Articles Posted in Retaliation / Whistleblowing

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.

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.

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.

Earlier this year, New Jersey’s Appellate Division affirmed a trial court’s decision to reduce a firefighter’s emotional distress damages award from $3.5 million to $500,000. The case involved a retaliation claim brought by Firefighter Kevin Reilly against the Village of Ridgewood. Mr. Reilly had objected about numerous violations of fire safety and Occupational Safety & Health Act (“OSHA”) regulations. He claimed the fire department retaliated against him by, among other things, placing a negative memo in his personnel file, investigating an argument he had with another firefighter while off duty, and repeatedly skipping him for a promotion. He filed a lawsuit alleging Ridgewood retaliated against him in violation of New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”).

It is unclear why, but prior to the trial the judge dismissed Mr. Reilly’s claim for lost salary and benefits. At the trial, the jury found Ridgewood retaliated against Mr. Reilly, and awarded him $3.5 million for his emotional distress. On a post-trial motion, Ridgewood asked the judge to throw out the entire verdict, but the court found no basis to do so.

Judge Reduces $3.5 Million Retaliation Verdict to $500,000.jpgRidgewood also asked the judge to reduce the amount of Mr. Reilly’s emotional damages award, claiming $3.5 million was so high it was a miscarriage of justice. The judge agreed, finding the award was so excessive that it was “shocking.” Although Mr. Reilly appealed, in Reilly v. Village of Ridgewood the Appellate Division affirmed.

As the trial court explained, in deciding whether to remit a jury verdict, a court is required to consider (1) the facts supporting the damages, (2) damage awards in similar cases, and (3) the judge’s “feel of the case,” to determine whether the damages were so “wide of the mark” to require a reduction.

With respect to the first factor, Mr. Reilly testified about the anxiety and depression he experienced but did not rely on any medical testimony. He explained he was a third generation firefighter whose career had been destroyed. He told the jury he no longer felt safe at his job because he could not trust his co-workers to back him up at a fire scene. He also indicated he was worried Ridgewood would fire him for any small error he might make.

With respect to the second factor, the judge reviewed numerous other employment law cases, and noted that none of them awarded close to $3.5 million for emotional distress. He discussed cases with emotional distress awards ranging between $125,000 and $1.5 million. He noted that the cases at the higher end of that range involved medical testimony regarding the employee’s pain and suffering, treatment for the emotional distress, physical symptoms, and/or other more serious manifestations of the emotional harm. He also noted that the cases at the lower end of the spectrum did not involve anything comparable to Mr. Reilly’s fear that his fellow firefighters would not back him up and that Ridgewood would fire him for any mistake he made.

With respect to the final factor, the judge described his observations about Mr. Reilly at the trial, including that he cried and showed emotion during his testimony, but seemed composed during the rest of the trial and did not otherwise demonstrate any behavior that suggested he was experiencing emotional distress.

When a judge concludes a jury’s verdict is so shocking that it must be reduced, he is required to replace it with “the highest figure that could be supported by the evidence.” After weighing all three factors, the trial judge determined that $500,000 was the highest award that could be supported by the evidence. Accordingly, he reduced Mr. Reilly’s emotional distress damages to $500,000, a very substantial award for an individual who did not have any medical testimony to support his emotional distress damages, but $3 million less than the jury had awarded.

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Last week, I discussed a case which Clarifies How to Prove Sexual Harassment Under New York City Law. The same case also demonstrates how broad the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL)’s protection is for employees who object about unlawful discrimination or harassment at work. It is a particularly noteworthy employment law decision because it recognizes that a company can violate the NYCHRL if it fires an employee whose job performance is extremely poor if there is evidence the company did not make the decision to fire her until after she objected about sexual harassment.
Poorly Perfoming Employees and NYCHRL.jpgThe NYCHRL prohibits employers from retaliating against anyone who opposes unlawful discrimination or harassment. It has been interpreted to protect a wide range of opposition to discrimination and harassment, including something as simple as expressing the opinion that certain treatment by a supervisor was improper or wrong. It also has been interpreted to prevent a wide range of retaliatory actions. In addition to prohibiting severe forms of retaliation such as firing, demoting, or suspending an employee, it also prohibits any other form of reprisal that is likely to deter someone from objecting to illegal discrimination in the future.

In Mihalik v. Credit Agricole Cheuvreux North America, Inc., Renee Mihalik claims her company’s Chief Executive Officer, Ian Peacock, retaliated against her after she rejected his sexual advance in December 2007. In particular, she told him his behavior was “offensive and shameful.” She claims Mr. Peacock subsequently berated her in front of her coworkers by saying she adds “nothing of value” to the company, has “no f–ing clue” about what she is doing, and is “pretty much useless.” She also claims Mr. Peacock stopped sitting next to her at the trading desk, and told the staff not to invite her to meetings. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that a jury could find Mr. Peacock took these demeaning actions toward Ms. Mihalik in response to her objection to his sexual overtures, and his behavior reasonably could deter Ms. Mihalik and/or other employees from coming forward with complaints about discrimination in the future.

Ms. Mihalik further claims Mr. Peacock retaliated against her by firing her. During a meeting in April 2008, Mr. Peacock told Ms. Mihalik that things were not working out with her. She responded by asking what was not working out, “me and you or me at the company?” The Court ruled that a jury could believe her question was a reference to her previous rejection of Mr. Peacock’s sexual advances, and as a result could find his decision to fire her was retaliatory.

Notably, the court reached this conclusion even though there was proof that Ms. Mihalik’s job performance was extremely poor. However, there also was evidence that Mr. Peacock had never spoken to her about her job performance before this meeting, Mr. Peacock admitted he had not decided to fire Ms. Mihalik before the meeting, and there was evidence he decided to fire her only after he became angry about her objection to his inappropriate behavior. Alternatively, the court found that a jury could conclude that Mr. Peacock had more than one reason for firing Ms. Mihalik — her poor performance and her objection to his sexual advances. Either way, it ruled there is enough evidence to support Ms. Mihalik’s claim, and her case should proceed to a trial.

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A federal judge recently denied an employer’s attempt to dismiss an employee’s claim under New Jersey’s whistleblower law, the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA). The employee, Mary Stapleton, claims her former employer, DSW, Inc., fired her in violation of CEPA. Ms. Stapleton worked for DSW, a shoe store, in New Jersey. In March 2012, she called New Jersey’s Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) because she saw a female customer who appeared to be neglecting her twenty-two month old child. Among other things, the customer refused to change the child even though she smelled of feces, did nothing to stop the child from painting the store’s shelves with nail polish, did not even notice when Ms. Stapleton took the nail polish from the child, and did not react when the child pulled on several other customers’ clothes. When the child took items from the counter and threw them on the floor, the customer threatened to hit the child when they got home. Ms. Stapleton reported this to DCPP, and provided the customer’s name and address so the agency could identify the customer.

The next day, the store’s District Manager learned that Ms. Stapleton had reported the customer to DCPP. She required Ms. Stapleton to submit a written statement about the incident. A few days later, DSW fired Ms. Stapleton because she provided the customer’s private identifying information to DCPP, in violation of a company policy prohibiting employees from giving out a customer’s identifying information. Ms. Stapleton indicated she was trying to act in the best interests of the child, and that DSW’s policy prohibiting her from providing the customer’s information was not in the best interests of the child. Nonetheless, DSW did not change its decision to fire her.

Retaliation lawsuit against New Jersey shoe store.jpgMs. Stapleton eventually filed a lawsuit, claiming DSW fired her in retaliation for her refusal to follow a company policy she reasonably believed was incompatible with the best interests of the child, in violation of CEPA. DSW asked the judge to dismiss her case, arguing Ms. Stapleton did not engage in any whistleblowing activity that is protected under CEPA.

In Stapleton v. DSW, Inc., the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey denied DSW’s motion. The Court explained that the purpose of CEPA is to provide protection “to vulnerable employees who have the courage to speak out against or decline to participate in an employer’s actions that are contrary to public policy mandates.” Among its broad protections, CEPA makes it unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an employee who “objects to, or refuses to participate in” an employer’s activity which the employee “reasonably believes” violates the law, or a clear mandate of public policy relating to public health, safety, or welfare.

The Court agreed with DSW that Ms. Stapleton did not object to the company’s confidentiality policy until after she had been fired, and as a result could not prove retaliation on that basis. However, it found that if Ms. Stapelton’s allegations are true then the company fired her because she refused to comply with a policy she reasonably believed violated the law or a clear mandate of public policy regarding public health, safety, or welfare, since the policy prohibiting employees from giving out a customer’s private identifying information would have prevented her from taking an action she believed was necessary to protect the child’s health and safety. As a result, it found she has properly set forth a claim under CEPA and can proceed with her lawsuit.

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Newark Police Officer Uniform.jpgThe Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed a Newark police officer’s $700,000 verdict in a wrongful termination case. The case was brought by Jose Montalvo, who was a police officer for the City of Newark from 1990 to 2006. On April 22, 2005, he filed an affirmative action complaint, claiming the police department started harassing him after he fired his weapon at a citizen in 2000. For example, despite Mr. Montalvo’s repeated requests, the department refused to return his fire arm, and instead kept him assigned to cell block duty for longer than it had assigned anyone else to it. According to testimony, Newark assigns police officers to the cell block as a form of punishment.

At the trial, Mr. Montalvo presented evidence that Newark began further harassing him after he filed his affirmative action complaint. For instance, the police department suspended him for 21 days relating to the shooting, even though it occurred five years earlier. Ultimately, Newark fired Mr. Montalvo for making false statements during a police department investigation and disclosing confidential information about the investigation. However, Mr. Montalvo presented evidence at the trial showing the department gave less severe discipline to other police officers who were brought up on similar disciplinary charges.

At the trial, the jury found Newark fired Mr. Montalvo in retaliation for filing his affirmative action complaint, in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), and awarded him $700,000. The LAD prohibits employers from retaliating against an employee because he complained about workplace discrimination.

Newark appealed, arguing there was not enough evidence to connect its decision to fire Mr. Montalvo to his affirmative action complaint. However, the Third Circuit rejected this argument. In Montalvo v. City of Newark, it ruled the jury’s find that Newark fired Mr. Montalvo in retaliation for his affirmative action complaint was supported by the pattern of Newark antagonizing him after he filed it.

On appeal, Newark also asked the court to overturn the verdict on the basis that the Police Chief who made the decision to fire Mr. Montalvo testified that he did not even know about Mr. Montalvo’s affirmative action complaint. However, the court concluded that the jury was not required to believe the Police Chief’s testimony. It also explained that, even if the Chief did not know about Mr. Montalvo’s affirmative action complaint, his decision to fire Mr. Montalvo still could have been retaliatory since there was evidence he relied on a “tainted” retaliatory performance evaluation prepared by another employee who did know about his complaint. Accordingly, the court affirmed Mr. Montalvo’s $700,000 verdict.

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In a noteworthy unpublished employment law decision, earlier this month New Jersey’s Appellate Division upheld a jury award to an employee on a retaliation claim where the primary evidence of retaliation was the fact that the employee’s supervisors were unfriendly to him after he complained about discrimination.

Anthony Onuoha, who is African American, worked for Roche Molecular Systems. In 2006, he complained to Roche’s management because he believed the company discriminated against him by giving him unfair performance reviews and raises. The company’s human resources department investigated his claim, but concluded that his performance reviews and salary were fair.

Worried black businessman.jpgAfter Mr. Onuoha complained about discrimination, his supervisors became unfriendly toward him. For example, one supervisor stopped speaking to him. Mr. Onuoha also received an even worse performance review in 2007. Further, the company denied Mr. Onuoha’s request to take a two-week vacation after he took a 6-week medical leave, claiming there was too much work.

A few years later, in 2009, Roche chose to include Mr. Onuoha in a reduction-in-force and terminated his employment. He then sued, claiming the company discriminated against him because he is an African American, and fired him in retaliation for his complaint about race discrimination, in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).

After a trial, a jury found that Roche had not discriminated against Mr. Onuoha based on his race. However, it found the company fired Mr. Onuoha in retaliation for the complaint he made about discrimination in 2006. He was awarded $512,000 in economic damages, $250,000 in emotional distress damages, plus $305,653.07 for his attorney’s fees and legal costs, for a total judgment of more than a million dollars.

On appeal, Roche argued it was improper for the jury to find Roche retaliated against Mr. Onuoha because of his complaint about discrimination since the jury found the company did not discriminate against him. In Onuoha v. Roche Molecular Systems, the Appellate Division rejected that argument since an employee does not have to win his discrimination claim to prove his employer fired him in retaliation for complaining about discrimination. Rather, an employee only has to prove he reasonably believed in his discrimination complaint, and the employer retaliated against him because he made the complaint.

The appellate court also found there was enough evidence of retaliation to support the jury’s verdict, despite the fact that there was a two year gap between his discrimination complaint and the company’s decision to fire Mr. Onuoha. It primarily focused on the evidence that Mr. Onuoha’s supervisors became unfriendly toward him after he complained about discrimination. The Court also relied on the fact that, although the company could have considered a broader group of employees for potential layoff, it insisted on firing someone from Mr. Onuoha’s group. Accordingly, the court affirmed the jury’s verdict in favor of Mr. Onuoha.

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New Jersey has a very broad whistleblower law, the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA). CEPA protects employees from retaliation when they object to, disclose, or refuse to participate in an activity they reasonably believe (1) is in violation of a law, or a rule or regulation written pursuant to law, (2) is fraudulent or criminal, or (3) is incompatible with a clear mandate of public policy concerning public health, safety, or welfare or protection of the environment. Last month, in Hallanan v. Township of Fairfield Board of Education, New Jersey’s Appellate Division ruled that CEPA protects an employee of a local school district who objected to an apparent violation of her school district’s affirmative action policy since the policy was written to comply with a New Jersey Board of Education regulation.

Lynne C. Hallanan worked for the Township of Fairfield Board of Education as a Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction. She was also the school district’s Affirmative Action Officer. One of her job duties was to prepare an annual Comprehensive Equity Plan (CEP). The CEP documented the school district’s compliance with its Affirmative Action Guidelines. The district established those guidelines to comply with a New Jersey Board of Education regulation, N.J.A.C. § 6A:7-1.4(c)(2). That regulation requires school districts to identify and correct all unfair educational and hiring policies to ensure “all persons regardless of race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, affectional or sexual orientation, gender, religion, disability, or socioeconomic status shall have equal and bias free access to all categories of employment in the public educational system of New Jersey.”

School Building.jpgIn preparing the CEP, Ms. Hallanan became concerned the Fairfield Board of Education had not posted certain job openings before filling the positions, as required under its Affirmative Action Guidelines. She asked the teacher’s union and the superintendent for documents showing that certain positions (including the superintendent’s position) had been posted before they were filled. She never received any such documents.

Ms. Hallanan then submitted a draft CEP to the superintendent in which she stated that the district was unable to find paperwork proving it had followed all of its affirmative action policies. According to her, the superintendent indicated he was unhappy she included that in her report, and told her to remove it from the final version. Ms. Hallanan testified that the superintendent then warned her that she was “calling a strike on yourself with this.” She also said she felt the superintendent started harassing her after she submitted her draft report. Approximately one month later, the superintendent told Ms. Hallanan that her position was going to be eliminated as a cost-saving measure.

The trial court dismissed Ms. Hallanan’s case. It found she did not fall within CEPA’s protection because she did not reasonably believe her employer violated a law or regulation, but only believed it had violated its own internal Affirmative Action policy. However, the Appellate Division saw it differently. It found Ms. Hallanan had objected to something she reasonably believed violated N.J.A.C. § 6A:7-1.4(c)(2), a Board of Education regulation that seeks to prohibit employment discrimination. It also found evidence that Ms. Hallanan reasonably believed the district had bypassed its own Affirmative Action Guidelines when it hired several employees, including the superintendent. Finally, it concluded that there was enough evidence for a jury to find that the decision to fire Ms. Hallanan was retaliatory. As a result, it reversed the lower court’s decision to dismiss Ms. Hallanan’s case, paving the way for her to have her day in court.

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The New Jersey Appellate Division recently ruled, in an employment law case in which the same law firm represented two clients, and only one of those clients won at trial, it was improper to reduce the attorney’s fee award by 50%. Many employment laws, including New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), allow an employee who wins his case to recover his reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. Ordinarily, when an attorney achieves excellent results for his client, he should be awarded all of his attorney’s fees. Otherwise, the judge can reduce the fee based on the time that he finds was unnecessary or unreasonable.

The case, Donelson v. DuPont, involved two employees. Joseph Donelson brought a whistleblower claim under CEPA and an age discrimination claim under the LAD. However, he lost his case at trial. The other employee, John Seddon, brought a whistleblower claim under CEPA. Seddon won at trial, and the jury awarded him $724,000 in economic damages, plus $500,000 in punitive damages. As I discussed in June, in an earlier decision stemming from Donelson, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that New Jersey Employees Can Recover Lost Wages if Forced to Resign Because Retaliation Caused Psychiatric Disorder. But the Court sent the case back to the Appellate Division to decide whether the trial court had properly reduced Seddon’s attorney’s fees.

Courtroom ♠ Scales of Justice.jpg Since Seddon and Donelson were represented by the same lawyer, and their cases were factually related, it was difficult to determine how much of the total time the lawyers spent on the case was necessary to Seddon’s case, and how much was only necessary for Donelson’s case. As a result, the trial judge decided to cut Seddon’s attorney’s fee award in half.

The Appellate Division ruled that, when the trial judge calculated Seddon’s attorney’s fees, it was proper to consider the fact that Donelson lost his LAD case. However, it found it was improper to reduce Seddon’s attorney’s fee by 50 percent because Donelson would have been a witness in Seddon’s case even if he was not a party to the lawsuit, and his attorney would have had to spend much of the same time either way. Accordingly, the Appellate Division sent the case back to the trial court to reassess the appropriate attorney’s fee.

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