October 7, 2021
Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccinations at Work Gain Steam; Botched Sexual Misconduct Investigations Involving USA Gymnastics and the National Women’s Soccer League Remind Employers to be Vigilant.
We continue to keep our clients ahead of the curve on important employment law developments, in order to help insulate employers from liability. Events from just the past week or two bring home this point.
Many large employers across the country, including those in private industry and the government, have now advised their staff that they are mandating COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of returning to work. Taking their lead, many small to midsized employers are considering similar measures. One month ago, we addressed the legality of requiring a vaccine, and predicted that vaccine mandates likely will be upheld in the courts. Of course, mandatory vaccine policies must provide for reasonable accommodations for employees who have disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs.
Two other news headlines also merit attention. The first is the resignations of the Commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and its general counsel, both women, and the cancellation of NWSL games last weekend due to allegations of sexual misconduct by a team coach. The other headline relates to the Justice Department’s inquiry concerning the FBI’s botched investigation of Larry Nassar, the former team doctor for USA Gymnastics.
What jumps out to employment lawyers is the horrific way these two matters were mishandled. With regard to Nassar, those in power looked the other way when gymnasts began reporting their allegations. Similarly, in the NWSL matter, the commissioner appears to have been notified of the coach’s actions months ago and sat on the information. To make matters even worse, when the Commissioner eventually appointed an organization to investigate, she chose one closely tied to the league that appears to be biased.
There are a number of lessons to be learned from these matters. First, as your employees begin to return to the office after the COVID-19 shutdowns, make sure your policies are clear with regard to vaccination requirements and medical testing. Also, be prepared, and know what you will require from employees who request an accommodation.
As to the matters involving the NWSL and USA Gymnastics, employers should review their anti-harassment and discrimination policies – especially now that there will be more people working together again in the office. Employers also should not delay when notified of an allegation of sexual misconduct or harassment, because the law requires employers to take prompt and effective action to remediate any inappropriate behavior. Finally, employers should retain truly independent counsel to investigate such claims or, if sued, they will have a difficult time in court convincing a jury that they properly fulfilled their duties and should not be held liable.
August 11, 2021If one reads the detailed report released yesterday by New York Attorney General Letitia James, the allegations against Governor Andrew Cuomo, which included unwanted touching, inappropriate comments of a sexual nature and the like, are no different than most other cases of sexual harassment. It is, therefore, not surprising that Governor Cuomo, a former champion of the “Me Too” Movement, resigned rather than face impeachment proceedings.
June 1, 2021After this Memorial Day weekend, there is some light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel as many employers begin welcoming employees back to their physical offices. If you’re an employer who is navigating this process, many questions will arise as you tiptoe through the minefield of pandemic-related employment laws.
January 20, 2020
Remember Johnny Carson’s soothsaying alter-ego Carnac the Magnificent? No? Fine. Instead, settle in for some prognostication from me, the Fearless Forecaster. Once again I will gaze (not Adam Gase who, by the way, I predict will be back next year as the Jets head coach) into my crystal ball and predict what employment laws companies need to be most concerned about in 2020.
Just as the Fearless Forecaster predicted last year, sexual harassment will continue to haunt employers in 2020. My prescient comments a few years ago also will hold true in 2020, that as long as men retain positions of power, and men and women work together in the workplace, there will be work for employment lawyers. New Jersey’s new law, S-477, which just became effective on Dec. 1, 2019, and which permits victims of sexual assault and abuse a new two-year window to bring claims that were previously time-barred, will also provide some additional work for employment lawyers in 2020. New York recently passed a similar law, the Child Victims Act, extending the time for those type of claims.
Employers have other claims to worry about as we enter 2020. New Jersey adopted one of the strongest wage theft laws in the country in 2019. The Wage Theft Act (WTA) significantly enhances penalties should employers not pay workers what they are owed. The WTA provides in appropriate cases for treble damages and there is a six year statute of limitations, exposing employers to much larger claims. It also makes it far more likely that a successor entity will have liability for the sins of the predecessor, so corporate transactional lawyers need to be cognizant of this change when handling sales of businesses.
There also is personal liability under the WTA. The Fearless Forecaster predicts a huge uptick in wage and hour litigation over the next few years as a result. This will also include wage and hour class actions. Finally, just in case the above predictions are not enough to cause lost sleep, employers need to worry about another type of litigation that could prove extremely costly. In 2018 New Jersey adopted the Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act, requiring pay equality across all protected categories, not just gender. Therefore, if a company pays people of color, for example, less on average than white employees, beware.
Employers can defend these claims if the pay differential is based on a seniority, a merit system or other bona fide factors such as education, experience and training. However, this law lends itself to class-action treatment. A six-year statute of limitations also ups the ante.
The Fearless Forecaster is more confident than ever before concerning his predictions. Let’s see this time next year whether he had 20/20 vision in 2020.
July 29, 2019
Mark Twain, upon learning his obituary was mistakenly published, wrote that the reports of his death are greatly exaggerated. The same can be said about arbitration agreements.
In 2018, New York passed a statute to deal with the “scourge of sexual harassment.” Codified as CPLR Sec. 7515, the law prohibits contracts that require “the parties to submit to mandatory arbitration to resolve any allegation or claim of an unlawful discriminatory practice of sexual harassment.” In 2019, the New York Legislature passed a bill to expand this prohibition to agreements that require arbitration of all discrimination claims.
As predicted, the ban on arbitration is now under attack based upon the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”). Just a few weeks ago, federal Judge Denise Cote in Latif v. Morgan Stanley & Co., LLC, No. 1:18-cv-11528 (S.D.N.Y. June 26, 2019), rejected Plaintiff’s argument that New York law voids an arbitration agreement. In reliance upon Supreme Court precedence, Judge Cote held that state laws prohibiting the use of arbitration to resolve particular disputes are preempted by the FAA.
The take-away: New York employers should continue to require employees to arbitrate harassment and discrimination claims. Having employees sign arbitration agreements serves two purposes. First, it may result in employees believing they have no choice but to file their claims in arbitration. Second, if employees try to assert their claims in court, defense counsel relying on recent precedence, can argue that the FAA preempts New York state law. Accordingly, employers should not be so quick to give up on arbitration agreements. Their death has greatly been exaggerated.
July 12, 2019On June 26, 2019, United States District Court Judge Denise Cote, Southern District of New York, held in Latif v. Morgan Stanley & Co., LLC, et al., No. 1:18-cv-11528 (S.D.N.Y. June 26, 2019), that New York’s ban on mandatory arbitration agreements of employment-related sexual harassment claims is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”)
March 26, 2019
On March 18, 2019 groundbreaking employment legislation was enacted in New Jersey. While it is only a few paragraphs long, it makes three significant changes to the employment law landscape in the Garden State.First, Senate Bill No. 121 bars provisions in an employment agreement that waive any substantive or procedural right or remedy relating to a claim of discrimination, retaliation or harassment (although it does not apply to union employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”)).
December 7, 2018
Company holiday parties are often great for camaraderie and employee morale but are fraught with danger, whether it be harassment, religious discrimination or drinking and driving.
We don’t want to be accused of being the Grinch that stole Christmas. We are all in favor of holiday parties, so long as they are done right. Here are our top ten (10) tips:
Remind employees in advance of the Company's anti-harassment policy;
Consider no alcohol or using drink tickets
Designate a member of management to monitor employees
Have rides home available or remind employees to consider Uber/Lyft, etc.
Consider day-time parties
No slow dancing;
No unsupervised speeches or skits;
Avoid religious symbols and religious music;
If during off hours, do not require attendance or there may be exposure to wage and hour claims;
If exchanging gifts, instruct employees as to what is appropriate and no gag-gifts;
When selecting a menu, make sure it is inclusive to accommodate religious needs, i.e. Kosher meals; and
If all else fails, promptly investigate any claims!
November 14, 2018As the weather gets colder and the days shorter, the end of the year can’t be too far away. Now is a good time to start reviewing your Company’s personnel policies so that your house can be in order to start the new year.
October 9, 2018
Every employer in New Jersey, regardless of size, needs a written Paid Sick Leave policy in place and distributed to employees no later than October 29, 2018. Please contact us if you need assistance drafting this policy or updating your other personnel policies.
Whether as stand-alone policies or those accumulated in an employee manual, the following are the types of policies which must, or at the very least should, be in writing in NJ:
September 5, 2018In what may seem to some a matter of political expediency, and to others a long-overdue effort to eradicate workplace sexual harassment, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio appear to be competing for the “#MeToo Movement Championship.” Whatever their motivations, they have signed into law sweeping legislation that affects all New York employers.
August 31, 2018
Billy Joel wrote in his song “Shades of Grey” that what was “perfectly clear with the vision of youth” is not quite so clear anymore. “Black and white is how it should be, but shades of grey are the colors I see.” This holds true with regard to secretly tape recording at work, too.
In the past, employment lawyers told employers they should strictly prohibit employees from secretly recording anything at work. There were a number of reasons for this advice. First and foremost, audio or video recording could result in the misappropriation of an employer’s trade secrets. In fact, for trade secret protection, a company must show that it took reasonable steps to protect that information and, therefore, a written policy is important. Second, fear among supervisors that they are being surreptitiously recorded could lead them to mistrust certain employees, which is not conducive to a healthy work environment.
But times have changed somewhat. From the #MeToo movement, we now know that harassment and even sexual assault have been rampant in certain industries. If employees are allowed to secretly record at work, would the likelihood of harassment be reduced? It could, but probably not. However, it would make it easier to prosecute such a claim against the harasser — and also the employer. This is why the harassment claims of Gretchen Carlson against Roger Ailes supposedly settled so quickly. It also is why we were able to recover millions of dollars to resolve whistleblower claims of a senior executive against the CEO of a major brokerage firm. This type of proof is powerful, because harassment cases often are “he said-she said” situations with no other witnesses. Juries also often expect to hear this type of evidence because they know how easy it is to obtain.
Recordings also allow employees to fend off false accusations by others at work. Recent examples include Omarosa Manigault Newman, the former White House communications director, who allegedly has audio and video recordings of President Donald Trump, and attorney Michael Cohen, who secretly tape recorded discussions he had with his client, Trump. On rare occasions, secretly taping at work can also be harmful to an employee’s case. Years ago, we defended a Berkshire Hathaway company in a gender discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuit involving an employee who had about 10 hours of recordings. The people recorded said nothing inappropriate and we were able to make good use of the plaintiff’s numerous admissions on those tapes to tear apart her case.
The National Labor Relations Board also has held that blanketly denying employees, whether unionized or not, the right to secretly tape record could violate their right to engage in concerted activity regarding their conditions of employment. The NLRB held that photographs and recordings, as well as the posting them on social media, are protected by Sec. 7 of the National Labor Relations Act if “employees are acting in concert for their mutual aid and protection and no overriding employer interest is present.” For example, employees should be allowed to document unsafe equipment or hazardous working conditions. As a result, employers should have their policies reviewed to make sure they explain the business justification for the restrictions on recordings and to confirm that they don’t ban all recordings.
Regardless of a company’s prohibition against recordings, recording no doubt still will take place, considering how easy it is to do these days from anyone’s phone. For this reason, in all harassment and discrimination litigation, it is important to inquire about the existence of this evidence. Keep in mind that improperly obtained evidence, such as a secret recording in a state that requires both parties’ consent, or a recording in violation of an employer’s policy, still can be admissible in a civil case. Unlike criminal cases, where an improper search and seizure by the government may lead to the discovery of other evidence that will be suppressed at trial based upon the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine, that doctrine is inapplicable in civil cases in New Jersey. In other words, secretly recorded conversations are admissible at a civil trial even if improperly obtained.
Weighing all the pros and cons, it is still best for employers generally to preclude covert tape recording, but the policy should be tailored to the specific client especially where employers have valuable trade secrets. Employers should combat harassment using other tools, including anti-harassment training and strong policies.
In the past, black and white were easy to see, but now drafters of employee handbooks and policies need to also see various shades of grey.
May 29, 2018
How healthy is your Company? Does it comply with all of its obligations under ever-expanding employment laws? Considering all of the recent developments in New Jersey and New York employment law, now is an appropriate time to take your Company’s temperature.
If your Company has an employee manual, now is the time to update it especially considering that New Jersey and New York recently passed legislation dealing with paid sick leave which may impact your current sick leave policy.
As a result of the #Metoo movement, and as reported recently in this blog, there have been significant changes concerning having employees sign settlement agreements in sexual harassment cases or separation agreements containing non-disclosure/confidentiality provisions waiving these claims. Both New York and federal law have changed in this regard. It is, therefore, important to review any form releases your Company uses when terminating employees.
As also reported previously in this blog, the law also has changed concerning equal pay. In New Jersey, it will not only apply to women who are paid less than men but also all other protected classes in the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. It is, therefore, important to take your Company’s temperature with regard to employee pay.
Lastly, based upon an executive order recently signed by Governor Murphy organizing a task force to review the issue of misclassification of workers, we expect a crackdown on employers who misclassify workers as independent contractors. Now is the time to review those relationships as well.
In summary, having experienced legal counsel help in taking your Company’s temperature now will enable your Company to avoid costly litigation not too far down the road.
May 26, 2018
Today we are not blogging about a recent development in employment law. Instead, we wish to call attention to an entertaining source to help non-lawyers understand how we arrived at the current state of the law concerning gender equality.
A must-see movie, regardless of your political persuasion, is the documentary R.B.G. which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The movie starts off with a bang when the notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg quotes abolitionist and women’s suffragist Sarah Grimke’, stating that she asks “…no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
Ginsburg, the diminutive dynamo, was one of only nine women in a class of 500 at Harvard Law School and the first woman on the Harvard Law Review. She accomplished this feat while caring for her ill husband and young child. Ginsburg did for gender discrimination in the 1970’s what Thurgood Marshall accomplished for blacks during the civil rights movement in the 1960’s.
The movie chronicles Ginsburg’s quest for equal protection for women, including the six cases she argued before the Supreme Court (five of which she won), including United States v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court held that qualified women could not be denied admission to the all male Virginia Military Institute. Ginsburg also trumpeted male gender equality by successfully arguing in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 420 U.S. 636 (1975) that widowed fathers were entitled to the same benefits under the Social Security Act as widowed mothers. More recently, Ginsburg has been a dissenter to many decisions rendered by our conservative Supreme Court, including in the Lilly Ledbetter equal pay case. While the Supreme Court denied Ledbetter relief, Ginsburg’s dissent resulted in Congress creating new law effectively overruling the Supreme Court’s majority decision and making it easier for women to sue for previously unknown disparate pay.
The #MeToo movement has resulted in the media refocusing on gender discrimination and harassment. The R.B.G. documentary does an excellent job of explaining how we arrived at the current state of the law and Ginsburg’s role in shaping gender equality.
May 9, 2018
On April 12, 2018, Governor Cuomo signed New York’s latest budget that includes six laws reflecting the concerns of the Metoo# movement that employers need to know.
Effective July 11, 2018:
Effective October 9, 2018:
Mandatory Sexual Harassment Policy, Prevention Training and Complaint Procedure. The New York State Department of Labor and Division of Human Rights are required to develop and publish a model sexual harassment prevention policy and a model sexual harassment prevention training program for use by employers. All New York employers are required (a) to adopt the model policy and training program or, establish their own that equals or exceeds the minimum standards of the model policy and program; and (b) distribute the written policy and provide sexual harassment training to all employees at least annually.
Effective January 1, 2019:
Government Contractors. As part of the bidding process for State contracts, bids must include a statement certifying that the bidding entity has implemented a written policy addressing sexual harassment in the workplace and sexual harassment training to all of its employees. With respect to no-bid projects, the State has the discretion to request such certification.
April 22, 2018
The recently enacted Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (the “Act”) has had a tremendous impact on the settlement of sexual harassment cases. Section 13307 of the Act, found here, does away with a tax deduction for the settlement amount paid in a sexual harassment case if the settlement is confidential. This new provision also precludes a tax deduction for attorneys’ fees if there is a requirement of confidentiality. It seems that this also applies to a plaintiff’s own legal fees. This tax change adds new variables to settling sexual harassment claims. In the past, employers always insisted on confidentiality. Time will tell whether this changes and whether this provision of the tax law will cause the amount paid to settle these claims to increase. Plaintiffs will want more money for these claims in order to pay the extra tax liability while employers will want to pay less since they would no longer be able to deduct the settlement amount and their legal fees.
March 21, 2018
The Me Too and Time's Up movements rekindled the nation's collective awareness concerning sexual harassment and abuse which had all but disappeared since the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991.
What contributed to this lack of discourse concerning the prevalence of sexual harassment in our society over the past 25 years? The use of nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) and confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements surely played a part -- as have mandatory arbitration agreements required by employers.
NDAs and confidentiality clauses are standard fare when parties settle sexual harassment and abuse cases.
In exchange for a settlement payment -- such as the $130,000 payment made on President Trump's behalf to Stormy Daniels -- the victim of harassment agrees not to discuss the claims made, or the terms, and sometimes even the existence, of the settlement.
These agreements usually also call for significant financial penalties should the plaintiff violate the confidentiality clause. For example, in the agreement at issue in the Trump-Daniels lawsuit, Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, is required to pay the president $1 million for each of her breaches of the confidentiality clause. Trump's lawyer claims she has violated the terms 20 times.
Is this agreement enforceable?
Probably not because the $1 million liquidated damage amount for each breach appears to be an unenforceable penalty rather than an estimation of likely damages should confidentiality be breached. For the same reason, it also isn't fair and most plaintiffs' attorneys would never allow a client to sign such a provision (unless their client is desperate for the money or the attorney believes the clause is unenforceable).
So far, however, this confidentiality clause has kept Daniels relatively quiet. Had there been no such provision, or if the court in the pending litigation refuses to uphold it, she undoubtedly will "tell all" of the sordid details in a book deal, which is likely to follow -- and, regardless, she may possibly do so on "60 Minutes" this weekend.
Meanwhile, as the porn star touted passing a polygraph test to prove she's not lying about her 2006-2007 tryst with Trump, another woman is suing to get out from under a 2016 confidentiality agreement so she can discuss her alleged affair with Trump. This week former Playboy Playmate of the Year, Karen McDougal, has filed suit in Los Angeles.
Confidentiality clauses serve useful purposes.
They protect the reputation of the alleged harasser when frivolous claims are brought. They also protect the plaintiff who does not want it known that she was subjected to sexual abuse or that she sued her employer. Finally, confidentiality clauses make it easier to settle cases because they protect the good will of the employer.
In fact, companies will pay more to a victim of harassment as hush money to avoid the impact of these types of allegations on their bottom-lines. Bad publicity from these cases can be devastating, as Harvey Weinstein's now bankrupt company recently learned.
On the other hand, as seen lately, confidentiality clauses enable harassers to continue their pattern of abuse and expose other unsuspecting victims to this same treatment. Weighing the advantages and disadvantages of these provisions, the time has come to limit the use of these "gag-orders" and Congress agrees.
Buried deep inside the new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is a provision which disallows tax deductions for monies employers pay to harassment victims and for legal fees if the parties enter into a confidentiality agreement. In essence, since late December parties must choose between deductibility and confidentiality.
For now this seems to be a fair middle ground. It enables companies to protect themselves and alleged harassers against frivolous claims by insisting upon confidentiality while at the same time also providing victims with some leverage to insist upon no confidentiality.
Lawyers of course will find some work-arounds, whether through stronger clauses confirming that the settlement is not an admission of liability or requiring the victim to confirm in an agreement -- whether or not it is true -- that there simply was no harassment. The settlement value of harassment cases also might go down somewhat to make up for a company's loss of the tax deduction when it is insisting upon confidentiality.
Only time will tell whether this law goes far enough to expose harassers and deter their behavior in the first place.