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.