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”)).
Second, the law bars any prospective waiver of rights or remedies under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10-5-1 etseq. (the “NJLAD”) or any other statute or case law.
Third, the law precludes confidentiality of any settlement involving a claim of discrimination, retaliation or harassment.
What does this mean for New Jersey employers? Most importantly, this law appears to run head-on into employers’ efforts over the past ten years and even longer to force these types of claims into arbitration. Since 1990 the NJLAD has provided for a trial by jury, NJLAD 10:5-13. Therefore, requiring employees to sign arbitration agreements for future claims would violate this new legislation because it would cause an employee to waive a substantive right or remedy under the NJLAD. Although it is too early to tell, the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), however, may override this portion of the legislation.
Other provisions in an employment agreement that limit or waive substantive or procedural rights or remedies also are barred. For example, an agreement cannot forbid employees from filing charges of discrimination or retaliation with an administrative agency, such as the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights (“NJDCR”) or the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and can’t require an employee to waive the right to punitive damages or legal fees if successful.
There also may be a bigger issue lurking here. Section 1b. of the law provides that no right or remedy under any employment statute or case law can be prospectively waived. Does this suggest that section 1a. -- which provides that an “employment contract” cannot waive any rights or remedies relating to a claim of discrimination, retaliation or harassment -- bars releases of previously asserted employment claims? This may require the DCR to approve proposed settlement agreements before such claims can be waived. The term “employment contract” is not defined in the law. However, section 2a. refers to both “employment contracts” and “settlement agreements” and, therefore, the likely interpretation of 1a. is that employees or former employees can release NJLAD and other employment claims in settlement agreements without DCR or EEOC approval.
As a result of the “Metoo Movement”, the legislation forbids confidentiality. The driving force behind this provision is to protect employees from harassment, retaliation and discrimination caused by someone who acted similarly in the past that they otherwise would not have known about due to confidentiality clauses. How will this impact litigation? Many employers only settle in order to avoid bad publicity. Will this legislation force more cases to trial? The legislation tries to protect employers to a limited extent. It provides that should an employee reveal sufficient details of the claim so that the employer is reasonably identifiable, the employer will not be bound to any non-disclosure provision. Does that go far enough? Why should an employer be put on the defensive and have to explain why it settled if a plaintiff’s claims were frivolous and settled by the employer solely to avoid the time and money defending such specious claims?
Finally, the law takes effect immediately and applies to all contracts and agreements entered into, renewed, modified or amended on or after the effective date. We, therefore, suggest that all employers have their employee manuals and employment agreements reviewed prior to any amendments or renewals of those agreements.