Courts in New Jersey Continue to Endorse “Awkward Theory” of Individual Liability in NJLAD Cases

By Lawrence J. Del Rossi

Referred to by some courts as an “awkward theory” of liability, employers and supervisors should be aware that courts in New Jersey continue to recognize the viability of individual liability claims under the “aiding and abetting” provision of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. §10:5-12(e).

Personal Liability for Supervisors: Title VII vs. NJLAD

Unlike Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which does not provide for individual employee liability, New Jersey courts have held that in addition to “employers” being liable under NJLAD, supervisors can be personally liable for their illegal conduct under an “aiding and abetting” theory.  The New Jersey Supreme Court recently clarified the expansive definition of “supervisor” for purposes of the NJLAD as an employee who is (1) authorized to undertake tangible employment decisions affecting the plaintiff, or (2) authorized by the employer to direct the plaintiff’s day-to-day work activities.  Aguas v. New Jersey, 220 N.J. 494, 529 (2015).

To hold a supervisor liable as an “aider and abetter” under the NJLAD, a plaintiff must show that the individual (1) performed a wrongful act that caused an injury; (2) was generally aware of his or her role as part of an overall illegal activity at the time that he or she provided the assistance; and (3) knowingly and substantially assisted in the principal violation.  Tarr v. Ciasulli, 181 N.J. 70, 83084 (2004).  Aiding and abetting requires “active and purposeful conduct.”  Cicchetti v. Morris County Sheriff’s Office, 194 N.J. 563, 595 (2008).

What Makes this Aiding and Abetting Theory so “Awkward”?

Courts applying New Jersey law have yet to follow a uniform rule in situations where the plaintiff alleges that a supervisor aided and abetted the “employer” in violating the NJLAD based on the supervisor’s own conduct (i.e., as the sole actor engaged in the wrongful conduct).  In other words, what happens when the supervisor is the only person alleged to have engaged in the wrongful conduct?  Two distinct lines of cases have developed in this area of the law – one finding supervisory employees can be personally liable for aiding and abetting their own/the employer’s wrongful conduct (e.g., Hurley v. Atlantic City Police Dep’t, 174 F.3d 95 (3d Cir. 1999), and another refusing to impose individual liability (e.g., Newsome v. Admin. Office of the Courts of N.J., 103 F. Supp. 2d 807 (D.N.J. 2000).  See Aiding and Abetting Your Own Conduct, New Jersey Law Journal, Volume 209 (July 16, 2012), Employment Counselor, Number 241 (Sept. 2010).

A string of recent decisions by New Jersey state and federal courts suggest that this “awkward” theory is here to stay.  For example, in Yobe v. Renaissance Electric, Inc., 2016 WL 614425 (D.N.J. Feb. 16, 2016), the court denied a motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s NJLAD disability retaliation claims against his former supervisor, who was the only person alleged to have engaged in the retaliatory conduct.   The defendant argued that the plaintiff’s claim failed as a matter of law because a supervisor cannot “aid and abet” his own conduct.  Citing to the Third Circuit’s “prediction” in Hurley that the New Jersey Supreme Court would hold a supervisor personally liable under NJLAD, and an unpublished, non-precedential decision by the New Jersey Appellate Division in Rowan v. Hartford Plaza Ltd., 2013 WL 1350095 (App. Div. April. 5, 2013), the court in Yobe concluded that “[w]hile it is concededly an ‘awkward theory’ to hold an individual liable for aiding and abetting his own conduct, it would thwart the NJLAD’s broad and remedial purpose, and make little sense, to construe it as permitting ‘individual liability for a supervisor who encourages or facilitates another employee’s harassing conduct, while precluding individual liability for the supervisor based on his or her own discriminatory or harassing conduct.’”

Impact on Employers and Individual Supervisors

In discrimination, hostile work environment and retaliation cases brought under the NJLAD, it is common for a plaintiff to name his or her former supervisor as an individual defendant, particularly if the supervisor is the person who made the decision to take an adverse employment action against the plaintiff.   Naming the supervisor, particularly a high-level manager, might be viewed by the plaintiff as a tactical move to encourage an early settlement by driving a wedge between the employer’s interest in defending its business decision and the supervisor’s reputational or financial impact concerns.  Absent a showing of fraudulent joinder, a plaintiff’s naming of his or her supervisor as a defendant might prevent the employer from removing the action to federal court based on complete diversity of citizenship.  In addition, legal fees could increase if separate legal representation for the employer and the supervisor is required.  These important issues should be considered and discussed with counsel at the outset of the case.  Because the NJLAD does not provide for individual liability for aiding and abetting if the employer is not found liable, the best defense is a unified one between the employer and the individual supervisor.

Possible Amendment to New Jersey’s Anti-Discrimination Law Would Likely Mean More Claims, Greater Liability Risks and Larger Damages Awards

By David Woolf and Vik Jaitly

Earlier this week, the New Jersey General Assembly passed a bill that would amend the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”) to address specifically pay differentials among employees of different sexes who perform “substantially similar” work. The amendment, which the state Senate passed last month, will now be delivered to the Governor for consideration.

As the NJLAD exists now, an employee can bring a pay-related claim only by alleging that the differential amounts to sex discrimination and satisfying a comparatively higher standard. If the bill is signed into law, New Jersey would follow in the footsteps of other states like New York and California, which have recently updated their discrimination laws to provide a separate cause of action specifically for unequal pay.

The bill, if enacted into law, would severely limit the circumstances under which an employer can pay male and female employees different amounts for “substantially similar” work. An employer would be permitted to do so if it can demonstrate that it is utilizing a seniority (pay based on tenure) or merit (pay based on achieving certain goals) system. Alternatively, the employer would need to demonstrate that each of the following factors exists:

The differential is based on one or more legitimate, bona fide factors other than sex, such as training, education or experience, or the quantity or quality of production;

The factor or factors do not perpetuate a sex-based differential in compensation;

Each of the factors is applied reasonably;

One or more of the factors account for the entire wage differential; and

The factors are job-related with respect to the position in question and based on a legitimate business necessity, and there are no alternative business practices that would serve the same business purpose without producing the wage differential.

If enacted, the New Jersey bill would also significantly increase potential employer exposure, in that the recovery period would be extended to pick up the entire time period when the pay differential existed.

With the passing of this bill by both houses, and with laws specifically targeting gender-based pay differences on the rise generally, employers would be wise to look at their employees’ titles and job descriptions to identify “substantially similar” positions and any pay differentials among the employees in those positions. Where such differences exist, employers will want to explore the reason for those differences and whether changes need to be made. If an employer has an established seniority or merit-based system on which it intends to rely, it is important that the system be set forth in detail and made available to all employees, so that there is no question as to its existence and applicability later.

New Jersey Expands Protections Against Pregnancy-Based Discrimination By Employers And Other Entities

Update 1/23/14 – On Wednesday, January 22, 2014, Governor Christie signed  S2995 into law.  LaborSphere’s original post on the legislation appears below. 

By: Meredith R. Murphy

New Jersey is on the precipice of expanding anti-discrimination protections to both pregnant women and new mothers and those recovering from childbirth.  The State Senate and now the State Assembly have passed identical measures with only one dissenting vote in either legislative body.  The expansive legislation now awaits the signature of Governor Chris Christie in order to become law. 

Amendments to New Jersey Law Against Discrimination

In order to address the perceived vulnerability of pregnant women in the workplace as well as to foster the goal of healthier pregnancies and recovery from childbirth, the legislation passed by New Jersey’s legislature expands the anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation protections of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”).  Should it pass, both pregnant women but also those who have recently given birth or have medical conditions related to pregnancy will be statutorily protected against disparate treatment and retaliation by employers, labor organizations, landlords, lending institutions as well as an array of other entities that offer public accommodations.

Further, not only does the pending legislation add “pregnancy” to the array of protected categories covered by the NJLAD.  It also specifically requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodations,” such as bathroom breaks, breaks for increased water intake, periodic rest, assistance with manual labor, job restructuring, modified work schedules and temporary transfers to less strenuous or hazardous work.

The legislation implied but does not specifically state that any such requested accommodations will likely need to be based on the advice of a physician.  As such, it appears that pregnant women and those who have recently given birth cannot merely demand that an accommodation is “reasonable” and necessary absent some input from her physician.

Further, employers are not obligated to agree to any requested accommodation, even if it is supported by a physician’s recommendation, if such an accommodation would impose an “undue burden” as defined by the statute.  The proposed legislation provides specific factors to be utilized in determining whether an accommodation would impose undue hardship on the operation of an employer’s business.  These include:

  • overall size of the employer’ business with respect to the number of employees;
  • number and type of facilities;
  • size of budget;
  • the type of the employer’s operations, including the composition and structure of the employer’s workforce;
  • the nature and cost of the accommodation needed, taking into consideration the availability of tax credits, tax deductions and outside funding; and
  • the extent to which the accommodation would involve waiver of an essential requirement of a job as opposed to a tangential or non-business necessity requirement.

New Protection To Employees Seeking Information About Claims

Perhaps the start of a new trend, among the proposed amendments to the NJLAD is also a provision that protects any employee against reprisals by employers for asking coworkers or former coworkers for information that is part of an investigation or in furtherance of a possible claim under the NJLAD.  Such information may include requests for data regarding pay, compensation, bonuses or benefits.  Significantly, this new protection extends beyond pregnant women and those who have recently given birth. 

Impact of Amendments

If enacted, the amendments to the NJLAD would override the New Jersey Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling in Gerety v. Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort, 184 N.J. 391 (2005).  In that case, New Jersey’s highest court held that the NJLAD does not protect against the firing of a female worker who exceeded the leave available under state and federal as well as the defendant-employer’s policy.  Under the proposed amendments, it is likely that the accommodations requested in the Gerety case, by a plaintiff who had a difficult pregnancy with twins, would be considered reasonable and covered under the NJLAD.

More broadly, while the federal Family Medical Leave Act and New Jersey Family Leave Act each allow for a maximum of twelve weeks of pregnancy-related leave, under the proposed amendments, the amount of leave available to a woman who is pregnant or recovering from childbirth is not as clearly defined.  To the extent a women seeks an accommodation – including additional leave or a reduced work schedule – because of pregnancy and childbirth-related conditions, an employer has, at the very least, an obligation to review and consider such requests.

Should the proposed amendments to the NJLAD be passed, we recommend a review of leave policies as well as training for managers to identify requests for accommodations.  Each request for accommodation must be considered carefully and should it appear to impose an undue burden, then the statutorily defined factors must be taken into account.

New Jersey Gender Equity in Pay – Notice and Posting Requirements Effective January 6, 2014

By: Marion B. Cooper

Governor Chris Christie signed Assembly Bill 2647 (the “Gender Equity Notice and Posting Law,” N.J.S.A. 34:11-56.12) into law, effective November 21, 2012 requiring New Jersey employers with 50 or more employees to conspicuously post a notice, where it would be accessible to all workers in each of the employer’s workplaces, informing employees of their “right to be free of gender inequity or bias in pay, compensation, benefits, or other terms or conditions of employment” under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, other New Jersey State law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the federal Equal Pay Act of 1963.  (http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2012/Bills/PL12/57_.PDF)

Under the Gender Equity Notice and Posting Law, employers have 30 days from December 9, 2013, the date the New Jersey Division of Labor and Workforce Development (“NJDLWD”) issued the “notice” to comply.  The gender equity notice is now available for download from the NJDLWD at: http://lwd.state.nj.us/labor/forms_pdfs/EmployerPosterPacket/genderequityposter.pdf

Here is what “covered” employers (those employers with 50 or more employees, whether they work inside or outside of New Jersey) must do:

  1. Beginning January 6, 2014, conspicuously post the gender equity notice where it is accessible to all employees in each of the employer’s workplaces.  If the covered employer has an internet or intranet site for its employees’ exclusive use to which all employees have access, posting of the notice on such a site will satisfy the conspicuous posting requirement.
  2. By February 5, 2014, provide each employee hired on or before January 6, 2014 with a written copy of the gender equity notice.
  3. After January 6, 2014, provide each employee with a written copy of the gender equity notice at the time of the employee’s hiring.
  4. Beginning January 6, 2014, and on or before December 31 of each subsequent year, provide each employee a written copy of the gender equity notice.
  5. At any time, upon the first request of the worker, provide each employee a written copy of the gender equity notice.

Covered employers may distribute the gender equity notice as follows:

  1. By email;
  2. Via printed materials, including, but not limited to, a paycheck insert, brochure or similar informational packet provided to new hires, an attachment to an employee manual or policy book, or flyer distributed at an employee meeting; or
  3. By way of an internet or intranet site, so long as it is accessible by all employees, for employees’ exclusive use and the employer provides notice to workers of its posting.

Covered employers must ensure that the gender equity notice contains an acknowledgment, indicating that the worker has received the notification and has read and understands its terms.  The acknowledgment must be signed by the employee, in writing or electronically verified form, and returned to the employer within 30 days of receipt.  The notice must be posted in English, Spanish, and any other language the employer reasonably believes is the first language of a significant number of workers in the covered employer’s workforce, provided that the NJDLWD has issued a form notice in that language.

New Jersey employers (with 10 employees or more) are reminded of the similar, annual posting and distribution requirements of the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”) and of the new posting requirement of the New Jersey SAFE Act, which provides unpaid leave for victims of domestic violence.  As the end of 2013 rapidly approaches, New Jersey employers are encouraged to take time out to make sure that all postings are current for the new year, that all distribution requirements are or will be satisfied, and that handbooks are updated to reflect these new laws.

NJ Supreme Court Expands The Scope Of Retaliation Claims Under The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination

By: Jerrold J. Wohlgemuth

Under the guise of promoting the “broad remedial purposes” of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”), the New Jersey Supreme Court recently decided that employees may be protected from retaliation under the LAD even when they complain about offensive sexual comments by a supervisor which would not violate the law because they were not heard by any female employee.  In Battaglia v. United Parcel Service, Inc., the plaintiff objected to his supervisor’s repeated use of crude sexual language during discussions with other men about women in the workplace,  and made a vague reference to that language in an anonymous letter of complaint to management.  The employer investigated the complaints raised in that letter, but did not pursue the issue of offensive sexual comments because the letter was too vague to understand that the reference to “language you wouldn’t use [in] your worst nightmare” was about crude sexual comments.  Management – including the supervisor in question – figured out that plaintiff wrote the letter.  It subsequently conducted a separate investigation concerning certain inappropriate conduct by plaintiff and demoted him from his position as a manager.  Plaintiff then sued for retaliation under the LAD, and included a separate cause of action for retaliation under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”) based on other complaints he had raised concerning alleged fraudulent use of corporate credit cards.

Following a jury verdict for plaintiff, the New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed the jury’s verdict for plaintiff under CEPA but reversed with respect to the cause of action for retaliation under the LAD.  That court observed that the LAD only protects employees who reasonably believe that the employer is engaged in conduct which would be unlawful under the LAD, and that plaintiff had not engaged in protected activity because there was no discrimination or hostile work environment where the comments by the supervisor were not direct to, or heard by, any female employee.

The Supreme Court reinstated the LAD verdict, but vacated the verdict under CEPA because, among other things, the plaintiff admitted he did not believe the credit card use had been fraudulent.  With respect to the LAD cause of action for retaliation, the Court rejected the appellate court’s “narrow interpretation” that the Act only protects employees who complain about “demonstrable acts of discrimination.”  Instead, once again invoking the broad remedial purposes of the Act, the Court found that the jury had sufficient evidence to find that the plaintiff had a “good faith belief” that the supervisor’s crude sexual references to women in the workplace was unlawful under the LAD.  In this regard, the Court observed: “when an employee voices a complaint about behavior or activities in the workplace that he or she thinks are discriminatory, we do not demand that he or she accurately understand the nuances of the LAD or that he or she be able to prove that there was an identifiable discriminatory impact upon someone of the requisite protected class.”

It has long been clear that an employee may pursue a cause of action for retaliation under the LAD even where the underlying complaint of discrimination has no merit.  What is not clear is how an employee could have a reasonable belief that he was complaining about unlawful conduct where that conduct – offensive comments about women made to a group of men – could not possibly be unlawful.  That is compounded in this case by the fact that management could hardly be expected to understand that the plaintiff was complaining about unlawful conduct from the vague reference in his letter.  The opinion reflects the Court’s determination to continue to read the LAD expansively to protect employees from retaliation.  Indeed, the driving factor in this case may be reflected in the Court’s observation that the jury had evidence to support a finding that management not only gave short shrift to the complaints, but responded by imposing discipline against the complainer.

New Jersey Appellate Court “Renews” Recommendation that Model Jury Charge For Failure-to-Accommodate Cases Is Needed

By:  Lawrence J. Del Rossi

In Whalen v. New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Company, Docket No. A-3155-09T4 (N.J. App. Div. August 6, 2012), the Appellate Division, in an unpublished per curiam decision (click here to read), found no reversible error in a jury charge that did not differentiate between the two distinct theories of disparate treatment and failure to accommodate.  The plaintiff, a former project coordinator in NJM’s information technology department, claimed the trial judge had failed to separately charge her disparate treatment and failure-to-accommodate claims.   Plaintiff had Lyme’s disease, and flare ups with her disease required her to go on short-term disability, reducing her schedule from full-time (five days a week/40 hours) to less than full-time (four days a week/32 hours).  Plaintiff did not qualify for long-term disability, and there was a dispute as to whether Plaintiff had requested to work on a permanent basis on a reduced work schedule of four days per week or whether working full-time was an essential function of her job.  Based on an examination of both the responsibilities of the position itself and the plaintiff’s performance, NJM concluded that the plaintiff’s job required 40 hours of work per week, that she could not perform the essential functions of her job working less than 40 hours per week, and thus terminated her for this reason.

Ms. Whalen sued NJM for disability discrimination and unlawful termination in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49.  The case went to trial.  At the close of all the evidence, the parties “engaged in an extensive discussion regarding the jury charge.”  Although the plaintiff did not voice any objections after the charge was given (per Rule 1:7-2), she claimed plain error on appeal after the jury returned a defense verdict, contending the trial judge had failed to instruct the jury about the impact of the interactive process on the failure to accommodate theory of liability.

The jury was instructed on the three elements of a disability discrimination claim under LAD, the definition of the term “essential function of the job,” the four elements to consider in determining whether NJM had engaged in the interactive process, and the meaning of a “reasonable accommodation.”  The panel concluded that although “the better practice” would have been to charge separately the disparate treatment and failure-to-accommodate claims, the jury had more than sufficient facts to assess the issue of the interactive process as well as the ultimate issue – whether the plaintiff could perform the essential functions of her job.  Nevertheless, the panel “renewed” its recommendation that the Committee on Civil Jury Charges develop a separate failure-to-accommodate charge, stating that “[t]he addition of such a charge would be consistent with federal practice” (citing the Third Circuit’s model charge Section 9.1.2 and 9.1.3 for disparate treatment and failure-to-accommodate claims under the ADA).

Take away:  until New Jersey’s Committee on Civil Jury Charges develops a separate failure-to-accommodate jury instruction, when faced with crafting jury charges in failure-to-accommodate disability discrimination cases, practioners should be guided by the courts’ direction and holdings in Whalen v. NJM (attached); Victor v. State, 401 N.J. Super. 516 (App. Div. 2008), aff’d in part and modified in part, 203 N.J. 383 (2010); Tynan v. Vicinage 13 of the Superior Court of N.J., 351 N.J. Super. 385 (App. Div. 2002); and Viscik v. Fowler Equip. Co., 173 N.J. 1 (2002).