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New Jersey Law Prohibits Retaliation Against Employee Who Refused to Lie in Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

Last week, the New Jersey’s Appellate Decision recognized that an employer cannot retaliate against an employee because he refused to lie to support the company defend against another employee’s sexual harassment lawsuit.  While that might seem obvious, the twist is that the employee alleging retaliation did not even know the other employee’s case involved sexual harassment.

Emiliano Rios is an emergency medical technician (“EMT”).  He worked for Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center as the Supervisor of the Emergency Medical Services Department (“EMS”).

EMT's retaliation lawsuit reinstatedIn April 2014, one of Mr. Rios’s coworkers, Heatherlee Bailey, filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the hospital.  However, Mr. Rios was completely unaware that Ms. Bailey had been sexually harassed.

After Ms. Bailey filed her lawsuit, the Coordinator of EMS, Rostik Rusev, pressured Mr. Rios to help the hospital defend itself.  For example, he told Mr. Rios to be a “team player” and that the owner of the hospital expected Mr. Rios to help out.  Mr. Rusev also told Mr. Rios to seek a restraining order against Ms. Bailey.

Eventually, Mr. Rusev told Mr. Rios that the hospital was considering promoting him to Assistant Director of EMS,, but to receive the promotion he had to “play ball” and say Ms. Bailey had been giving him a “hard time.”  Mr. Rusev claimed doing so was “key” for the hospital to defeat the lawsuit.  In response, Mr. Rios indicated he was uncomfortable making that claim.  Mr. Rusev continued to pressure Mr. Rios by telling him that he was “required to protect the hospital.”

In another conversation, Mr. Rusev told Mr. Rios he needed to claim Ms. Bailey created a hostile work environment for him and he did not want to come to work because of her.  Mr. Rusev also instructed Mr. Rios to tell other employees to submit written complaints about Ms. Bailey.

Mr. Rios repeatedly told Mr. Rusev he was uncomfortable with his instructions, and the statements Mr. Rusey wanted him to make about Ms. Bailey were false.  He also refused to solicit complaints about Ms. Bailey.  In response, Meadowlands retaliated against Mr. Rios by taking away some of his job duties and then firing him.

Mr. Rios filed a lawsuit against Meadowlands, alleging it violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) by retaliating against him because he refused to cooperate with the hospital in Ms. Bailey’s sexual harassment lawsuit.

However, the trial court granted the hospital’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case.  It did so because Mr. Rios did not know Ms. Bailey’s underlying lawsuit was a sexual harassment case, and as a result he could not have had a “good faith, reasonable basis for complaining about the workplace behavior” which was directed toward Ms. Bailey. Mr. Rios appealed.

In a published opinion, Rios v. Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center, the appellate court explained that the LAD does not just prohibit employers from retaliating against an employee because he objected to an activity he reasonably believed violated the LAD.  It also prohibits employers from retaliating against an employee because he opposed an act that is forbidden by the LAD.  The Court noted that Mr. Rios objected to the hospital’s retaliation against Ms. Bailey, and thus objected to actions he reasonably believed were forbidden by the LAD, even though he had no knowledge of the unlawful behavior toward Ms. Bailey.