Supreme Court Holds That Where Violation of First Amendment Rights at Issue, Employer Perception Rules

Posted by on May 12, 2016 in Retaliation, Supreme Court, Wrongful Termination

In a decision that may be particularly timely in this heated election season, the United States Supreme Court recently considered the issue of whether an employee who was demoted because the employer mistakenly believed he participated in political activity can file a lawsuit against the employer under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for deprivation of his First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution. The facts of this case took place right here in our region in Paterson, New Jersey.

In Heffernan v. City of Paterson, 136 S.Ct. 1412 (2016), a police officer went to a political campaign site to pick up a lawn sign for a mayoral candidate, who was a friend of his, on behalf of his bedridden mother. The police officer had no involvement in the candidate’s campaign. The officer’s supervisor and the chief of police had been appointed by the candidate’s opponent, the incumbent mayor. His fellow officers spotted the officer at the campaign site, and word got back to his supervisors about it. The officer was demoted the very next day for his “over involvement” in the campaign of the mayoral candidate.

The officer filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (which provides a cause of action for violations of constitutional rights) alleging that he was unlawfully demoted “because he had engaged in conduct that (on [the employer’s] mistaken view of the facts) constituted protected speech.” The Court observed, citing to Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347 (1976) and Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507 (1980), that “[w]ith a few exceptions, the Constitution prohibits a government employer from discharging or demoting an employee because the employee supports a particular political candidate.” However, the officer in this instance had just picked up a sign for his mother and was not actually engaging in political activity or supporting the candidate.

The question before Court in Heffernan was whether it is the employee’s actions, or instead the employer’s motivation in an employment decision, that determines whether an employee was deprived of a constitutional right. Put another way, does the analysis of whether the employee’s constitutional rights were violated by an employment decision focus on the employee’s conduct in engaging in protected activity, or is it instead focused on whether the employer believed (even mistakenly) that the employee was doing so?

The Court held in a 6-2 decision that whether the employee’s right was violated is determined by the employer’s motivation in the employment decision. In its decision, the Court looked to Waters v. Churchill, 511 U.S. 661 (1994), in which an employer terminated an employee when the employer believed the employee had engaged in speech that was not protected by the First Amendment, even though the employee’s speech was in fact protected. In Waters, the Court held that the employer did not violate the employee’s constitutional rights if it “(1) had reasonably believed that the employee’s conversation had involved personal matters, not matters of public concern, and (2) had dismissed the employee because of that mistaken belief.” The Court in Heffernan noted that the Waters decision focused on the perception of the employer, not the actions of the employee. The Court then stated:

“In Waters, the employer reasonably but mistakenly thought that the employee had not engaged in protected speech. Here the employer mistakenly thought that the employee had engaged in protected speech. If the employer’s motive (and in particular the facts as the employer reasonably understood them) is what mattered in Waters, why is the same not true here? After all, in the law, what is sauce for the goose is normally sauce for the gander.”

Notably, the Court also addressed whether its decision would increase the burden placed on employers to defend against claims, and held that a ruling that creates liability for an employer for a factual mistake does not place an increased burden on an employer. After all, the Court held, the employee still shoulders a heavy burden of showing the employer’s motive.

The case was then sent back to the lower court, who will hear, among other issues, if the employment decision was based on a policy prohibiting all officers from engagement in “overt involvement in any political campaign,” and if that policy was constitutional.

In light of the Heffernan decision, employers should be aware that they may not be able to defend adverse employment decisions where the employee’s engagement in protected speech is at issue merely by asserting that the employee was not actually engaged in protected speech. Their mistaken view will not relieve them of potential liability. Employers may wish to tread carefully when making an adverse employment decision and ensure that their investigatory procedure clearly documents that a decision was made as a result of unprotected speech by an employee or other just cause. As always, we advise that employers consult with an employment attorney prior to making adverse employment decisions.

The full text of the Heffernan decision can be found at: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/15pdf/14-1280_k5fl.pdf.

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EMPLOYER RIGHTS IN THE EVER CHANGING LANDSCAPE OF MEDICAL MARIJUANA USE

Posted by on Jul 17, 2015 in Disability Discrimination, Wrongful Termination

By: Susan L. Swatski, Esq. (sswatski@hillwallack.com) and Bryan A. Coe, Summer Associate (bcoe@hillwallack.com)

The legal landscape surrounding marijuana laws has drastically changed over the last decade. Currently, 23 states, including New Jersey and New York, allow the use of medical marijuana despite the federal government’s classification of marijuana as a schedule 1 illegal drug. Pennsylvania currently has legislation pending to legalize the use of medical marijuana. The conflict between state and federal law leaves employers in states that protect against retaliation for an employee’s lawful activities guessing whether they can test for, and prohibit, the use of medical marijuana. A recent Colorado Supreme Court unanimous decision may help to alleviate some of this guesswork.

In Coats v. Dish Network, the court considered whether medical marijuana use was a “lawful activity” under Colorado’s Lawful Activities statute. This statute made it illegal for an employer to terminate an employee for engaging in a lawful activity, off the premises, during non-working hours. The plaintiff in the case, is a registered medical marijuana patient, who brought suit against his former employer for wrongful termination after he was fired for using medical marijuana outside of work hours. In determining the meaning of a “lawful activity”, the court rejected the argument that the Colorado State Assembly intended “lawful” to mean lawful under Colorado law. The court found that a “lawful activity” is an activity which complies with state and federal law. As a result, the court found that because the plaintiff’s medical marijuana use was illegal under federal law, the use was not protected by Colorado’s Lawful Activities statute.

New Jersey’s medical marijuana law has a provision where employers are not required to “accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace.” New York’s medical marijuana law classifies patients as “disabled” making it illegal for employers to discriminate against medical marijuana users. New York’s law precludes an employer from taking disciplinary action against certified medical marijuana users for failing a drug test. Further, employers may need to make a reasonable accommodation for an employee who uses medical marijuana, although this second point is still contentious and unsettled. Pennsylvania’s pending legislation is similar to New York’s in that an employer could not consider a positive drug test for marijuana when making an employment decision unless that employee was impaired by or possessed marijuana while on the employers premises or during working hours.

The Dish Network decision follows decisions from courts in California, Oregon, and Washington – each of these states permit the use of medical marijuana – that employers can fire an employee for medical marijuana use. The legal landscape surrounding the medical use of marijuana remains dynamic, particularly as support grows for the federal government lightening its stance on medical marijuana’s drug classification. All businesses that have drug testing policies should be aware of this changing legal landscape.

Employers should seek legal counsel to accurately assess their drug testing policies to confirm compliance with all applicable laws. If you feel this is an area of concern for your business, seek legal counsel from one of our skilled employment law attorneys. We are ready to help.

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Consequences of Giving an Employee the Hobson’s Choice of Resigning or Being Fired

Posted by on Sep 7, 2012 in Wrongful Termination

by Susan L. Swatski, Esquire (email / link to bio)

New Jersey employers should be aware of the recent Appellate Division decision in Lord v. Board of Review addressing the not uncommon scenario in which an employer gives an employee the Hobson’s Choice of either resigning or being fired. The Appellate Division in Lord clarified that for purposes of collecting unemployment benefits, the foregoing “choice” is moot; a resignation is the same as a firing leaving the former employee eligible for unemployment benefits.

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Employers: Take Care Before Firing an Employee who Has Requested FMLA Leave

Posted by on Sep 30, 2009 in Caregiver Discrimination, Disability Discrimination, FMLA, Retaliation, Wrongful Termination

By: Tiffanie Benfer, Esq.
Has your employee asked for time off under the FMLA? The Third Circuit has made clear that firing that employee after the leave is requested but before it begins constitutes unlawful “retaliation” under the FMLA.
Last week’s decision in Erdman v. Nationwide Insurance Co., clarifies confusing and nonsensical language in an earlier Third Circuit decision (Conoshenti v. PSE&G) which stated that the first requirement of a retaliation claim is that the employee took an FMLA leave. Employers have used the Conoshenti decision to argue that there is no retaliation under the FMLA if an employee is fired before actually taking leave.
The Third Circuit recognized that “it would be patently absurd if an employer who wished to punish an employee for taking FMLA leave could avoid liability simply by firing the employee before the leave began.” The court made clear that firing under these circumstances constitutes “retaliation” as well as “interference” with the FMLA.
On the question of “associational discrimination” under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the court in Erdman cut the baby in half, leaving both employers and employees dissatisfied.

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Don’t Tell Me You Didn’t Check with a Lawyer!

Posted by on Feb 9, 2009 in FMLA, Pregnancy Discrimination, Wrongful Termination

By: Tiffanie Benfer, Esq.
Sometimes it can be penny wise and pound foolish to take action against an employee without a clear understanding of the law.
In Brown v. Nutrition Management Services Co., a decision of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania released on January 30, the court found that the company’s failure to have an attorney research the requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) meant that the company had not acted in “good faith.” This finding cost Nutrition Management Services over $80,000 in additional liquidated damages.

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EEOC Backlog Swells. What Does This Mean for Your Case In the EEOC?

Posted by on Feb 4, 2009 in Age Discrimination, Caregiver Discrimination, Disability Discrimination, Gender Discrimination, National Origin Discrimination, Pregnancy Discrimination, Racial Discrimination, Religion Discrimination, Sexual Harassment, Wrongful Termination

By: Tiffanie Benfer, Esq.
It isn’t a newsflash to those of us who regularly deal with the EEOC: the federal agency charged with protecting Americans from discrimination is overworked, with a tremendous backlog of cases. The Washington Post reported Monday that because of increased claims and decrease in staff, the case backlog is now at 73,951 – up 35 % from a backlog of 54,970 a year ago.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/02/AR2009020202452.html
This means that more and more cases are languishing in the EEOC. That’s a problem when it comes to getting to the truth behind a claim, because witnesses move away or forget what happened. In this climate, it is essential for both employees and employers to obtain independent legal counsel to move a case along, to secure witness statements, to conduct investigations, and — most importantly — to frame the issues for an overworked investigator.

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