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.