Justia Labor & Employment Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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Plaintiff Shelly Pritchett worked for the Juvenile Justice Center (JJC), which ran the state’s juvenile correctional facilities. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. When her second request for unpaid leave was denied, her supervisor refused to explain the denial or put the denial in writing. On November 1, 2011, Pritchett learned that she would be subject to disciplinary proceedings -- which would result in her termination without a pension -- if she did not resign by the end of the week. Pritchett applied for retirement disability benefits on November 4. Weeks later, her union representative informed the JJC that Pritchett believed she was forced into retirement against her will. The JJC’s Equal Opportunity Office expressed its opinion that the JJC “failed to engage in the interactive process,” which “resulted in a violation of the State Anti-Discrimination Policy,” but opined that Pritchett’s “request for reinstatement [was] mooted by [her] approval for disability retirement.” Pritchett filed a complaint alleging the State violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD). A jury awarded Pritchett compensatory damages in excess of $1.8 million and punitive damages of $10 million. The State challenged the punitive damages award. The trial court determined that the punitive damages amount was high but that no miscarriage of justice occurred. The Appellate Division affirmed in large part, but remanded for reconsideration of the punitive damages award, calling upon the trial court to consider the factors discussed in Baker v. National State Bank, 161 N.J. 220 (1999), and BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559 (1996). The State petitioned for certiorari review, arguing that the Appellate Division’s remand instructions were flawed in part because they failed to include direction to the trial court to apply heightened scrutiny when reviewing awards of LAD punitive damages against public entities. The New Jersey Supreme Court concurred with the state, modifying the Appellate Division's order to include instruction that the trial court review the punitive damages award with heightened scrutiny. View "Pritchett v. New Jersey" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Armando Rios, Jr., a Hispanic male, was hired by defendant Meda Pharmaceutical, Inc. (Meda) in May 2015. Defendant Tina Cheng-Avery was Rios’s direct supervisor. Rios claimed Cheng-Avery twice directed a racially-derogatory term toward him at their place of work. Rios says he reported her comments to Meda’s Director of Human Resources after each incident. Cheng-Avery placed Rios on probation in February 2016 for poor performance. Meda fired Rios in June 2016. Rios filed a complaint alleging in part that defendants violated the Law Against Discrimination (LAD) by creating a hostile work environment. The trial court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that no rational factfinder could conclude Cheng-Avery’s alleged comments were sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment. The Appellate Division affirmed. The New Jersey Supreme Court found that the remarks from the perspective of a reasonable Hispanic employee in Rios’s position, a rational jury could conclude the demeaning and contemptuous slurs, allegedly uttered by a direct supervisor, were sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment in violation of the LAD. The Appellate Division was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Rios v. Meda Pharmaceutical, Inc." on Justia Law

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In June 2020, weeks after George Floyd was killed at the hands of a Minneapolis Police Officer, the New Jersey Attorney General issued two Directives calling for the release of the names of law enforcement officers who commit disciplinary violations that result in the imposition of “major discipline” -- termination, demotion, or a suspension of more than five days. A summary of the misconduct and the sanction imposed also had to be disclosed. In this appeal, the issues presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court came from challenges brought against the Directives by five groups representing state and local officers. The Appellate Division found that the Directives did not violate constitutional guarantees of due process or equal protection. The court also rejected claims that the Directives violate the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and that they impaired appellants’ right to contract and violate their constitutional right to collective negotiations. Finally, the appellate court concluded the Directives were not arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable, or against public policy. The Supreme Court found the Directives were consistent with legislative policies and rested on a reasonable basis. The Court did not find merit in the bulk of the remaining challenges, except for one that required "more careful attention:" Officers subjected to major discipline for the past twenty years said they were promised that their names would not be released, and that they relied on that promise in resolving disciplinary accusations. Essentially they asked the State to stand by promises they claimed were made throughout the prior twenty years. Resolution of that issue will require judicial review to decide if the elements of the doctrine of promissory estoppel were met. The identities of officers subject to major discipline since the Directives were issued in June 2020 could be disclosed; going forward, future disciplinary sanctions could be disclosed in the same manner. View "In re Attorney General Law Enforcement Directive Nos. 2020-5 and 2020-6" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Mary Richter, a longtime type 1 diabetic and teacher, experienced a hypoglycemic event in a classroom. She sustained serious and permanent life-altering injuries. Richter filed a claim under the Law Against Discrimination (LAD), alleging that her employer failed to accommodate her pre-existing disability. The issues this appeal presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court were: (1) whether Richter was required to establish an adverse employment action -- such as a demotion, termination, or other similarly recognized adverse employment action -- to be able to proceed with an LAD failure-to-accommodate disability claim; and (2) whether plaintiff’s claim was barred by the “exclusive remedy provision” of the Worker’s Compensation Act (WCA) because she recovered workers’ compensation benefits. The Supreme Court held an adverse employment action was not a required element for a failure-to-accommodate claim under the LAD. Further, plaintiff’s LAD claim based on defendants’ alleged failure to accommodate her pre-existing diabetic condition was not barred by the WCA, and plaintiff need not filter her claim through the required showings of the “intentional wrong exception.” View "Richter v. Oakland Board of Education" on Justia Law

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In 2006, plaintiff Brenda Gilbert divorced her husband, Monroe Gilbert, who acquired sole possession of the family’s vehicle, which was still registered in plaintiff’s name. In April 2014, Monroe informed plaintiff that he had to report to the Woodland Park Municipal Court (WPMC) regarding many outstanding traffic tickets; the court summonses were issued in plaintiff’s name. On April 15, 2014, plaintiff met Monroe and his attorney, defendant Kenyatta Stewart, at WPMC. The matter was adjourned, and plaintiff, defendant, and Monroe discussed the best way to resolve the outstanding summonses. Plaintiff did not retain defendant as her attorney or request that he represent her; nor did defendant bill plaintiff or enter into a fee agreement with her. Nevertheless, he indicated to plaintiff that the optimal resolution would be for her to plead guilty to the charges because Monroe was at greater risk of license suspension due to his poor driving record. Plaintiff worked in the Passaic probation department since 1994. The parties disputed the extent to which defendant advised plaintiff of certain risks associated with the plea agreement. It was undisputed that defendant failed to advise plaintiff of the impact that a guilty plea might have on her public employment. In July 2014, plaintiff, through different counsel, challenged her conviction; ultimately the disposition against her was vacated, her fines were repaid to her, and the charges against plaintiff were dismissed. Plaintiff ultimately filed a complaint against defendant, alleging he breached a duty of care by “engaging in a clear conflict of interest” and urging her to enter into “unwarranted guilty pleas.” Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that he was not the proximate cause of plaintiff’s harm because any discipline from her employer resulted from her failure to notify, not her conviction. Judgment was entered in defendant's favor. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding a jury should have decided whether defendant’s legal advice was a substantial factor in plaintiff's demotion and suspension. View "Gilbert v. Stewart" on Justia Law

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In 2011, the Borough of Carteret and the Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association, Local 67 (FMBA) executed a collectively negotiated agreement (CNA) governing the terms and conditions of employment for the Borough’s firefighters. As of 2013, the Borough employed four captains and generally staffed each shift with one captain, who was charged with managing subordinate firefighters also on duty. Under the CNA, if no captains were scheduled to work a particular shift, the senior firefighter on duty would assume the captain’s responsibilities and be compensated at the captain’s rate of pay. Almost two years after the CNA went into effect, the Borough created a new position -- fire lieutenant -- falling between captain and firefighter in the chain of command. After the creation of the lieutenant position, if no captains were scheduled for a given shift, the lieutenant on duty would assume the captain’s responsibilities. In those instances, however, the Borough paid lieutenants their regular salary, not the higher rate an acting captain would have been paid. In 2017, the FMBA filed a grievance alleging that the Borough’s failure to pay lieutenants at the rate of an acting captain when a lieutenant assumed a captain’s responsibilities violated the terms of the CNA. An arbitrator sided with the FMBA. The Chancery Division upheld the award, but the Appellate Division reversed, finding that the difference between the Civil Service Commission’s job descriptions for firefighters and fire lieutenants created uncertainty as to Section 5 of the CNA's application to lieutenants. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding the arbitrator’s award was supported by a reasonably debatable interpretation of the disputed provision, and therefore, the award should have been upheld on appeal. View "Borough of Carteret v. Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association, Local 67" on Justia Law

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M&K Construction (M&K) appealed a workers’ compensation court’s order (the Order) making it reimburse plaintiff Vincent Hager for the ongoing costs of the medical marijuana he was prescribed after sustaining a work-related injury while employed by M&K. Specifically, M&K contends that New Jersey’s Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act was preempted as applied to the Order by the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Compliance with the Order, M&K claims, would subject it to potential federal criminal liability for aiding-and-abetting or conspiracy. M&K also claimed medical marijuana was not reimbursable as reasonable or necessary treatment under the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA). Finally, M&K argued that it fit within an exception to the Compassionate Use Act and was therefore not required to reimburse Hager for his marijuana costs. After review, the New Jersey Supreme Court determined: (1) M&K did not fit within the Compassionate Use Act’s limited reimbursement exception; (2) Hager presented sufficient credible evidence to the compensation court to establish that the prescribed medical marijuana represents, as to him, reasonable and necessary treatment under the WCA; and (3) the Court interpretsed Congress’ appropriations actions of recent years as suspending application of the CSA to conduct that complied with the Compassionate Use Act. As applied to the Order, the Court thus found the Act was not preempted and that M&K did not face a credible threat of federal criminal aiding-and-abetting or conspiracy liability. M&K was ordered to reimburse costs for, and reasonably related to, Hager’s prescribed medical marijuana. View "Hager v. M&K Construction" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Jed Goldfarb claimed defendant David Solimine reneged on a promise of employment after Goldfarb quit his job to accept the promised position managing the sizeable investment portfolio of defendant’s family. The key issue in this appeal involved whether plaintiff could bring a promissory estoppel claim because he relied on defendant’s promise in quitting his prior employment even though, under New Jersey’s Uniform Securities Law of 1997 (Securities Law or the Act), he could not bring a suit on the employment agreement itself. The New Jersey Supreme Court determined the Securities Law did not bar plaintiff’s promissory estoppel claim for reliance damages. The Court affirmed the liability judgment on that claim and the remanded for a new damages trial in which plaintiff would have the opportunity to prove reliance damages. The Court found he was not entitled to benefit-of-the-bargain damages. To the extent that the Appellate Division relied on an alternative basis for its liability holding -- that a later-adopted federal law “family office” exception had been incorporated into the Securities Law -- the Court rejected that reasoning and voided that portion of the appellate court’s analysis. View "Goldfarb v. Solimine" on Justia Law

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Under New Jersey’s Worker’s Compensation Act, an employee injured during a social or recreational activity generally cannot receive compensation for those injuries unless a two-part exception is met. Here, the New Jersey Supreme Court considered whether the injuries sustained by claimant Kim Goulding at an event hosted by her employer were compensable. The workers’ compensation court dismissed Goulding’s claim, determining that "Family Fun Day" was a social or recreational event and that the two-part test of N.J.S.A. 34:15-7 was not satisfied. The Appellate Division affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed, finding the injury Goulding sustained while volunteering at her employer-sponsored event was compensable because, as to Goulding, the event was not a social or recreational activity. Even if N.J.S.A. 34:15-7 was applicable here, Goulding would still have satisfied the two-part exception set forth in that statute. Her role at the event, which was planned to be held annually, was the same as her role as an employee, and but for her employment at Friendship House, Goulding would not have been asked to volunteer and would not have been injured. Thus, Goulding’s injury was “a regular incident of employment.” Furthermore, the Court found Friendship House received a benefit from Family Fun Day “beyond improvement in employee health and morale.” The event was not a closed event for the Friendship House team. Rather, it was an outreach event to celebrate and benefit Friendship House’s clients, creating goodwill in the community. View "Goulding v. NJ Friendship House, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Elmer Branch brought a putative class action against his employer, defendant Cream-O-Land Dairy, on behalf of himself and similarly situated truck drivers employed by defendant, for payment of overtime wages pursuant to the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law (WHL). The WHL created an exemption from an overtime compensation requirement for employees of a “trucking industry employer.” In response to plaintiff’s argument that defendant failed to pay truck drivers as mandated by N.J.S.A. 34:11-56a4(b)(1), defendant argued that it was exempt from that provision as a trucking industry employer under N.J.S.A. 34:11-56a4(f). Defendant also asserted that it was entitled to invoke the absolute defense set forth in N.J.S.A. 34:11-56a25.2 because it had relied in good faith on three matters in which the Department had investigated its operations and concluded that it was a “trucking industry employer.” The trial court viewed those decisions to satisfy N.J.S.A. 34:11-56a25.2’s standard for the good-faith defense and granted summary judgment dismissing plaintiff’s claims. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that none of the determinations on which defendant relied met the requirements of the good-faith defense under the plain language of N.J.S.A. 34:11-56a25.2. The Appellate Division also rejected defendant’s invocation of a 2006 Opinion Letter by the Director of the Division that for certain employees of trucking industry employers, N.J.S.A. 34:11-56a4 “establishes their overtime rate at 1 1/2 times the minimum wage” because defendant did not represent that it had relied on that letter when it determined its overtime compensation. The New Jersey Supreme Court concurred with the Appellate Division that none of the decisions identified by defendant satisfied the requirements of the good-faith defense under the plain language of N.J.S.A. 34:11-56a25.2. The Court acknowledged, however, the dilemma faced by an employer such as defendant, which repeatedly prevailed in overtime disputes before subordinate Department employees but was unable to seek a ruling from the Commissioner of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development (Commissioner) because each of those disputes was resolved without further review. This matter was remanded to the trial court for consideration of defendant’s argument that it was a trucking-industry employer within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 34:11-56a4(f), and for determination of whether defendant complied with the applicable WHL overtime standards in compensating its employees. View "Branch v. Cream-O-Land Dairy" on Justia Law