New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog
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Earlier this month, New York’s highest court ruled that although an employee is not entitled to take an indefinite leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation under the New York Human Rights Law (NYHRL), they might be entitled to do so under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL).

In the case, Giuseppe Romanello worked for Intesa Sanpaola S.p.A. (Intesa) for approximately 25 years. He experienced major depression and other medical conditions that prevented him from working. Accordingly, he took a leave of absence under the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA). After a five-month paid leave of absence, the company’s lawyer sent a letter to Mr. Romanello’s lawyer indicating that his FMLA leave time was about to run out, and asking if he intended to return to work or abandon his job. Mr. Romanello’s lawyer responded that although he had no intention of abandoning his job, Mr. Romanello still was medically unable to work for the company, and needed an “indeterminate” leave of absence. The company fired Mr. Romanello in response.

NYHRL Leave of Absence and Reasonable Accommodation.jpgMr. Romanello then filed a lawsuit claiming his employer discriminated against him because of his disability in violation of the NYHRL and the NYCHRL. Both of those laws prohibit employers from firing an employee because of a disability if the employee can perform his or her job with a reasonable accommodation. Depending on the circumstances, time off can be a reasonable accommodation for a disability.

The trial court dismissed Mr. Romanello’s failure to accommodate claims under both the NYHRL and the NYCHRL. Mr. Romanello appealed, and his case eventually made its way to the New York Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals ruled that under New York State law an indefinite leave of absence cannot be a reasonable accommodation for a disability. This is consistent with how New Jersey has interpreted the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).

In contrast, the Court of Appeals explained that under the New York City Human Rights Law there is no type of accommodation that is “categorically excluded from the universe of reasonable accommodation.” As a result, depending on the circumstances, an indefinite leave of absence could be a reasonable accommodation under the NYCHRL.

The Court concluded that Mr. Romanello had requested an indefinite leave of absence because his lawyer did not indicate when he expected to return to work, but instead indicated he needed an “indeterminate” leave of absence. As a result, it agreed that his claim under the NYHRL was properly dismissed. However, it reinstated his claim under the NYCHRL since he could be entitled to an indefinite leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation since the NYCHRL consistently has been interpreted to be broader than the NYHRL and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As a result, Mr. Romanello will be able to try to prove his claim under New York City law.

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On August 30, 2013, Governor Christopher Christie signed two new employment laws. The first law expands the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) to protect employees who are trying to obtain information to support a potential claim of pay discrimination. The second new law prohibits employers from asking employees or job candidates to provide their private social media information to the company.

Whistleblower Protection for Employees Providing Information About Pay Discrimination

The first new law amends the LAD to prohibit employers from retaliating against employees because they ask a current or former co-worker about an employee’s “job title, occupational category, and rate of compensation, including benefits.” It also protects employees who ask about another’s employee’s “gender, race, ethnicity, military status, or national origin.” These new whistleblower protections apply only if the information or question is intended to help with an investigation of potential discrimination regarding “pay, compensation, bonuses, other compensation, or benefits.” However, the statute makes it clear it is not intended to require anyone to disclose this information about him or herself or another employee. This amendment to the LAD went into effect immediately.

Interestingly, the original version of the law would have been an amendment to New Jersey’s whistleblower law, the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA). However, Governor Christie issued a conditional veto that changed it to amend the LAD instead. As a result, the LAD’s two year statute of limitations applies to this new claim instead of CEPA’s one year statute of limitations. However, the change also shifted the protection from the employee who discloses the information to the employee who requests the information.

Restrictions on Requesting Information About Personal Social Media Accounts

New Jersey Expands LAD regarding Personal Social Media Accounts.jpgThe second new law prohibits employers from asking or requiring current employees and job candidates to provide usernames or passwords to their personal social media accounts, or to otherwise allow the company to access those accounts. Although the statute was passed primarily in response to employers asking employees to provide their Facebook passwords, it applies to all personal social media accounts including LinkedIn, Google+ and Twitter.

This new law has several express exceptions. Specifically, if an employer receives “specific information” about an activity on an employee’s personal social media account, it can conduct an investigation (1) to comply with another existing law, legal requirement or prohibition against “work-related employee misconduct,” or (2) to determine whether the employee improperly used the company’s confidential or proprietary information or financial data. It also makes it clear employers can access and view any information that is publically available about an employee, such as information posted publically on Facebook. This new law will go into effect in four months.

Unfortunately, Governor Christie used a conditional veto to remove a provision that would have created a new private legal claim for employees whose rights have been violated under the statute. Instead, the only penalty for a violation is a civil fine not to exceed $1,000 for a first violation and $2,500 for a second violation. However, it is likely employees who are fired because they refuse to provide their social media account information to their employers will be protected by the existing whistleblower protection of CEPA, or will have a claim for wrongful discharge in violation of New Jersey public policy.

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New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) has long been described as one of the broadest whistleblower laws in the nation. Among other things, it prohibits employers from retaliating against employees because they object to, disclose, or refuse to participate in an activity they reasonably believe is illegal, criminal or fraudulent.

Despite CEPA’s broad reach, several past cases have ruled that employees are not protected by CEPA if their objections were part of their job duties. For example, a safety officer who complains about an unsafe work condition or a human resources manager who reports sexual harassment would not be protected by CEPA under those cases.

But earlier this month, in Lippman v. Ethicon, Inc., New Jersey’s Appellate Division ruled that line of cases is inconsistent with the way the New Jersey Supreme Court has directed courts to interpret CEPA. It ruled that “an employee’s job title or employment responsibilities” should not be the deciding factor in a CEPA case.

The Lippman case involved an employee, Joel Lippman, who worked for Ethicon, Inc., which is a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, Inc. Mr. Lippman was Ethicon’s Vice President of Medical Affairs and Chief Medical Officer. During his employment, Mr. Lippman repeatedly advocated for Ethicon to recall numerous products he believed were unsafe. He claims the company eventually fired him in retaliation for doing so, and brought a retaliation lawsuit under CEPA. The trial court dismissed Mr. Lippman’s case. It found he is not protected by CEPA because he was merely doing his job when he supported recalling the products he believed were unsafe, and therefore is not protected by CEPA.

The Appellate Division disagreed. It recognized that employees like Mr. Lippman are in the best position to know whether a company is complying with relevant legal standards. In fact, it labeled employees who are responsible for these types of issues “watchdogs.” It concluded:

New Jersey's Whistleblower Law Protects Watchdog Employees.jpg

[I]t would be a sad irony indeed if such a “watchdog” employee, like [Mr. Lippman], would be deemed by a court to fall outside the wall of protection created by the Legislature to whistleblowers. If an individual’s job is to protect the public from exposure to dangerous defective medical products, CEPA does not permit the employer to retaliate against such an individual because of his or her performance of duties in good faith, and consistent with the job description.

However, the court added a new requirement for “watchdog” employees under CEPA. Specifically, they must either prove they (a) “pursued and exhausted all internal means of securing compliance; or (b) refused to participate in the objectionable conduct.” In contrast, other employees who object to apparent violations of the law do not need to prove they pursued all internal means of securing compliance to be protected by CEPA.

The Lippman opinion is published, making it a binding legal precedent. It fixes a major loophole other courts have created in CEPA’s protection by protecting watchdog employees. However, since the decision conflicts with previous rulings by the Appellate Division the case is likely to wind up in the New Jersey Supreme Court, which hopefully will resolve this issue once and for all.

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The Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” is not just a health care law. It also includes whistleblower protection. The United States Department of Labor (DOL) recently released interim rules regarding the law’s anti-retaliation provisions.

Obamacare Anti-Retaliation Provisions2.jpgThe Affordable Care Act makes it illegal for employers to retaliate against employees who report certain violations of the Act. Specifically, it protects employees who complaint about apparent violations of its prohibition against (1) lifetime limits on medical insurance coverage, and (2) denying coverage because of a preexisting medical condition. It also prohibits employers from taking reprisal against employees who receive a tax credit or similar benefit for participating in a Health Insurance Exchange. It further protects employees who testify, participate or assist with a proceeding regarding a violation of one of those provisions.

To qualify for whistleblower protection, an employee must have complained to his employer, the federal government, or a state attorney general. In addition, the regulations make it clear the employee does not have to be correct about the violation of law he reported, as long as he had both an objectively reasonable belief (meaning reasonable from the standpoint of the employee who complained) and a subjectively reasonably belief (meaning from the standpoint of a reasonable person) that the company was violating one of the relevant provisions of the Act.

The interim regulations include a long list of examples of the type of actions by employers that would be prohibited if they are retaliatory. Specifically, in addition to termination, the regulations list “intimidating, threatening, restraining, coercing, blacklisting or disciplining” an employee regarding his or her “compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.”

Employees who experience retaliation in violation of the Act must bring a claim within 180 days after the retaliation occurred. The claim must be filed with the DOL’s Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA), which administers the Act’s whistleblower protections.

Under the interim regulations, once a claim has been filed OSHA has to determine whether it was filed within the 180 period and describes a claim that would violate the statute’s anti-retaliation provisions. Assuming these requirements are met, OSHA is then required to conduct an investigation. According to the regulations, OSHA is supposed to issue its initial written determination within 60 days after it receives the complaint. If the agency determines the employer violated the Act, it can order it to reinstate the employee and/or to pay the employee damages including lost wages and benefits.

After filing with OSHA, employees have the right to file a private lawsuit in federal court if either (1) the agency has not issued a final determination for 210 days after the employee filed the complaint with the agency, or (2) they are within 90 days after the agency issued its initial findings. However, an employee cannot bring a lawsuit after the DOL has issued its final determination.

The interim regulations also indicate that the employee who files the complaint has the burden to prove his or her complaint was a “contributing factor” in the employer’s decision to take the retaliatory action. In other words, the employee has to show his objection had at least some influence on the outcome of the company’s decision to take an adverse action against him. If the employee meets this burden then the employer is liable unless it can show, by clear and convincing evidence, it would have taken the same action toward the employee even if he or she had not complained.

It is important to recognize that the interim regulations have not been formally approved, and are still in the review stage. As a result, they may change before they become official.

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Erroneous NJ Wrongful Termination Decision.jpgLast week, I discussed Shipe v. Saker Shoprites, Inc. a gender discrimination case which recognizes Employers Can Be Held Liable For Discrimination Even if Decision-Maker Has No Bias. Unfortunately, the Appellate Division found another basis to reverse the jury’s verdict and take away Ms. Shipe’s nearly $900,000 judgment. However, it appears the Appellate Division made two serious errors that led to this unfortunate result.

When an employee brings a discrimination claim, the court first has to make sure there is enough evidence to support the basic element of a discrimination claim. This is called a “prima facie” case. Specifically, in a wrongful termination case an employee ordinarily has to show he or she (1) belongs to a protected class; (2) was employed by the company; (3) was performing her job before being fired, and (4) the employer sought to replace him or her. Alternatively, an employee can meet the fourth element by showing other circumstances that suggest the decision to fire the employee was discriminatory.

Usually, it is up to a judge, rather than a jury, to decide whether an employee has established a prima facie case. However, when there is a dispute about one of the elements it is sometimes necessary for a jury to decide it.

In the Shipe case it was disputed whether the employer sought to replace Ms. Shipe after it fired her. The Appellate Division concluded that the trial judge should have asked the jury whether Ms. Shipe either was replaced by a man, or fired under other circumstances that give rise to an inference of discrimination. In fact, it reversed the jury’s verdict and ordered a new trial because the jury was not asked this question.

I find this ruling perplexing. It is unquestionable the jury found Saker fired Ms. Shipe because of her gender. As I discussed last week, the Appellate Division found that conclusion was supported by sufficient evidence to withstand an appeal. But if the jury found Saker fired Ms. Shipe fired because she is a woman, then the jury had to have found she was fired under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination. If that is true, then why would it be necessary to have a new trial to ask the jury to answer that question again?

The Appellate Division’s ruling appears to be erroneous for a second reason. Specifically, in Zive v. Stanley Roberts Inc., a 2003 case, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that when analyzing the prima facie case only the plaintiff’s evidence should be considered. The Appellate Division in Shipe recognized that Ms. Shipe presented evidence that she was replaced by a man. As a result, under Zive the court should have found that Ms. Shipe met the fourth element of her prima facie case. Instead, it reversed the jury verdict and ordered a new trial.

Fortunately, the Shipe decision is unpublished, meaning it is not a binding precedent.

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New Jersey’s Appellate Division recently recognized that a company cannot escape liability for discrimination by having someone else make the final termination decision. The case was filed by Tina Shipe, an employee who worked for several different Shop Rite supermarkets over 17 years. Ms. Shipe was the only female meat cutter who worked for her employer, Saker Shoprites, Inc.

In January 2008, Saker fired Ms. Shipe. Saker claims Ms. Shipe became extremely angry and cursed loudly enough that other employees and customers could hear her after her department manager, Chris Antimary, accused her of violating several store policies. Based on information he received from Mr. Antimary, the company’s senior vice president of human resources, Kevin Maroney, made the decision to fire Ms. Shipe.

In contrast, Ms. Shipe testified that Mr. Antimary treated her poorly from the first day she began working in his store. Mr. Antimary then falsely accused her of violating several store policies in an attempt to set her up to be fired. Ms. Shipe claims that although she was upset by the false accusations, she never cursed or raised her voice. Rather, Mr. Antimary confronted her, demanded that she admit she violated the store’s policies and got in her face in a way suggesting he wanted to fight her. Ms. Shipe was extremely upset by his behavior, and as a result stayed in the store bathroom for approximately 10 minutes while she composed herself and tried to stop crying.

NJ Appellate Decision - Liability for Gender Discrimination and Decision-Maker.jpgMs. Shipe sued, alleging gender discrimination in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD). At her trial, the jury found in her favor and awarded her $198,894 in past economic losses (back pay), $486,200 in future economic losses (front pay) and $145,860 in emotional distress damages. The judge subsequently awarded her more than $67,000 in attorney’s fees and costs.

The employer appealed, asking the Appellate Division to reverse the jury’s verdict. It argued there was not enough evidence to support the jury’s conclusion that it fired Ms. Saker because she is a woman, rather than because she was insubordinate after Mr. Antimary disciplined her. However, in Shipe v. Saker Shoprites, Inc. the court found there was enough evidence for the jury to conclude the meeting was a set-up to falsely discipline Ms. Shipe because of her gender, and that her testimony was enough to dispute the company’s claim it fired her for supposedly using profanity after the meeting.

Saker also argued there was no evidence that Kevin Maroney, the Vice President of Human Resources who made the decision to fire Ms. Shipe, had any discriminatory bias. In fact, Ms. Shipe did not even claim he discriminated against her.

However, the Appellate Division rejected this argument because Mr. Maroney relied on the information he received from Mr. Antimary, and the jury found that information was discriminatory. The court explained that if this was not legally actionable, companies could avoid responsibility for discrimination by having someone who does not know the employee make final termination (and other disciplinary) decisions based on discriminatory information. The court therefore concluded that although there was no evidence Mr. Maroney discriminated against Ms. Shipe, there was enough evidence to support the jury’s conclusion that Saker fired her because she is a woman.

Unfortunately, that is not the end of the story. Next week I will discuss the reason why the Appellate Division still reversed Ms. Shipe’s jury verdict, and why I think it was a mistake for it to have done so.

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In addition to prohibiting employment discrimination and harassment based on race, gender, sex, disability and other specific protected categories, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) also prohibits companies from retaliating against employees who object about discrimination or harassment in the workplace. The New Jersey Supreme Court recently clarified that this protection applies to employees who object about sexually offensive conduct toward women even if no women were aware of the offensive conduct. In the process, the Court seems to have expanded the LAD’s protection against retaliation to protect employees irrespective of whether it was reasonable for them to believe the harassment or discrimination violated the law.

NJ Supreme Court Lowers Burden to Prove Discrimination.jpgUnited Parcel Service, Inc. (UPS) demoted Michael Battaglia shortly after he objected that his supervisor, Wayne DeCraine, called female employees “c*nts,” referred to a particular woman as “that b*tch,” called another female employee “big t*ts,” expressed his desire to have sex with another female employee, referred to an employee named Regina as “Vagina,” and discussed pornographic websites he visited at home. He also reported the fact that Mr. DeCraine was involved in a sexual relationship with a female employee. What distinguishes Mr. Bataligia’s case from most other cases is Mr. DeCraine did not engage in this sexually offensive conduct in the presence of any women, so no women even arguably were subjected to a hostile work environment.

Two years ago, New Jersey’s Appellate Division ruled that Mr. Battaglia’s objections were not protected by the LAD’s anti-reprisal provision. It did so because Mr. DeCraine’s conduct was not unlawful sexual harassment since no woman heard his offensive language, the romantic relationship he was having with another female employee was consensual, and there was no suggestion any woman was fired, demoted, or experienced another adverse employment action because of her gender. It interpreted the LAD’s anti-retaliation provision to require evidence of actual discrimination or harassment.

But the New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed. In Battaglia v. United Parcel Service, Inc., it ruled employees are protected by the LAD’s anti-retaliation provision if they object about actions they in good faith believe violate the LAD even if they are wrong. The Court recognized that employees are not employment lawyers, and do not necessarily know where the line is between actionable discrimination and merely offensive conduct.

In reaching this conclusion, the Court seems to have eliminated the requirement that an employee must reasonably believe the conduct he complained about violated the LAD to be protected from retaliation. The Court initially noted that under one of its previous rulings an employee must show his “complaint was both reasonable and made in good faith.” But later on the Court seems to drop the reasonable belief requirement altogether, holding that:

[W]hen 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. On the contrary, as long as the complaint is made in a good faith belief that the conduct complained of violates the LAD, it suffices for purposes of pursuing a cause of action.

In other words, the Court appears to have ruled employees only have to prove they had a good faith belief that the employer was violating the LAD, but not necessarily that their belief was reasonable. If so, the Court has extended the LAD’s protection to many employees who sincerely but unreasonably believe their employers have engaged in unlawful harassment or discrimination.

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Is Obesity a Disabilty in NJ or NY.jpgLast month the American Medical Association (AMA) voted to designate obesity as a disease. More specifically, it adopted a resolution which states that obesity is a disease that leads to other conditions such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. As a result of the AMA’s decision, it is likely that more employees who are fired, demoted, harassed, or otherwise treated worse at their jobs because they are overweight will be legally protected by both New Jersey and New York law.

Both the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) and the New York Human Rights Law (NYHRL) prohibit employers from discriminating against employees on the basis that they are disabled. The two laws define the term “disability” broadly to include both physical and mental disabilities. Neither statute limits its definition to severe or permanent medical conditions. In particular, the LAD defines disability to include any “physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement which is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness including epilepsy and other seizure disorders.” Similarly, the NYHRL’s definition to mean a physical or medical impairment “resulting from anatomical, physiological or neurological conditions which prevents the exercise of a normal bodily function or is demonstrable by medically accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques.”

Over a decade ago, in Viscik v. Fowler Equipment Co., the New Jersey Supreme Court concluded that an employee’s obesity can be a disability under the LAD, but only if it is “morbid.” Obesity is considered “morbid” if it prevents you from engaging in normal activities. In Viscik, the Court found the employee who filed the lawsuit was disabled because her obesity caused her other medical conditions including arthritis, a heart condition, obstructive lung disease and knee problems that limited her ability to walk. The court concluded this met the LAD’s definition of a disability.

Likewise, in Delta Air Lines v. New York State Division of Human Rights, a 1997 case, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that simply being overweight is not a disability under the NYHRL. However, it distinguished another case in which the company’s doctor concluded the employee was unable to perform her job because she was “grossly obese,” a diagnosed medical condition that impaired her ability to work. Thus, like the New Jersey Supreme Court, in the past New York’s highest court required an individual’s obesity to cause an illness, impairment or limitation before it can be considered a disability under the NYHRL.

But at least arguably, today the analysis could be much simpler. Since the AMA has deemed obesity itself to be a disease, it seems to fit within the LAD’s definition of disability as long as being overweight can be considered a form of malformation or disfigurement. Likewise, it seems to fall within the NYHRL’s definition since it is a physical or medical condition resulting from an anatomical condition that can be demonstrated by medically accepted clinical techniques.

Of course, how much this change actually will impact disability discrimination law is an issue that eventually will be decided by the courts. The bottom line is that the AMA’s new resolution could help extend protection against disability discrimination to additional employees who previously were not legally protected.

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Last week, in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the United States Supreme Court ruled there is a higher burden for an employee to prove his or her employer retaliated than to prove it discriminated under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against their employees based on their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It also prohibits companies form retaliating against employees because they opposed, complained about, testified about, or otherwise pursued a claim of discrimination or harassment.

Supreme Court and Retaliation.jpgThe Civil Rights Act of 1991 makes it clear that an employee can prove a Title VII discrimination claim if she proves her race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was a “motivating factor” in the employer’s decision to take a negative employment action toward her even if the company considered other lawful factors in making its decision. If an employee meets this requirement, the company still can avoid paying damages if it proves it would have made the same decision even without considering the illegal factor. The question in the Nassar case was whether the same standards apply to retaliation claims.

Several years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that since the Civil Rights Act of 1991 only amended Title VII, claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) do not follow the same motivating factor test. Instead, employees bringing cases under the ADEA have to prove the treatment they experienced would not have occurred but for their age. It is considered significantly more difficult to prove an employer’s decision would not have happened but for your age than it is to prove your age was a motivating factor in the company making that decision.

In Nassar, the Supreme Court ruled that since the Civil Rights Act of 1991 only mentions discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin when it created the motivating factor test, that test does not apply to retaliation claims. Instead, an employee trying to prove a retaliation claim under Title VII has to prove he or she would not have been fired, demoted, or otherwise treated worse but for his or her objection or complaint about discrimination.

Notably, the Court noted the number of retaliation cases being filed is increasing. It indicated that the number of such cases filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) almost doubled between 1997 and 2012, to the point that the only type of case filed more frequently with the EEOC are race discrimination claims.

Fortunately, New Jersey and New York State have not adopted this heightened burden of proof in retaliation cases, and in my opinion neither state is likely to do so at any time soon. Rather, at least for now, both states only require employees to prove their objection or complaint about discrimination was a motivating factor in the company taking an adverse action against them. Nonetheless, it is part of a disturbing trend in which the Supreme Court is slowly making it more difficult for employees to enforce their legal rights. In fact, as discussed in a previous article, on the same day Nasser was decided the Supreme Court also Limited the Definition of a “Supervisor” under Title VII.

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Last week, the United States Supreme Court adopted a narrow definition of who is a “supervisor” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). Title VII is a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex or religion. The Court ruled that an employee has to have the authority to take tangible employment actions against another employee to be considered his or her supervisor. A tangible employment action is a significant job action such as hiring, firing, promoting, demoting, transferring or suspending an employee.

It is important to note that this narrower definition of supervisor probably does not apply under New Jersey or New York City law, and may not apply under New York law.

Supreme Court Defines Supervisor Narrowly.jpgThe definition of who is a supervisor under Title VII is significant because the Supreme Court has previously ruled that a different standard applies to determine when a company is liable for harassment committed by a supervisor than a coworker. Specifically, companies are strictly (directly) liable for a hostile work environment created by a supervisor if it results in an adverse employment action that has negative economic consequences, such as the employee being fired, demoted, or forced to quit. Alternatively, a company is vicariously (indirectly) liable for a supervisor’s harassment unless the company can prove (1) it made reasonable efforts to prevent and correct the harassment, such as having and enforcing an effective anti-harassment policy, and (2) the victim of the harassment unreasonably failed to take advantage of opportunities to prevent or correct the hostile work environment.

In contrast, an employer can be held liable for harassment by a coworker or subordinate under Title VII only if it was negligent in preventing the creation or continuation of a hostile work environment. In other words, the victim must prove the company “knew or reasonably should have known about the harassment but failed to take remedial action.” The Supreme Court explained that evidence of negligence can include the fact that an employer “did not monitor the workplace, failed to respond to complaints, failed to provide a system for registering complaints, or effectively discouraged complaints from being filed would be relevant.”

Maetta Vance, the employee in the case the Supreme Court decided, brought a claim of racial harassment and discrimination against her former employer, Ball State University. The University sought to dismiss the case, arguing it was not legally responsible for the alleged harassment because the person who committed it was not Ms. Vance’s supervisor. The lower courts both agreed.

Ms. Vance asked the Supreme Court to adopt the United States Equal Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”)’s broader definition of “supervisor,” which includes anyone who exercises significant control over the employee’s daily work. But, in Vance v. Ball State University, the Court rejected her position and ruled that generally only someone who has the authority to take an adverse employment action that has a negative economic consequence toward an employee can be considered a supervisor under Title VII. The Court also indicated that, under certain circumstances, an individual who does not officially have the authority to take an adverse employment action can be considered a supervisor if he/she has “substantial input” into those types of decisions in a way that indicates the employer delegated that power to him/her.

Since Ms. Vance admitted her harasser did not have the authority to fire, demote, or discipline her, the Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of her case.

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