The Third Circuit Expands The New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”) To Protect In-House Legal Counsel

In Trzaska v. L’Oreal USA, Inc., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 13381 (3d Cir. July 25, 2017), the Third Circuit held that an in-house attorney may maintain a cause of action under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”) due to the in-house attorney’s allegation that his employment was terminated because of his refusal to violate the Rules of Professional Conduct governing lawyers in the State of Pennsylvania.  This is an important decision because it further expands the scope of CEPA by recognizing that in-house legal counsel may proceed with claims alleging whistleblower retaliation.

Steven J. Trzaska was an in-house patent attorney for L’Oreal, overseeing the company’s patent team and the process by which the company would patent its newly developed products and inventions.  As a legal practitioner, Mr. Trzaska is bound by the Rules of Professional Conduct established by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania as well as the United States Patent and Trademark Office.  The company established a global quota of patent applications that each regional office must file each year.  At the same time, L’Oreal adopted an initiative to improve the overall quality of its patent applications filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, which resulted in fewer invention disclosures submitted to the company’s patent team for vetting.

Despite its initiative, the company continued to demand that the patent team meet the annual quota.  As a result, the patent team did not believe it could meet the quota for 2014 without filing patent applications for products that it did not, in good faith, believe were patentable.  Accordingly, Mr. Trzaska explained to his superiors that neither he nor his team would be willing to file any patent applications for products that they in good faith, did not believe were patentable.  He further advised that, if any attorney on the patent team filed such an application, it would be in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct.  In response, the company offered Mr. Trzaska two severance packages if he wanted to leave the company or was otherwise told to “get back to [his] office and get back to work.”   The company subsequently terminated Mr. Trzaska’s employment after he rejected the severance packages.

Mr. Trzaska subsequently filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, alleging that his employment termination was retaliation in violation of CEPA.  The company moved to dismiss the suit on the grounds that the Rules of Professional Conduct were an inadequate basis to maintain a CEPA claim.  The District Court agreed, and dismissed the lawsuit.  On appeal, the Third Circuit reversed, determining that “an allegation that an employer instructed, coerced, or threatened its patent attorney employee to disregard the RPCs [Rules of Professional Conduct] binding him violates a clear mandate of public policy within the meaning of CEPA.”  In addition, the Third Circuit found that “rules of professional conduct in general can underlay a CEPA violation” and even though the applicable Rules of Professional Conduct do not regulate the company’s business practices, the company’s instruction to Mr. Trzaska nevertheless violates a clear mandate of public policy.

If you have any questions about this decision or CEPA, please contact the Law Office of Frank A. Custode, LLC.

Employees Should Still Be Aware of the Inevitable Disclosure Doctrine

From a practical standpoint, it is important that employees understand the potential ramifications of disclosing confidential and proprietary information as well as trade secrets belonging to their former employers.  Typically, employers protect such interests by way of restrictive covenant agreements.  Restrictive covenant agreements generally include post-employment non-compete, non-solicitation, and confidentiality obligations.  In the event that a former employee breaches said post-employment obligations, the former employer’s recourse is to bring legal action seeking injunctive relief (namely, a court order prohibiting the former employee from engaging in the conduct that violates the restrictive covenant agreement).  To obtain injunctive relief, the former employer must demonstrate (among other things) irreparable harm that may not be adequately remedied by money damages.

In 2012, the New Jersey Trade Secrets Act came into effect.  The New Jersey Trade Secrets Act essentially codified existing case law and provides remedies to employers for the protection of their trade secrets.  While the New Jersey Trade Secrets Act states that it supersedes “conflicting tort” law (among other laws), the Act also states that “the rights, remedies and prohibitions” under the Act are “in addition to and cumulative of any other right, remedy or prohibition provided under the common law or statutory law of this State . . .”

The inevitable disclosure doctrine is a theory of liability upon which employers typically rely in the context of seeking injunctive relief, prohibiting a former employee from misappropriating their trade secrets.  Under the inevitable disclosure doctrine, an employer “need not establish that its former employee has actually used or disclosed trade secrets.”  See Osteotech, Inc. v. Biologic, LLC, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17718 (D.N.J. March 7, 2008).  Rather, an employer must demonstrate that “there is a sufficient likelihood of ‘inevitable disclosure’ of its trade secrets to a competitor.” See id.

In SCS Healthcare Mtkg. LLC v. Allergan, USA, Inc., 2012 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2704 (Ch. Div. 2012), following the enactment of the New Jersey Trade Secrets Act, the court reaffirmed that the inevitable disclosure doctrine remains a “factor guiding the court’s determination as to whether injunctive relief is appropriate.”  Therefore, it appears as though the inevitable disclosure doctrine remains as a potential common law theory of liability for the issuance of injunctive relief in the misappropriation of trade secrets context.  Accordingly, it is important that employees remain aware of this theory of liability.

If you have any questions about the New Jersey Trade Secrets Act, the inevitable disclosure doctrine, and/or restrictive covenant agreements, please contact the Law Office of Frank A. Custode, LLC.

Union Member’s New Jersey Law Against Discrimination Claim Is Not Preempted by Federal Labor Law

In Hejda v. Bell Container Corporation, decided on May 9, 2017, the New Jersey Appellate Division held that a union member’s disability discrimination claim under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and retaliatory discharge claim under the Workers’ Compensation Law are not preempted under the federal National Labor Relations Act.  As set forth below, this decision has important ramifications for union members who assert claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

Brian Hejda, a member of Teamsters Local 813, was employed as a commercial truck driver by Bell Container Corporation.  In August 2012, he suffered a workplace injury to his knee.  Following physical therapy sessions, Mr. Hejda was cleared to return to “light duty” work, with certain restrictions.  However, the company did not have any light duty positions available for him at the time.  In late September 2012 and early October 2012, Mr. Hejda was cleared to return to work with the same restrictions.  Later in October 2012 and November 2012, an orthopedic specialist recommended surgery, and cleared Mr. Hejda for “sedentary work” only, with no commercial driving. However, the company did not allow him to return to work in that capacity.  As such, in November 2012, Mr. Hejda filed a workers’ compensation claim with the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Division of Workers’ Compensation.

Ultimately, in February 2013, another orthopedic specialist agreed that surgery was required, but cleared Mr. Hejda to return to work without any restrictions.  The company, however, advised the union that Mr. Hejda could not return to work until he was recertified under a Department of Transportation Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulation as “physically qualified to operate a commercial vehicle.”  The union then filed a grievance on behalf of Mr. Hejda, claiming, among other things, that the company should return him to his commercial truck driver position immediately.  In April 2013, Mr. Hejda’s family physician certified that he met the Department of Transportation requirements.  Nonetheless, the union’s grievance was denied.  In November 2013, Mr. Hejda submitted another certification from his family physician, again stating that he met the Department of Transportation requirements.  In response, the company offered him a position as a “night switcher” rather a commercial truck driver.

Thus, Mr. Hejda filed a lawsuit against the company alleging disability discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and retaliation under the Workers’ Compensation Law.  In response, the company filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, asserting that the claims were preempted under the National Labor Relations Act.   The trial granted the motion.  Mr. Hejda then appealed the trial court’s decision.

On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s decision, and held that the claims were not preempted by federal labor law.  Specifically, the Appellate Division determined that “none of these allegations call for the interpretation of the CBA” and that “the complaint alleges a cause of action under the LAD, which plainly establishes rights that are independent of the CBA.”

This is an important decision for employees who are union members. Now, the court has clarified that union members may proceed with state law discrimination claims without concern that their cases are subject to preemption under federal labor law.  This removes a significant hurdle for union members and should lead to the filing of more state law discrimination cases by union workers.

If you have any questions about the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and/or have suffered from workplace discrimination, retaliation or harassment, please contact the Law Office of Frank A. Custode, LLC.

Understanding Severance Agreements

In general, it is a good business practice for employers to present a severance agreement to departing employees when a company has a reduction-in-force or terminates an employee.  At its core, a severance agreement is an agreement between an employer and the departing employee where the departing employee releases potential legal claims against the employer in exchange for receiving monetary benefits to which the employee would not otherwise be entitled.

The agreement is valuable to both an employer and an employee.  From an employer’s perspective, obtaining a release of potential legal claims by the departing employee is the only vehicle that assures that the departing employee will not bring legal action against the employer regarding the employee’s separation of employment.  From an employee’s perspective, severance allows the employee to obtain additional compensation while transitioning to new employment.

Typically, severance agreements include various core provisions.  Among such provisions included in severance agreements are general release of claims language, non-disparagement language, confidentiality language, and choice of law/choice of forum provisions.  Since severance agreements involve the waiver of important legal rights, it is a good practice for employees to consult with an attorney prior to signing such an agreement.

If you have any questions about severance agreements and/or have been presented with a severance agreement by your employer, please contact the Law Office of Frank A. Custode, LLC.

Non-Compete Agreements Remain Alive and Well

In ADP, LLC v. Lynch, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 2159 (3d Cir. 2017), the United States Courts of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the partial enforcement of non-compete agreements against former employees, who agreed to the non-compete agreements online when accepting stock awards.

Jordan Lynch and John Halpin worked in sales at ADP for approximately six years.  During the course of their employment, Mr. Lynch and Mr. Halpin accepted incentive stock awards on five occasions that were offered to select employees for their performance.  The incentive stock awards were offered online, and required the employees to “select the check box” to indicate they “read all associated documents” before accepting the incentive stock awards.  There was a 19-page PDF document next to the check box, which included, among other documents, the non-compete agreements at issue.   The non-compete agreements stated, in relevant part, that “for a period of 12 months after the end of employment, the employee 1) would not join an ADP competitor and 2) would not solicit any business from any current or prospective ADP client.”   Mr. Lynch and Mr. Halpin ultimately resigned from ADP and started to work for a competitor, Ultimate Software.  Shortly thereafter, ADP brought a lawsuit against them and requested a preliminary injunction to enforce the non-compete agreements.

The District Court granted the preliminary injunction in part. Specifically, the Court enjoined Mr. Lynch and Mr. Halpin from soliciting current ADP clients for 12 months following their resignations; however, it restricted the solicitation of prospective ADP clients only to the extent the former employees gained knowledge of the prospective clients while employed by ADP and allowed Mr. Lynch and Mr. Halpin to continue to work for their new employer.  The Third Circuit affirmed this ruling, finding that the issuance of a preliminary injunction under these circumstances was not an abuse of discretion.

Accordingly, this decision illustrates that restrictive covenants remain alive and well in the State of New Jersey.  As such, companies should continue to protect their legitimate business interests through the use of restrictive covenants and individuals who sign restrictive covenants should be mindful of their post-employment obligations.

If you have any questions about non-compete agreements or restrictive covenants in the State of New Jersey, please contact the Law Office of Frank A. Custode, LLC.

 

Appellate Division Rules That Back Pay Award Is Not Offset By Unemployment Compensation

In Fornaro v. Flightsafety International Inc., Docket No. A-1295-14T2 (March 6, 2017), the Appellate Division ruled that unemployment compensation benefits do not offset back pay awarded by juries in actions involving the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  Plaintiff Rex Fornaro filed an action alleging disability discrimination and retaliatory discharge under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination against his former employer, Flightsafety International, Inc.  The case proceeded to trial, and the jury found that defendant terminated plaintiff due to his disability and as reprisal for seeking accommodations for his disability.  Thus, the jury awarded back pay to plaintiff in the amount of approximately $83,000.00.

However, the trial judge reduced the back pay award by $14,000.00, representing fifty percent of the unemployment compensation received by plaintiff.  Plaintiff appealed this ruling, contending that the trial judge erred in offsetting his back pay award by fifty percent of his unemployment compensation.

The Appellate Division agreed with plaintiff, and held that unemployment compensation benefits may not be deducted from back pay awarded under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  In so doing, the court found that “shifting the benefit of unemployment compensation from the wronged employee to the discriminating employer does not serve the LAD’s deterrent purpose.”  In addition, the court noted that model jury charge applicable to damages in cases involving the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination specifically provides that unemployment benefits are not deducted from back pay awards.

This case is a significant victory for plaintiffs in LAD cases given that there is now clear appellate case law authority on the issue of whether unemployment benefits compensation offset back pay awards for employees.   If you have any questions about the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, please contact the Law Office of Frank A. Custode, LLC.

The Importance of Anti-Harassment Policies In New Jersey Law Against Discrimination Cases

The recent Appellate Division decision of Edries v. Quick Chek Food Stores, Inc., (A-0091-15T1, January 20, 2017), illustrates the importance of anti-harassment policies in lawsuits involving claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.   When Quick Check hired plaintiff, she received the company’s Team Member Handbook, which contained an anti-harassment policy.  The company also had a separate “No Harassment” policy, which was distributed to plaintiff; and the company required plaintiff to watch training videos on sexual harassment.

At the company’s “Total Customer Dedication” awards dinner, one of Quick Chek’s loss prevention representatives made a series of vulgar comments to plaintiff.  The next day, plaintiff completed an anonymous survey, noting that the loss prevention representative has “a filthy and nasty mouth and he needs to stop with his sexual comments . . .”  In addition, in response to a question regarding what she would add or change about the dinner, plaintiff stated, “just to feel comfortable and not have to deal with people like [the loss prevention representative] and his sexual comments.

Upon receipt of the survey, Quick Chek conducted an investigation regarding the incident.  The investigation included meetings with plaintiff’s supervisor, discussions with human resource members, and a meeting with the company’s General Counsel.  In response to plaintiff’s complaints, the company issued a “constructive advice” written warning to the alleged harasser, which included requiring the employee to decline assignments at plaintiff’s store,  attend an anti-harassment training program,  refrain from making any further inappropriate comments, and refrain from taking any retribution against plaintiff.

Nearly two years later, plaintiff went on disability leave, and asked the company’s Chief Executive Officer if the company could demote the alleged harasser, or move him to different region “so she would never have to go to meetings where he speaks . . .” She also advised that she refrained from applying for promotions because she was afraid of having to interact with him.  Plaintiff never returned to work from her disability leave, and filed a complaint alleging hostile work environment and retaliation in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

At the conclusion of discovery, the trial court dismissed the case, granting summary judgment in favor of Quick Chek.  In so doing, the trial court concluded that the company had “effective procedures for reporting and responding to complaints of harassment” and that the company “did, in fact, respond in an effective way to [plaintiff’s] complaint of harassment.”  With regard to plaintiff’s retaliation claim, the trial court found that there were no “adverse employment consequences to [plaintiff’s] complaint.”

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s rulings.  In so affirming, the Appellate Division agreed that Quick Chek had effective procedures in place to report and remedy harassment given that it had “formal policies prohibiting harassment in the workplace,” “complaint structures for employee’s use,” and conducted “anti-harassment training.”  The Appellate Division also noted that the company disciplined the alleged harasser and there was no evidence that he ever harassed plaintiff or any other employee again.

From an employer’s perspective, this case clearly illustrates the importance of having anti-harassment policies in place and implementing said policies.  From an employee’s perspective, the case illustrates the importance of utilizing a company’s anti-harassment policies in the event of harassment and/or discrimination in the workplace.  Indeed, if the employer in this matter had not adequately remedied the alleged harassment, the result of this matter may have been different.

If you have any questions about anti-harassment policies and/or workplace harassment or discrimination, please contact the Law Office of Frank A. Custode, LLC.

Is It Lawful To Fire An Employee Who Refuses To Sign A Non-Compete Agreement?

In today’s economic climate, restrictive covenants (including non-compete agreements) are becoming increasingly more common in the workplace.  Indeed, it is important for employers to protect their legitimate business interests, such as pricing information, customer lists, trade secrets, marketing strategies, and other confidential and proprietary information.   Likewise, employees should be mindful of potential post-employment restrictions placed in non-compete agreements since such restrictions may ultimately cost them potential job opportunities.  This blog focuses on the scenario when an employer presents an employee with a non-compete agreement, and the employee refuses to sign the agreement.

In Maw v. Advanced Clinical Communications, Inc., 179 N.J. 439 (2004), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that an employee’s termination following a dispute over the terms of a non-compete provision in her employment agreement was not a violation of a clear mandate of public policy as contemplated by the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”), which prohibits, among other things, an employer from taking retaliatory action against an employee who “objects to, or refuses to participate in any activity, policy or practice which the employee reasonably believes . . . is incompatible with a clear mandate of public policy concerning public health, safety or welfare or protection of the environment.”  In so doing, the Court found that a dispute over the terms of a non-compete agreement is private in nature as opposed to implicating a clear mandate of public policy.  Thus, the employer’s decision to terminate the employee for refusal to sign the non-compete agreement was not retaliatory.

Therefore, the key takeaway is that, in New Jersey, it is generally lawful for an employer to terminate an employment relationship due to an employee’s refusal to sign a non-compete agreement.   However, the scenario gets more complicated when out-of-state employees are at issue.  In such a scenario, careful examination of the wrongful termination law for the particular state(s) at issue is required.

If you need any assistance with non-compete agreements, please contact the Law Office of Frank A. Custode, LLC.

Are Written Warnings Adverse Employment Actions Under The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination?

In general, to establish a viable claim for discrimination or retaliation under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, an individual must suffer an adverse employment action.  The most common example of an adverse employment action is an employment termination.  However, there are less obvious adverse employment actions, such as demotions and potentially, written warnings or reprimands. In Prager v. Joyce Honda, Inc., 447 N.J. Super. 124 (App. Div. 2016), the New Jersey Appellate Division examined when circumstances dictate that the issuance of written warnings constitute an adverse employment action under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination in the context of a retaliation claim asserted by the plaintiff when the plaintiff received the written warnings following complaints about unlawful conduct in the workplace.

To have actionable retaliatory conduct, courts examine whether “a reasonable employee would have found the challenged action materially adverse, which in this context means it well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.”  See Roa v. Roa, 200 N.J. 555, 575 (2011).  The United States Supreme Court has determined that “the anti-retaliation provision protects an individual not from all retaliation, but from retaliation that produces an injury or harm.”  See Burlington Northern & Sante Fe Railway v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 67 (2006).

Applying that standard in Prager, the Appellate Division concluded that the written warnings issued to plaintiff did not establish an adverse employment action because plaintiff was unable to prove tangible injury or harm given that she quit her job the day after receiving the warnings.  However, the Appellate Division stated, “[t]o be clear, we accept that written warnings might, in some circumstances, be materially adverse to an employee – in a formal system of progressive discipline for instance.”  In light of this ruling, it is important for employees as well as employers to understand the ramifications of issuing written warnings to employees shortly following complaints made by employees about actions that may be protected under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

If you have any questions about adverse employment actions under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, please contact the Law Office of Frank A. Custode, LLC.

Do Mandatory Flu Vaccination Policies Violate The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination?

With the cold weather coming in and winter around the corner, a hot-topic issue is whether the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination protects employees who are discharged for failure to comply with an employer’s mandatory flu vaccination policy.  The New Jersey  Appellate Division recently weighed in on this issue in Brown v. Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center.

Plaintiff worked for the Medical Center as a community health educator.  In 2012, the Medical Center implemented its mandatory flu vaccination policy, requiring all employees to obtain an influenza vaccine each year.  The policy’s stated purpose was “to minimize transmission of the [flu] in the workplace by providing occupational protection to [staff] and thus preventing transmission to fellow [staff members] and to members of the community . . .”  Significantly, employees “who [could not] receive vaccination for religious beliefs supported by documentation from clergy” or due to “documented medical conditions” were exempt from the policy’s requirements.

Initially, Plaintiff requested a medical exemption under the policy, which was denied; and ultimately, she was terminated for failure to comply with the policy.  Following her termination, Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging violations under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination for failure to accommodate her medical condition.  After Defendants filed their Answer, Plaintiff sought to amend her complaint to include a claim of religious discrimination.  The trial court denied Plaintiff’s application to amend her complaint.  On appeal, Plaintiff argued that the policy was “discriminatory on its face” because it “confers a benefit on religious believers that is not available to non-believers” and “bears no rational relation to issues of public health and patient safety,” as “it imposes no restrictions of any kind on those who have been granted exemptions” in order to “facilitate its stated purpose.”

The Appellate Division rejected Plaintiff’s argument for the following reasons:  Plaintiff’s proposed amendment was missing a “key element” in that it failed to allege that she was a member of a protected class, i.e., whether she was in a protected class due to her association with a particular religion or with no religion at all; the proposed amendment did not allege that members of only certain religions were granted religious exemptions while members of other religions were denied; and Plaintiff did not allege that she had a religious objection to being vaccinated, or requested a religious accommodation and was denied the accommodation.  Therefore, based on the foregoing facts, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s decision to deny Plaintiff’s motion to amend her complaint.

Significantly, however, this decision does not necessarily preclude employees from challenging mandatory flu vaccination policies.  Whether mandatory flu vaccination policies violate the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination depends on the language of the policy at issue and the application of specific facts.  Therefore, if you have any questions about the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and/or flu vaccination policies in the workplace, please contact the Law Office of Frank A. Custode, LLC.