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Jul
2013
22

NJ Supreme Court Issues Decision Which Strengthens Workplace Bias Laws in Favor of Employees

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Last week, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in favor of a UPS employee who sued the company after being demoted.  The plaintiff claimed his demotion was retaliation for complaining about denigrating remarks in the workplace.  In a unanimous decision, the state’s high court ruled that employers who engage in derogatory remarks against their employees can be held civilly liable even when no individual is ‘directly’ harmed. The ruling strengthens workplace bias laws in favor of employees. 

Philly.com breaks down the situation that led up to the complaint:

It began when the plaintiff, Michael Battaglia, a manager, upbraided one of his employees for lewd and suggestive remarks about a female employee.

Under UPS policy, Battaglia documented the alleged offense by requiring the employee to describe the incident in a written report with commentary on why the behavior was unacceptable - a means by which, according to the court, UPS sought to change employee behavior.

Battaglia became ill with Lyme disease after the first incident, was out of work for a time, and eventually accepted a lower-ranking position when he returned to work. At that point, he came under the supervision of the employee he had earlier cited, who had been promoted in the interim.

According to Battaglia, the employee, Wayne DeCraine, continued to engage in offensive commentary about women and Battaglia reported the incidents to his superiors. In court papers, both DeCraine and UPS denied that DeCraine made the denigrating remarks.

A long series of disputes and conflicts between Battaglia and other UPS managers ensued that ultimately resulted in Battaglia’s demotion yet again.

The case got to the state Supreme Court after both sides appealed different sections of the case.  At one point in the legal journey, a jury awarded the plaintiff $1 million for economic damages and emotional distress.  Of particular legal interest in the case was the fact that the offensive language and derogatory remarks were made at the expense of women, yet no women were present when they were spoken.   

Justice Helen Hoens wrote: 

“We do not suggest that [New Jersey's antidiscrimination law] has created a civility code for the workplace where only language fit for polite society will be tolerated,” she added,

“The broad purposes of the LAD would not be advanced if we were to apply so narrow a focus,” Hoens wrote. “These were not the occasional words of a low-level employee having a bad day, but were the words of a supervisor, uttered in meetings with managerial employees, both repeatedly and routinely. Nor were they directed to a single female employee with whom DeCraine had a dispute or a disagreement, but were directed to and about numerous women.”

In a review of the case, the law firm of Ford Harrison laid out what it called the “Employers’ Bottom Line” for avoiding escalation to this degree:

1. Make sure there is a mechanism in place for employees to file complaints of workplace misconduct; that the mechanism is in writing and is distributed and available to all employees; and that those who receive such complaints are well trained in standard protocols for investigating them.
2. Take employee complaints of unlawful conduct seriously. If an investigation is warranted, do a thorough one, document it, and share findings with the employee.
3. Train employees, especially those with supervisory and management responsibilities, that no workplace conversation should include derogatory comments relating to race, gender, age, or any protected categories, and implement and enforce rules to prevent such comments.
4. Counsel should apprise New Jersey trial judges that a jury charge on whistleblowing must specifically identify the complaint that constituted whistleblowing, and should make sure that juries are not permitted to award duplicate damages under separate statutes.

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