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).

Lawrence Del Rossi and Joshua Rinschler Publish Article on an ‘Awkward Theory’ of Personal Liability for Supervisory Employees Under the NJLAD

Associates Lawrence J. Del Rossi and Joshua D. Rinschler’s article, Aiding and Abetting Your Own Conduct – An ‘awkward theory’ of personal liability for supervisory employees under the N.J. Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), was published in the July 16, 2012 edition of the New Jersey Law Journal.  Their article takes a look at what is becoming a common practice in wrongful discharge cases brought under the NJLAD where terminated employees are not only suing their employer, but also naming as an individual defendant the supervisor who made the decision to terminate.  Their complete article appears below.

Aiding and Abetting Your Own Conduct – New Jersey Law Journal – Larry Del Rossi and Joshua Rinschler – 7-16-12

 

 

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.