2012, a sergeant and a trooper participated in an unsanctioned escort on the Garden State Parkway, for which they later became subjects of internal review. Chiofalo claimed that the second protected activity occurred during an interaction with the Troop B Commander, in which he accused the Commander of not reporting his vacation time. Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging that Chiofalo failed to set forth a prima facie case under CEPA. The court denied the motion. The matter proceeded to trial, and a jury awarded Chiofalo compensatory and punitive damages. The Appellate Division reversed the trial court judgment, stating, with respect to the validity of a CEPA claim under N.J.S.A. 34:19-3(c), a plaintiff had to first find and enunciate the specific terms of a statute or regulation, or the clear expression of public policy, which would be violated if the facts as alleged are true. The appellate court concluded that Chiofalo failed to do so and that defendants were entitled to summary judgment on that basis. Specific to the timekeeping claim, the Appellate Division added that Chiofalo’s statement to the Commander “was hardly 'whistleblowing’ as contemplated by CEPA.” The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed in part, finding the trial court did not er in refusing to grant defendants' motion for summary judgment on one of plaintiff's two bases for whistleblowing charges. The Court affirmed with respect to the alleged timesheet violation. View "Chiofalo v. New Jersey" on Justia Law

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Officer Corey Corbo became gravely ill while at home with his girlfriend and colleague, Officer Jessica Garcia. Garcia called 9-1-1 and later admitted that Corbo had ingested cocaine five days earlier. The paramedics rushed Corbo to the hospital, where his laboratory results came back positive for cocaine. Relying on the hospital records, which included the positive lab results, and Garcia’s statement about the cocaine, Union City terminated Corbo’s employment with the UCPD. The Appellate Division reversed the decision removing Corbo from the UCPD, holding that the ALJ erred when she admitted the hospital records into evidence without first requiring the City to lay foundational testimony to satisfy the requirements of the business records hearsay exception. It also held that the City failed to establish the reliability of the lab results or to introduce other competent evidence at the hearing but did not remand for further evidentiary proceedings. The New Jersey Supreme Court modified the judgment of the Appellate Division and remanded matter to the Office of Administrative Law for further proceedings to allow the City the opportunity to demonstrate that the hospital records were admissible as business records, and for the opportunity to present any other theories of admissibility. View "In the Matter of Corey Corbo" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Frank Caraballo joined the Jersey City Police Department (JCPD) as a police officer in February 1973 and became a detective in 1977. While on duty in August 1999, Caraballo sustained injuries to his hands, back, knees, and legs during a motor vehicle accident. The injuries to his knees were severe and became chronic. As a result of those injuries, Caraballo fluctuated between full duty, light duty, and paid sick leave throughout the remainder of his tenure on the police force. In August 2001, Caraballo filed a workers’ compensation claim related to the 1999 accident. He also underwent anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction surgery on his left knee. Over the next several years, physicians evaluated Caraballo to determine whether he required bilateral knee replacement surgery. On March 4, 2013, more than six-and-a-half years after he requested that the JCPD authorize knee replacement surgery, Caraballo settled his workers’ compensation claim. Shortly thereafter, he filed a complaint against the JCPD asserting a cause of action under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD). Specifically, Caraballo alleged that the JCPD failed to authorize his knee replacement surgery and, therefore, failed to reasonably accommodate his disability. The trial court granted the JCPD’s motion for summary judgment, finding that even if the knee surgery could have qualified as a reasonable accommodation, the record contained several medical evaluations showing that Caraballo was unable to carry out the responsibilities of a police officer with or without the surgery. The trial court also found that Caraballo could not bring a viable LAD claim because he failed to enforce his right to have knee surgery in the workers’ compensation court. The Appellate Division reversed. According to the panel, the record contained numerous material factual disputes -- including why Caraballo retired without receiving knee surgery -- that should have been presented to a jury. The Appellate Division also concluded that Caraballo established a prima facie failure-to-accommodate case under the LAD. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding Caraballo’s failure to utilize the Act’s administrative remedies to obtain knee replacement surgery precludes his failure-to-accommodate claim under the LAD. In addition, Caraballo’s total knee replacement surgery cannot qualify as a reasonable accommodation under the LAD. View "Caraballo v. City of Jersey City Police Department" on Justia Law

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Seventeen-year veteran volunteer firefighter Jennifer Kocanowski was injured in the line of duty. She applied and was denied temporary disability benefits because she did not have outside employment. In this appeal, the issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's consideration was whether volunteer firefighters had to be employed to be eligible for temporary disability benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act, N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 to -146. The Appellate Division affirmed the compensation judge’s determination that pre-injury outside employment was a necessary predicate to awarding temporary disability benefits to volunteer firefighters, holding that there "first must be an entitlement by the volunteer to payment of temporary benefits. That payment depends on proof of lost wages." The Supreme Court reversed: "While N.J.S.A. 34:15-75’s language is unclear, its legislative history indicates a strong intent to provide temporary disability coverage to volunteer firefighters at the maximum compensation provided for in the Act." View "Kocanowski v. Township of Bridgewater" on Justia Law

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William Hendrickson, Jr. worked as a fire safety inspector with the Department of Community Affairs. While on duty, he uttered an obscene and belittling remark about a female supervisor overheard by two of his colleagues. The DCA brought three disciplinary charges against Hendrickson. In September 2014, after a departmental hearing on the disciplinary charges, the DCA issued an order terminating Hendrickson’s employment. The ALJ held that Hendrickson uttered a gender slur in a workplace environment and therefore violated the State’s policy prohibiting gender discrimination and engaged in conduct unbecoming a public employee. Although the ALJ was troubled by Hendrickson’s failure to acknowledge his wrongdoing, she reasoned that removal was “too harsh” a punishment given Hendrickson’s lack of a disciplinary record in the fifteen months before and nine months after the incident. She instead ordered Hendrickson suspended for six months. The ALJ forwarded the decision to the Civil Service Commission, and both parties filed exceptions. Hendrickson argued that the discipline was too severe, and the DCA argued that termination was the appropriate punishment. Failing to reach a quorum, the ALJ's decision was deemed adopted by the Civil Service Commission. The Appellate Division reversed the ALJ’s decision and reinstated the DCA’s termination of Hendrickson’s employment, acknowledging the ALJ’s decision “was 'deemed-adopted’ as the Commission’s final decision. Nevertheless, the panel held that because the vacancies on the Commission disabled it from forming a quorum and acting, “the deemed-adopted statute does not require traditional deferential appellate review of the ALJ’s decision.” The New Jersey Supreme Court determined the Appellate Division erred in suggesting appellate review of a disciplinary sanction imposed by a judge was de novo and different from traditional appellate review of an agency determination. Consequently, and based on a deferential standard of review, the Supreme Court could not conclude the ALJ's decision was shocking to a sense of fairness, and affirmed the ALJ's decision. View "In the Matter of William R. Hendrickson, Jr., Department of Community Affairs" on Justia Law

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At issue before the New Jersey Supreme Court was two determinations of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (PFRS) Board of Trustees (Board), each involving a police officer’s claim that he was “mentally . . . incapacitated” by a traumatic event within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1). In Mount v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, the Board and the Appellate Division panel rejected Officer Christopher Mount’s claim that he was permanently disabled because he witnessed at close range the incineration of three young victims in an explosion after a high-speed motor vehicle collision. The Supreme Court held Mount had proven that he experienced a terrifying or horror-inducing event that met the standard of Patterson v. Board of Trustees, SPRS, 194 N.J. 29 (2008), and that the event was undesigned and unexpected within the meaning of Richardson v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, 192 N.J. 189 (2007). The Court therefore reversed the Appellate Division panel’s judgment and remanded to the panel to decide Mount’s claim that his mental disability was a direct result of that incident. In Martinez v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, the Supreme Court considered the Division’s decision reversing the Board’s denial of accidental disability benefits to Detective Gerardo Martinez, a municipal police department’s hostage negotiator. Martinez claimed that his permanent disability resulted from psychological injuries sustained when a lengthy hostage negotiation ended with the shooting death of the hostage-taker, as he and Martinez spoke by cellphone. The Supreme Court held Martinez did not demonstrate the incident that caused his disability was undesigned and unexpected under the Richardson test, and therefore he was not entitled to accidental disability benefits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7. View "Mount v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Jaclyn Thompson alleged that she was mentally disabled as a result of three incidents at work. Petitioner was a health and physical education teacher. She taught regular gym classes, coached, and served as an advisor and mentor. She also taught gym classes specifically geared toward students with disabilities. During three of petitioner’s classes, students punched, slapped, or pushed her. Petitioner sustained no physical injuries in the three incidents, and she required no medical treatment. Petitioner filed a request for accidental disability retirement benefits based on the three incidents. Her psychiatrist diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Board of Trustees of the Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund (Board) denied her request for accidental disability benefits but found petitioner qualified for a deferred retirement. Petitioner argued she met the requirement for mental disability because the incidents involved physical contact. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found petitioner did not meet the standard for accidental disability benefits. However, the ALJ granted her ordinary disability benefits. The ALJ found that she suffered from PTSD, that medication was ineffective at abating her symptoms, and that she was totally and permanently disabled from the performance of her regularly assigned duties. Petitioner appealed the denial of accidental disability benefits. The Board affirmed the ALJ. Petitioner then appealed to the Appellate Division. The majority of the panel affirmed. Finding no abuse of discretion, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division. View "Thompson v. Board of Trustees, Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund" on Justia Law

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This appeal involved the collective negotiations agreements CNAs between: (1) Atlantic County and the Fraternal Order of Police, Atlantic Lodge #34 (FOP Lodge 34); (2) Atlantic County and the Atlantic County Prosecutor s Office, P.B.A. Local #77 (PBA Local 77); and (3) Bridgewater Township and the Policemen s Benevolent Association, Local #174 (PBA Local 174). Atlantic County informed FOP Lodge 34 and PBA Local 77 that when their respective CNAs expired the County would no longer implement the incremental salary scheme provided for in those contracts. Both unions filed charges with the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC or the Commission), claiming that Atlantic County had engaged in an unfair labor practice, contrary to the Employer-Employee Relations Act (EERA). The hearing examiner agreed with the unions and found that Atlantic County's departure from the dynamic status quo, in this case, the refusal to pay automatic increments, constituted a unilateral change in a mandatory subject of negotiations in violation of the [EERA]. Atlantic County petitioned PERC for review, and the Commission came to the opposite conclusion. All three unions appealed. The Appellate Division consolidated the cases and reversed the Commission. The New Jersey Supreme Court did not determine whether, as a general rule, an employer must maintain the status quo while negotiating a successor agreement. In these cases, the governing contract language required that the terms and conditions of the respective agreements, including the salary step increases, remain in place until a new CNA is reached. Therefore, the judgment of the Appellate Division was affirmed on other grounds. View "In the Matter of Atlantic County" on Justia Law

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The Washington Township Education Association was the major union representative for employees of the Robbinsville Township Board of Education. Relevant to the events in this matter, the Board and the Association were bound by a collective negotiation agreement during the period of July 1, 2008 through June 30, 2011. According to Article 5.3 of the Agreement, the teachers salaries were based on the number of school-year work days, which contract negotiations established to be 188 days for new teachers and 185 days for all other teachers. On March 17, 2010, during a time of declared fiscal emergency, the State notified the Board that State education funding to the district would be reduced by fifty-eight percent for the upcoming 2010-2011 school year. Reeling from that significant funding reduction, the Board took action: it revised its budget for the next school year by cutting educational programs, freezing salaries, and laying off approximately thirteen teaching and staff positions. Because those attempts were insufficient to balance the school district's budget, on March 19, 2010, the Board asked the Association to re-open contract negotiations for the 2010-2011 school year. The Association, citing its members best interests, declined to re-open discussions mid-contract. The Association also did not respond to the Board s subsequent request on April 13 to reconsider re-opening negotiations. The Board announced a decision to impose involuntary furlough days on teachers, knowing that the furloughed days would impact the affected employees' wages. An unfair labor charge was filed with the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC). The Appellate Division granted summary judgment in favor of the Board. But the Supreme Court reversed, finding that the Appellate Division's decision was based on an overly broad and mistaken reading of the controlling case-law for this matter. View "In the Matter of Robbinsville Twp. Bd. of Education v. Washington Township Education Assn." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs Ramon and Jeffrey Cuevas were brothers who were employees of defendant Wentworth Property Management Corporation (Wentworth). In May 2005, Michael Mendillo, president and chief executive officer of Wentworth, hired Ramon to serve as a regional vice president; months later, Wentworth hired Jeffrey as a portfolio manager. Jeffrey was promoted to executive director in July 2007. In the new position, Jeffrey reported directly to defendant Arthur Bartikofsky, Wentworth's executive vice president of operations. Ramon also reported to Bartikofsky. Plaintiffs claimed that they encountered racial discrimination and a hostile work environment while under Bartikofsky's supervision. Many of the degrading remarks directed at Ramon occurred at senior executive meetings, where Mendillo, Bartikofsky, Alan Trachtenberg (in-house counsel), other executives, and regional vice presidents were present. Jeffrey corroborated most of his brother's account. When Jeffrey complained to Trachtenberg, he replied that Jeffrey should calm down and that the remarks should not be taken so seriously. Within the next month, both Ramon and Jeffrey were terminated. Plaintiffs filed an action under New Jersey s Law Against Discrimination (LAD) claiming that they were victims of race-based discrimination, a hostile work environment, and retaliatory firings. Ramon also claimed that Wentworth failed to promote him based on his race. In its defense, Wentworth contended that plaintiffs were terminated for poor work performance. The case was tried before a jury, which returned a verdict against defendants on all claims other than Ramon's failure-to-promote claim. The jury awarded overall damages in the amount of $2.5 million to the two brothers, including $800,000 in emotional-distress damages to Ramon and $600,000 in emotional-distress damages to Jeffrey. The trial court rejected defendants post-trial motions to vacate the jury's verdict and the damages award. In particular, the court denied defendants motion for a remittitur of the emotional-distress damages. In doing so, the court distinguished the comparable cases and verdicts selected by defendants. In the court's view, the award fell far short of one that would be shocking to the conscience. The trial judge also stated that she would refrain from applying her own feel for the case under "He v. Miller," (207 N.J.230 (2011)). The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's judgment. Finding no error, the Supreme Court affirmed too. View "Cuevas v. Wentworth Group" on Justia Law