New Jersey District Court Allows Plaintiff to Proceed to Trial on Claim of Unlawful Discharge, Dismisses Claims of Handicap and Discrimination

By: Jerrold J. Wohlgemuth

The New Jersey District Court in St. Cyr v. Brandywine Senior Living LLC, recently granted summary judgment to the employer dismissing the plaintiff’s causes of action for handicap and race discrimination, but allowed the plaintiff to go to trial on her claim that she was unlawfully discharged in violation of the FMLA in retaliation for asking for a medical leave of absence because she was fired only two days before the leave of absence was to begin.  In granting summary judgment on the claim of handicap discrimination, the court determined that the plaintiff, who suffered from arthritis, was not “handicapped” under the NJLAD because the condition, which  was alleviated with medication, did not interfere with her ability to perform her job, and because she never asked for an accommodation for the condition.  The court rejected her claim of race discrimination based on her admission that the only evidence implicating racial animus was the fact that she was fired for watching the BET Network on television during working hours.  The court noted that the plaintiff, who had previously been placed on probation for poor performance and was on final warning, was replaced by an African American employee and had failed to show the legitimate reason given for her discharge was pretextual.  Despite that finding, however, and despite the fact that the employer had granted the plaintiff’s request for a medical leave of absence, the court denied summary judgment on the claim of retaliatory discharge under the FMLA based only on the determination that the timing of the discharge – only two days before her FMLA leave was to begin – was “unusually suggestive” of retaliatory motivation.  The court did not explain how the timing could be suspect if that was when the plaintiff was found watching television instead of doing her job, and if there was no evidence that the proffered reason was pretextual.

New Jersey District Court Denies Employer’s Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff’s Cause of Action After Employee’s Supervisor Gains Unauthorized Access to Employee’s Facebook Account

By: Jerrold J. Wohlgemuth

In Ehling v. Monmouth-Ocean Hospital Service Corp., the District Court in New Jersey recently denied the employer’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s cause of action for invasion of privacy in connection with a supervisor having gained unauthorized access to her private Facebook account.  The plaintiff nurse, who was also the union president at the hospital, had posted comments on her Facebook wall about the news story out of Washington, D.C. in 2009 concerning the killing of a security guard at the Holocaust Museum by a white supremacist in which she expressed her opinion or rant that the paramedics in D.C. should have let the shooter die rather than help him after he was shot during the incident:  “He survived [and] I blame the DC paramedics.  I want to say 2 things to the DC  medics.  1.  WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?  and 2.  This was your opportunity to really make a difference!  WTF!!!!  And to the other guards…. go to target practice.”  The supervisor apparently wanted access to plaintiff’s Facebook comments because of her leadership role with the union, and convinced a co-worker to give him access to her private account so he could copy her postings. When he saw the comments about the D.C. incident he sent a copy to the State Board of Nursing suggesting that it represented an improper disregard for patient safety.

On the employer’s motion to dismiss the invasion of privacy claim on the grounds that there can be no expectation of privacy with respect to Facebook postings, the court decided that the question whether the plaintiff had a reasonable expectation of privacy was for a jury to decide based on the circumstances, including the number of “friends” who had access to her Facebook wall where the plaintiff claimed that she had restricted access to her friends but did not provide access to any supervisors or members of management.  The court did not address the separate question whether a rant expressing an opinion about a news report could be considered an expression of one’s “private affairs” subject to protection under invasion of privacy law, and did not address the fact that Facebook specifically includes in its Privacy Policy a disclaimer to the effect that there is no guarantee of privacy and that users make postings at their own risk inasmuch as anyone with access can copy or share comments with anyone they choose.

New Jersey Court Affirms Sanction Against Law Firm For Losing Emails

By: Jerrold J. Wohlgemuth

The New Jersey Appellate Division has affirmed an order imposing sanctions against defense counsel for losing attorney-client emails that were relevant to the question whether a settlement had been reached between the parties and that had been identified on defendants’ privilege log.  When the judge directed that the emails be submitted for in camera inspection, defense counsel replied that they were not available because they had been in the file of the defendants’ prior counsel and could no longer be located.

Plaintiffs’ counsel then retained a forensic expert and incurred over $10,000 in costs and attorneys’ fees to recover the emails from backup tapes on the hard drive of the original defense counsel’s firm.  The judge then determined after in camera inspection that the emails were admissible, and ordered the defendants and the law firm representing them to jointly reimburse plaintiffs for that expense. The emails ultimately formed the foundation for the trial court’s ruling in plaintiffs’ favor at trial.

On appeal, the defense firm argued that the sanction was improper because it had not violated any Court Rule in connection with its handling of the emails, and because there was no evidence of intentional spoliation.  The Appellate Division disagreed.

In its opinion in Goldmark v. Brach Eichler LLC, the Court observed that the trial judge had inherent power to impose discovery sanctions, and held that the sanctions were proper even in the absence of intentional spoliation because counsel had an obligation to preserve the documents identified on its privilege log and produce them as required for in camera inspection.  The Court concluded that “[i]t would make a mockery of our discovery rules to allow a party or
its counsel – after identifying privileged information – to destroy or carelessly lose or misplace the materials in question.”

Courts consistently hold that litigants and in-house counsel must preserve documents that bear a relationship to issues in litigation.  Consistent with that, the Goldmark opinion reminds counsel of record to preserve all potentially relevant emails – including privileged client communications – during litigation.

New Jersey’s Highest Court Rejects “Absolute Liability” Standard for Employee Assault of Patient

By: Lynne Anne Anderson and Jerrold Wohlgemuth

The New Jersey Supreme Court in Davis v. Devereux Foundation, 209 N.J. 269 (2012), recently rejected an attempt to impose absolute liability against a residential health care facility for a criminal assault committed by an employee against a resident patient.  The Court determined that the facility should be held to the traditional reasonable duty of care towards its patients.   Further, the traditional “scope of employment” analysis should be applied to determine whether the employer could be held liable for the tortious conduct of its employee.

In Davis, a resident counselor employed by Devereux, a residential institution for the developmentally disabled, engaged in a pre-meditated act of aggression when she assaulted a residential patient by pouring boiling water on him.  The counselor was arrested and imprisoned for criminal assault, and the patient’s guardians obtained a default judgment against her for assault in the ensuing civil action.

The family also brought a civil action against the health care facility.  Reversing the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the facility, the Appellate Division remanded for trial and imposed an absolute liability standard on the employer under the common law “non-delegable duty” analysis, which imposes a duty on the master to protect those entrusted to its care in an in loco parentis relationship, such as a school or health care facility, and subjects the master to liability for the acts of its employees whenever they fail to meet their duty of care.  Under that common law approach, the non-delegable duty imposed on the employer cannot be satisfied by any level of care taken by the employer in hiring or supervision of its staff, but is based solely on the level of care taken by the employee.

The Supreme Court reversed and reinstated summary judgment in favor of the health care facility.  The Court observed that the “non-delegable duty” would unfairly impose absolute liability on the employer regardless of the level of care engaged in by the employer.  “Once an employee has committed a tortious act, the duty would effectively impose absolute liability upon residential institutions” even if the employer had acted reasonably in screening applicants and supervising its employees.

The Court instead determined that traditional principles of the duty of reasonable care should be followed with respect to the actions of employees of facilities responsible for in loco parentis care.  The Court observed that such facilities are expected to take reasonable measures to assure that their staff members are not endangering the safety of the patients entrusted to their care, and that liability for the tortious acts of their employees would be determined under traditional “scope of employment” principles.  Finding in this case that Devereux acted reasonably in screening individuals prior to hiring, and in supervising the relationship of its employees with the residential patients, the Court determined that the facility had met its duty of care to its patients.  The Court further determined that the counselor had acted far outside the scope of her employment in pouring boiling water on the patient where she acted out of personal anger and frustration, and not in any way to further the interests of her employer.

New Jersey’s Appellate Court Denies Employer’s Attempt to Dismiss Claims on Eve of Trial Based on Employee Agreement to Arbitrate

By: Lynne Anne Anderson and Jerrold Wohlgemuth

Can an employer litigate employment claims in court and then enforce an arbitration agreement against the plaintiff-employee on the eve of trial to avoid presenting the case to a jury?  The New Jersey Appellate Division just said, “No.”

Plaintiff Karen Cole was a nurse anesthetist employed by Liberty Anesthesia Associates, LLC to work at Jersey City Medical Center.  When her privileges were revoked by the Hospital, Liberty terminated her employment and she filed suit against both Liberty and the Hospital for retaliatory discharge under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”), and for discriminatory discharge based on her disability under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”).

Cole settled her claims against the Hospital at the hearing on the Hospital’s motion for summary judgment.  Liberty did not settle with plaintiff at that time.  Instead, after defending the action for almost two years in litigation, Liberty moved to dismiss the claims against it one month later in a motion in limine filed three days before trial based on the arbitration agreement Cole had entered into in her employment agreement with Liberty.  The trial court enforced the arbitration agreement and dismissed the case on the eve of trial, and Cole appealed.

In a March 29, 2012 opinion, the New Jersey Appellate Division reversed and remanded the action for trial.  The court found that Liberty’s counsel had pursued the litigation – instead of seeking to enforce the arbitration agreement – as a deliberate trial strategy, and determined that Liberty was equitably estopped from enforcing the arbitration provision at the last minute before trial where it had failed to mention arbitration among the thirty-five affirmative defenses asserted in its Answer; failed to identify the arbitration agreement in discovery; and failed to raise the agreement in its motion for summary judgment on the merits.  The court observed that Liberty’s deliberate course of conduct was prejudicial to Cole where it had caused her not only to participate in extensive discovery, but also to prepare to try her case before a jury, which the court noted required a great deal more preparation than presenting a case in arbitration.

To read the published opinion in Cole click hereCole is reported at 425 N.J. Super 48 (App. Div. 2012).

New Jersey Appellate Division Re-affirms Employers Are Not Required To Provide Indefinite Leaves Of Absence Under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination

By: Jerrold Wohlgemuth

The New Jersey Appellate Division recently re-affirmed that an employer is not required to provide an indefinite leave of absence in order to meet its obligation under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) to reasonably accommodate the disabilities of its employees.  In Lozo-Weber v. New Jersey Department of Human Services, Plaintiff, who suffered from lupus, requested a medical leave of absence and submitted a doctor’s note indicating that she would be unable to work for at least one year.  The employer placed Plaintiff on leave pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).  Once she exhausted her FMLA time, the employer agreed to an accommodation of an additional six months of unpaid leave, advising her in writing that it could not continue the leave longer than that due to operational needs.  When the extended leave was about to expire, Plaintiff requested additional leave as an accommodation, but did not provide a date certain by which she would be able to return to work.  Instead, the doctor’s note stated only that she would need to be out of work for “approximately” six more weeks.  At the expiration of the approved six months leave, the employer terminated Plaintiff’s employment.

In affirming summary judgment for the employer on the claim of failure to accommodate under the LAD, the Appellate Division observed that the employer had provided Plaintiff with a reasonable accommodation by extending the FMLA leave by an additional six months.  The court further held that an indefinite leave of absence was not a reasonable accommodation where the Plaintiff admittedly could not say when she would be able to return to work.  While courts recognize that “reasonable accommodation” includes medical leaves of absence for reasonable periods of time, employers in New Jersey should look carefully at the notes submitted by doctors in support of requests for continued medical leaves, as there is no requirement to provide indefinite leave to employees who are physically unable to work and who cannot specify how long they will need to be out of work.