Written by Ravi Sattiraju on June 2, 2017
In Puglia v. Elk Pipeline, Inc., 226 N.J. 258 (2016), the New Jersey Supreme Court held that an employee’s whistleblower claim filed under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, N.J.S.A. 34:19-1 to -14 (“CEPA”), was not pre-empted by Section 301 of the Labor Management and Relations Act (the “LMRA”), 29 U.S.C. § 185(a). Ravi Sattiraju, Esq. of The Sattiraju Law Firm, P.C. successfully argued before the Court in Puglia for amicus curiae New Jersey Association of Justice. Mr. Sattiraju’s arguments were critical in the Court’s determination and ultimate finding in favor of the plaintiff, Salvatore Puglia. As such, Mr. Puglia was authorized to proceed with his CEPA claim in State court despite his status as a union member.
In a decision published on May 9, 2017, the New Jersey Appellate Division relied upon Puglia and held that an employee union-member’s disability discrimination claim under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49 (the “LAD”), and retaliatory discharge claim under New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation Law, N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 to -128.5 (the “WCL”), were likewise not preempted by Section 301 of the LMRA “because they do not require interpretation of any provision of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the union and employer.” Hejda v. Bell Container Corporation, — N.J. Super. —, 2017 WL 1881140 at *1 (2017).
The Puglia and Hejda duology will have a major impact on the ability of union members to file and maintain state causes of action under state anti-discrimination, anti-retaliation and anti-harassment laws. Employers are not free to simply raise collective bargaining agreement-based defenses to such claims and then assert that the claims are preempted by the LMRA because the collective bargaining agreement is implicated. This is so because “[t]he assertion of a defense based on the CBA will not necessarily alter the resolution of the pre-emption question. Ordinarily, a CBA–based defense is ‘insufficient to preempt an independent state-law action,’ because in the typical case, it is unnecessary to interpret the just cause language of a CBA in order to resolve a discrimination or retaliatory discharge claim.” Id. at *6 (quoting Puglia, 226 N.J. at 279-80). To determine whether pre-emption is required as a result of the CBA-based defense asserted by the employer, courts will “look to what a plaintiff must prove” in the state-law claim. Ibid.
If you believe you have been the victim of discrimination, harassment or retaliation at your workplace, contact the attorneys at The Sattiraju Law Firm, P.C., located in Princeton, New Jersey, at (609) 722-7039 for a free telephone consultation. We fight for workers’ justice under a litany of employee-rights statutes including the LAD, CEPA and the WCL.