A recent employment law case recognizes that in certain circumstances, an employer does not violate federal law if it requires former employees to sign away their legal claims against it as a condition to rehiring them as independent contractors.

In 1999, Allstate Insurance Company decided to treat all of its sales agents as independent contractors. Accordingly, that November Allstate fired 6,200 sales agents and gave them four options: (1) return to work as an independent contractor and receive a $5,000 bonus and other benefits; (2) receive $5,000 and the right to sell the employee’s Allstate account in September 2000; (3) receive 12 months of “enhance severance” pay; or (4) receive 13 weeks of ordinary severance pay.

To accept any of the first 3 options, a sales agent was required to sign a release waiving any existing legal claims he or she had against Allstate. Most of the employees accepted one of those three options. The employees who refused to sign releases received only 13 weeks of severance pay.

In a recent employment law case, Davis v. Husain, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that a judge may not engage in any communication with a member of the jury outside of the presence of the lawyers involved in the case (known as ex parte communications), including discussions after the jury has rendered a verdict. In this case involving a claim of sexual harassment, the jury found plaintiff’s former employer liable for having engaged in sexual harassment. After the verdict was rendered and the jury was dismissed, a juror mentioned to the trial court judge that the defendant had not placed his hand on the Bible when taking the oath before he testified. The conversation between the judge and the juror occurred outside the presence of counsel involved in the case.

The judge later advised the attorneys for both parties of the comment by the juror. In motions filed after the trial, the defendant moved for a new trial. The trial court denied the motion, and the Appellate Division agreed with the trial Court. The defendant then appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

In reaching a decision in the case, the Supreme Court noted that under the Court Rules all communications between a judge and a jury during a trial must be in open court. The Court considered two Appellate Division cases in New Jersey, a civil case and a criminal case. In both of these cases, the Appellate Division expressed disfavor as to the ex parte communications between the judge and jury after the jury reached a verdict.

New Defense to Sexual Harassment Claims

Earlier this week, in Aguas v. State of New Jersey, the New Jersey Supreme Court provided employers a new defense to sexual harassment claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”).

Specifically, the Court adopted a defense that previously applied only in federal cases. That defense is often referred to as the “Faragher/Ellerth defense,” from the two United States Supreme Court cases that initially adopted the defense under federal law: Faragher v. City of Boca Raton and Burlington Industries v. Ellerth.

New Jersey has many well-known laws that protect employees. Perhaps the two best know are the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”), an anti-discrimination law, and the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”), a whistleblower law. The state has many other employment laws as well.

One much less known law is the Worker Freedom From Employer Intimidation Act, which went into effect in 2006. It protects employees against certain forms of religious and political intimidation at work. Specifically, it prohibits companies from requiring employees to attend meetings or to participate in communications regarding the employer’s opinion about religious or political issues. The law defines “political matters” to include affiliation with a political party, as well as decisions to join, not join, or participate in “any lawful political, social, or community organization or activity.”

Despite that prohibition, the act allows employers to invite employees to voluntarily attend employer-sponsored meetings and to provide other religious and political communications to their employees as long as make it clear the employees will not be penalized if they refuse to attend the meetings or accept the communications.

A recent case, Kaplan v. Greenpoint Global, provides a good example of several claims an employee might be able to bring if an employer fails to live up to the promises it made.

On December 1, 2010, Leslie Kaplan began working for Greenpoint Global as its Director of Legal Services. Greenpoint is a company that outsources legal services to businesses, law firms and individuals.

Before accepting the job, Ms. Kaplan told Greenpoint’s Chief Executive Officer, Jacklyn Karceski, that her most recent salary exceeded $200,000 and she was seeking similar compensation from Greenpoint. Ms. Karceski indicated that her goal was realistic. Ms. Kaplan also told the company’s founder, Sanjay Sharma, that her salary needed to “start with a two.” Mr. Sharma responded “No problem.” According to Ms. Kaplan, she relied on these assurances by Greenpoint and declined pursuing an opportunity to return to her former job. Despite its promises, Greenpoint actually paid Ms. Kaplan at the rate of $80,000 per year.

The question of whether you are an employee or an independent contractor can be very important. It can determine many issues, including how you will be taxed, whether you are entitled to health insurance and other employee benefits, and whether you are protected by various employment laws. However, the issue whether you have been misclassified as an independent contractor can be confusing because there are different tests under different laws.

Earlier this month, in Hargrove v. Sleepy’s, LLC, the New Jersey Supreme Court clarified which test applies under two important state laws: The New Jersey Wage and Hour Law (“NJWHL”) and the New Jersey Wage Payment Law (“NJWPL”). The NJWHL is a law that, among other things, entitles covered employees to be paid at least the minimum wage, and overtime at time-and-a-half when they work more than 40 hours in a week. Similarly, the NJWPL requires most employers to pay employees at least twice per month.

Group of industrial workers. Isolated on white background.The case was filed in federal court. The Unites States District Court for the District of New Jersey applied a relatively narrow definition of “employee.” It concluded the plaintiffs were independent contractors, and therefore were not protected by the NJWHL or the NJWPL. Accordingly, it dismissed their case.

Beginning this month, East Orange, Irvington, Passaic and Paterson will join Newark and Jersey City in requiring employers to provide their workforce with paid sick leave. Montclair and Trenton will begin requiring covered employers to provide paid sick leave in March. The ordinances governing sick pay in these municipalities largely mirror Newark’s law that went into effect last year.

The ordinances governing sick leave are nearly identical. Eligible employees include those who work for at least 80 hours per year for an employer of 10 or more employees. Covered employers are required to provide employees with 40 hours of paid sick leave each calendar year. If an employer has fewer than 10 employees, it is required to provide 24 hours of paid sick time each calendar year. Employers of child care, home health care and food service workers, however, are required to provide 40 hours of paid sick leave even if such employers have less than 10 employees. Government employees, employees of New Jersey schools and members of construction unions are not covered by the various ordinances.

a mother and sick child in bed. flu. childhood diseases.In determining the number of employees for coverage, full time, part-time and temporary employees must be counted. Paid sick time is accrued one hour of sick time for every 30 hours actually worked, and employees can begin to use the paid sick time once they reach 90 days of employment. Unused paid sick leave that is not otherwise paid out to employees can be carried over to the following calendar year, but employees may only use 40 hours of paid sick time per year. Also, employees are not entitled to reimbursement of unused paid sick time upon the termination of employment.

Last week, I discussed a case dealing with the defense to Family & Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) claims based on the employee’s inability to perform the essential functions of her job. The same case also addresses the employee’s claim that her employer retaliated against her for taking an FMLA leave. Specifically, Vanessa Budhun claims her employer, Reading Hospital and Medical Center, replaced her before her FMLA-protected leave ended.

The District Court dismissed Ms. Budun’s retaliation claim on the basis that (1) she was unable to return to work before her 12 weeks of FMLA leave expired, (2) she was neither fired nor experienced another adverse employment action, and (3) there was not enough evidence to prove she was fired because she requested an FMLA leave.

Office Employee Collected Items After Fired in Violation of Family & Medical Leave ActOn appeal, the Third Circuit rejected all three of those arguments. First, it rejected the argument that Ms. Budhun was unable to return to work before her FMLA leave expired. It did so for the same reasons it found Reading Hospital could have interfered with her FMLA rights, as discussed in last week’s article: FMLA Requires Medical Support for Employer Denying Reinstatement Based on Employee’s Inability to Perform Essential Job Functions.

Earlier this year, the Third Circuit ruled that Reading Hospital and Medical Center may have violated the Family & Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) by failing to reinstate one of its employees after her physician cleared her to return to work.

Vanessa Budhun broke a bone in her right hand on July 30, 2010 and subsequently began an FMLA leave. On August 12, 2010, she submitted a doctor’s note clearing her to return to work on August 16. The doctor’s note also stated: “No restrictions in splint.”

In response, Reading informed Ms. Budhun that because her doctor’s note said “no restrictions” she had to return to work “full duty (full speed).” The hospital also indicated that if she could not work at full speed she had to submit another doctor’s note extending her medical leave. In a subsequent email, Reading clarified that Ms. Budhun could not return to work until she had use of all 10 fingers.

The United States Supreme Court recently ruled that an employer is not required to pay its employees for the time they have to wait to go through security screening even though the employer requires the screening.

The employer, Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc., provides warehouse employees to Amazon.com throughout the country.  Its employees package products and ship them on behalf of Amazon.  Integrity required the warehouse workers to pass through metal detectors at the end of each day before they could leave the warehouse.

Two employees, Jesse Busk and Laurie Castro, filed a class action wage and hour lawsuit against Integrity.   They claimed Integrity violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), a federal law, because it did not pay them for the time they had to wait to pass through metal detectors at the end of every day.  The employees estimated they had to wait an average of 25 minutes per day, or nearly to 2 1/2 hours per week.

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