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Posts Tagged ‘New Jersey’

Legal Malpractice Claim Fails, but NJ Attorney Must Face Suit Over Disclosure in Priest Sex Case

Posted on: October 2nd, 2018

By: Jennifer Ward

Whether an attorney-client relationship exists can often be a close-call.  Attorneys frequently open themselves up to legal malpractice claims when they attempt to act as a “scribe” by merely “putting into writing” the terms of an agreement reached between two non-client parties.  But, can an attorney be liable for malpractice by disclosing confidential terms of an agreement when the attorney was not involved in the underlying agreement itself?

In 1988, the Order of St. Benedict of New Jersey (OSBNJ) entered into a confidential settlement agreement with a former student regarding sexual misconduct claims against a priest.  In 2012, the former student retained attorney Gregory Gianforcaro, Esq., seeking to void the settlement agreement and bring a new claim against OSBNJ.  Gianforcaro was not involved in the 1988 dispute or the settlement reached at that time.

In an effort to zealously represent his client, Gianforcaro held a press conference on the court house steps and read aloud certain parts of the 1988 settlement agreement.  Gianforcara revealed that the settlement “was approximately seven figures.”  He did this despite knowing that the agreement was confidential.

OSBNJ filed a Complaint against Gianforcaro, alleging breach of contract, tortious interference with contractual relations, breach of duty of good faith and fair dealing, tortious interference with prospective economic advantage, and civil conspiracy.  OSBNJ then filed a motion to amend the Complaint to assert a legal malpractice claim against Gianforcaro. OSBNJ’s motion to amend the Complaint and add a legal malpractice claim was denied and OSBNJ appealed that decision.  Order of St. Benedict of N.J. v. Gianforcaro, 2018 LEXIS 1808, 2018 WL 3596282 (App. Div. 2018).  Click here for the full decision.

On appeal, the New Jersey Appellate Division held that OSBNJ could not bring a legal malpractice claim against Gianforcaro.  In New Jersey, an attorney owes an independent duty of care to a non-client when the attorney intended or should have foreseen that the non-client would rely on the attorney’s work, or when the attorney knows or should know that non-clients will rely on the attorney’s representations.  The key inquiry is whether the non-client “reasonably relied” on the attorney.  Here, the Appellate Division held that Gianforcaro did not take any actions or make any representations to OSBNJ, and that OSBNJ did not “reasonably rely” on anything Gianforcaro did or said.

Practitioners are left to ponder if the outcome would have been different had Gianforcaro been involved in the drafting of the 1988 settlement agreement.  In this hypothetical, would the confidentiality terms of the agreement constitute a “representation” by Gianforcaro on which OSBNJ could have relied?  As always with the law, the outcome would likely depend on the totality of facts and circumstances.

Attorneys should always be mindful of whether they are inadvertently creating an attorney-client relationship by their words or actions.  Jennifer Ward is the Managing Partner of Freeman Mathis & Gary’s Philadelphia and New Jersey Offices and Vice-Chair of the firm’s Professional Liability Practice Section.  She can be reached at [email protected].

Coffee, Water, Less Than 20 Minutes

Posted on: June 19th, 2018

SCOTUS KICKS THE CAN ON SHORT BREAKS COMPENSATION

By: John McAvoy

On June 11, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to entertain the appeal of a Pennsylvania employer that could have resolved the emerging split of authority between the federal appellate courts and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) as to the compensability of employees’ short rest breaks.

In American Future Systems, Inc. d/b/a Progressive Business Publications v. R. Alexander Acosta, Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor, the Secretary of Labor filed suit against Progressive Business Publications, a company that publishes and distributes business publications and sells them through its sales representatives, as well as the company’s owner, alleging they violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by paying their salespeople an hourly wage and bonuses based on their number of sales per hour while they were logged onto the computer at their workstations, and by not paying them if they were logged off for more than 90 seconds.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania previously found that the employer’s policy had violated the FLSA, relying on a DOL regulation which states that “[r]est periods of short duration, running from 5 minutes to about 20 minutes, are common in industry.  They promote the efficiency of the employee and are customarily paid for as working time.  They must be counted as hours worked.”  In so holding, the District Court found that the employer was liable for at least $1.75 million in back wages and damages.

On appeal to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the employer argued that that it provided “flex time” rather than “breaks,” which allowed workers to clock out whenever they wanted, for any reason.  In other words, that the employees were not “working” after they logged off of their computers since they could do anything they wanted, including leaving the office.  The appellate court rejected this argument, reasoning that to dock the pay of employees who can’t manage a bathroom sprint is “absolutely contrary to the FLSA,” and affirmed the lower court’s decision.

The Third Circuit’s reliance on DOL regulation was contrary to the holdings of some of the other circuit courts which opted to assess the circumstances of the break in lieu of interpreting the DOL regulation as a bright-line rule that fails to take into consideration the facts of a particular situation.

The employer asked the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify how compensability for breaks should be determined.  Citing the circuit split, the employer posited that the question of break pay should be determined by assessing the circumstances of the break, rather than adopting the DOL regulation as a bright-line rule.  In its reply brief, the DOL fervently defended its regulations and denied the existence of the alleged circuit split, arguing that “hours worked [are] not limited to the time an employee actually performs his or her job duties.”  Unfortunately, this remains an issue for another day as the Supreme Court refused to hear the case and/or resolve the alleged split.

Absent a decision from the Supreme Court to the contrary, employers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware are bound by the Third Circuit’s decision. As such, employers in these states must continue to comply with DOL regulations with respect to the compensability of short breaks.

Fortunately, the applicable DOL regulations are designed to protect employers’ rights. For starters, the regulations recognize that meal periods serve a different purpose than coffee or snack breaks and, as such, are not compensable.  Second, an employer need not count an employee’s unauthorized extensions of authorized work breaks as hours worked when the employer has expressly and unambiguously communicated to the employee that the authorized break may only last for a specific length of time, that any extension of the break is contrary to the employer’s rules, and any extension of the break will be punished.

Although an employer will have to compensate an employee who repeatedly takes unauthorized breaks lasting less than 20 minutes in order to comply with the Third Circuit’s ruling and the applicable DOL regulations, the employer is nevertheless free to discipline the employee for such indiscretions by whatever means the employer deems appropriate, including termination.

Prudent employers should prepare themselves to address such issues through smart planning and proper training of employees, including managers, supervisors and HR personnel to ensure the employer’s break, discipline, and termination policies and procedures comply with all applicable DOL regulations.

Want to know whether your company’s break, discipline, and termination policies and procedures comply with DOL regulations? Let me help. Please call or email me (215.789.4919; [email protected]).

Guns in Workplace: Primer for Employers in PA & NJ

Posted on: April 12th, 2018

By: John P. McAvoy

Presently and tentatively, Pennsylvania and New Jersey do not have guns-at-work laws. There are, however, gun laws in place in both states that similarly impede an employer’s ability to control the workplace; namely, the states’ right-to-carry laws.

New Jersey has some of the most restrictive right-to-carry laws in the country. For starters, the state does not allow individuals to open carry handguns. The state is also known as a “may issue” state, which means the chief police officer of a city or county, or the superintendent of the state police, has discretion in determining whether to issue a concealed weapons permit to an applicant. New Jersey law generally forbids any person to “ha[ve] in his possession any handgun …, without first obtaining a permit to carry the same.” N.J.S.A. § 2C:39-5(b). While state law provides certain exceptions to this general ban—including one for “keeping or carrying [a firearm] about [one’s] place of business, residence, premises or other land owned or possessed by him,” id. at § 2C:39-6(e), these exceptions do not allow the concealed carrying of a handgun in public without first obtaining a permit, and it is nearly impossible for an individual to obtain a handgun carry permit in New Jersey. See generally id. at §§ 2C: 58-3; 58-4; and N.J.A.C. 13:54-2.4(b) (outlining numerous screening and training requirements an applicant must satisfy in order to be eligible for a handgun carry permit, including a ‘justifiable need’ to carry a handgun). New Jersey’s right-to-carry laws are so restrictive that the state does not have or need separate laws governing firearms on private property, including parking lots, much less in the workplace. On their face, these laws make it unlawful for almost all employees to possess concealed firearms in the workplace.

Pennsylvania’s right-to-carry laws are far less exacting than their New Jersey counterparts. Unlike New Jersey, Pennsylvania law is silent on the legality of openly carrying a firearm, making it de facto to do so in all places except Philadelphia. It is also a “shall issue” state. This means that while a person needs to obtain a license to carry a handgun, the granting authority (i.e., the sheriff or police chief) has no discretion to deny an applicant provided he or she meets the necessary character and fitness requirements. See 18 Pa. C.S. § 6109. Unlike New Jersey, there is no requirement that an applicant demonstrate “good cause” for the weapon. Instead, law enforcement has 45 days to investigate an applicant’s background to determine eligibility. See id. Moreover, and with the limited exception of commonsense places designated by statute as off-limits, including schools, correctional facilities, and courts, id. at §§ 912-913, 5122; 50 P.S. § 4605; et al., any employee with a license to carry may come to work with a gun concealed on his or her person.

While Pennsylvania’s right-to-carry laws are relatively liberal, there are no state laws that force an employer or business to allow or prohibit guns on its property. While 20 states have laws that regulate whether employees have the right to transport and store licensed, concealed weapons in their locked vehicles in an employer’s parking lot, the majority of states – including Pennsylvania – do not.  Without an express statute on point, courts generally give employers the right to control the workplace. As such, employers are free to impose policies allowing or restricting the possession of weapons in vehicles parked on company property and/or in the workplace.

In 2015, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania addressed an employer’s efforts to control the workplace by enforcing its weapons restrictions policy. In Stewart v. FedEx Express, 114 A.3d 424 (Pa. Super. 2015), the Superior Court upheld the right of FedEx to terminate the plaintiff for carrying a handgun in the glove compartment of his personal vehicle while performing work for FedEx. Id. at 424. FedEx’s policy prohibits employees from having firearms or weapons on company property, in company vehicles or in company buildings, unless authorized by FedEx security. Id. at 426. In so holding, the Superior Court noted that Pennsylvania is an at-will state and rejected the plaintiff’s constitutional claim that he had an unrestricted “right to bear arms,” even at work, and reasoned that “neither the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, nor the Pennsylvania Constitution, bestows on any person the right to carry a concealed firearm or transport a loaded firearm in a vehicle.” Id. at 428-29. Moreover, the Court noted that Pennsylvania has no right-to-carry law that restricts employers from prohibiting firearms on their property or while performing work duties. Id. at 429.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey are ‘employment at-will’ states; meaning, employers may generally terminate an employment relationship at any time and for any reason. Therefore, employers in both states are free to terminate an employee for any reason regardless of whether there is a specific policy on point. Nevertheless, it is a good idea for employers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey to follow FedEx’s example and take similar steps to control the workplace.

Pennsylvania employers in favor of guns in the workplace may impose policies relative to same. These policies should detail the type of weapons permitted in the workplace and in vehicles parked on company property, and state that the company policy is subject to the licensing requirements of state law. These policies should also set forth the employer’s expectations with respect to the handling and storage of weapons on company property and in the workplace. To limit any potential confusion with respect to the company’s expectations and what is and is not permissible, it is recommended that employers make their policies as detailed as possible.

New Jersey’s right-to-carry laws are so restrictive that is almost always unlawful for an employee to possess a firearm in the workplace. As such, most New Jersey employers cannot authorize their employees to possess a firearm in the workplace without violating state law. However, to avoid any ambiguity and as an added layer of protection from liability, New Jersey employers may also adopt policies to better control the workplace.

It is important for Pennsylvania employers opposed to the idea of guns and other weapons in the workplace take steps to further their interests. To that end, Pennsylvania employers may implement policies that prohibit employees from having firearms or weapons on company property, in company vehicles or in company buildings. Absent such policies, there is nothing prohibiting a properly licensed Pennsylvania employee from bringing his or her concealed gun to the workplace.

It is recommended that the policies adopted and implemented by employers opposed to guns and weapons in the workplace in both states clearly explain that all employees, including those with licenses to carry, are forbidden from having firearms or weapons on company property, in company vehicles, or in company buildings, unless expressly authorized by the employer. It is also a good idea for these policies to provide that violation of the company’s weapons policies is grounds for immediate termination, as it would make the process of terminating an employee for-cause much cleaner and could allow the employer to save on future litigation and unemployment benefits costs associated with the termination. This is because employees that are terminated for-cause are generally ineligible to receive unemployment benefits and will have a harder time asserting a meritorious wrongful termination lawsuit against their former employers.

Given this is a rapidly changing and developing area of the law, it is also suggested that employers charge someone in their human resources and/or compliance departments with staying current on the gun control regulations. Absent immunity, complying with a law that allows employees to bring concealed firearms to the employer’s property can increase legal risk. In contrast, noncompliance with a gun law can lead to civil liability or criminal penalties in some states. Therefore, it is important that employers stay apprised of the rapidly changing gun laws of each state in which they conduct business. The person charged with this responsibility should understand the impact the new gun control law might have on the business and recognize what, if any, changes in the law require an amendment to company policies.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact John McAvoy at [email protected].

Say Goodbye to Arbitration; Say Goodbye to Confidentiality?

Posted on: December 20th, 2017

By: Christopher M. Curci

On December 4, 2017, New Jersey state Senator Loretta Weinberg introduced Senate Bill S-3581. The bill aims to (1) eliminate arbitration provisions in employment agreements related to discrimination, retaliation, and harassment claims, and (2) eliminate confidentiality clauses that are commonly found in employment settlement agreements for those claims.  The bill would bring significant change in the handling of employment litigation in New Jersey.

A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute found that 54% of non-union employers have mandatory arbitration procedures for employment related disputes. In 1992, that number was a mere 2%.  The meteoric rise in arbitration agreements is because employers consider arbitration less costly than federal or state court litigation, and because arbitration eliminates the risk of “runaway jury” awards to plaintiff-employees.  Conversely, opponents of mandatory arbitration assert that such agreements prohibit employees from having access to their full legal rights under federal and state employment laws.

Regarding confidentiality clauses, such clauses are almost always found in settlement agreements between employers and employees. However, the recent explosion of high-profile allegations of sexual harassment and the #MeToo social media movement has started a dialogue regarding whether confidentiality clauses should be made unlawful.  It is within this backdrop that Senator Weinberg has proposed Senate Bill 3581.

If passed, the bill would eliminate the use of arbitration for discrimination, retaliation, and harassment claims, and make it unlawful to have “confidential” settlements of such disputes. Employers should keep an eye on this bill and prepare to make necessary changes to their employment contracts and employee handbooks if the bill becomes law.  Employers should also consider the bill’s potential impact on any current or expected litigation.  Christopher M. Curci represents employers in litigation and advises his clients on all aspects of employment law.  If you need help with this or any other employment issues, he can be reached at [email protected].