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EEOC Clarifies Allowable COVID 19 Testing For Employees

Over the last several months, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has continued to refine its past issued Guidances on what employers can do to safeguard employees from COVID-19 workplace exposure. One such measure that employers can utilize is mandating that all employees be tested for COVID-19.  But previously the EEOC never said what type of testing can be done. The EEOC has recently clarified precisely what kind of testing employers can now require of its employees.

As many know, there are now currently two types of available tests that can be utilized to detect COVID-19 exposure. The first is a diagnostic test that determines whether someone has the coronavirus at the time of the testing. The second kind is an antibody test that determines whether the individual from past exposure to coronavirus has developed any protective antibodies to the virus. When the EEOC announced its earlier Guidance that employee COVID-19 testing was permissible, employers thought that they had the option to require either type (or both) kinds of testing. That has changed with the EEOC’s latest Guidance.

Now, the only kind of testing allowable is diagnostic to determine whether the individual at the time of the testing has contracted COVID-19.  Antibody testing is not allowed-why?  The EEOC’s rationale for prohibiting such testing flows from recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) which now states that antibody testing should not be used to return persons to the workplace. Deferring to the CDC’s conclusion about the use of antibody tests for returning employees, the EEOC Guidance now has determined that it is not an appropriate medical test that meets the job relatedness requirement for allowable examinations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As the EEOC’s recent modification to its Guidance shows, we are dealing with an ever evolving situation that could change literally overnight. Thus, employers must continue to stay on top of all developments on what can and cannot be done as many states continue their phased economic re-openings.

 


Ralph R. Smith, 3rd is Co-Chair of the Employment and Labor Practice Group. He practices in employment litigation and preventative employment practices, including counseling employers on the creation of employment policies, non-compete and trade secret agreements, and training employers to avoid employment-related litigation. He represents both companies and individuals in related complex commercial litigation before federal states courts and administrative agencies in labor and employment cases including race, gender, age, national origin, disability and workplace harassment and discrimination matters, wage-and-hour disputes, restrictive covenants, grievances, arbitration, drug testing, and employment related contract issues.

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Neither County, Nor Board Of Education Held Liable For A Student Injured In Gym Class

Plaintiff Cora Kerton, on behalf of J.R., her minor daughter, filed suit against the County of Hudson and the Board of Education for the Hudson County Schools of Technology, as well as the superintendent and principal of the school, due to an injury that her daughter suffered in gym class.  Her daughter suffered an injury to her foot while participating as a student in her gym class at County Prep, a high school in the school district.  In Kerton v. Hudson County, 2020 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 962 (App. Div. May 20, 2020), the issue was whether the plaintiff needed an expert to establish the standard of care owed by the defendants in supervising the gym class.

On the day of the accident, the plaintiff was a sophomore at County Prep.  The principal was responsible for creating the school’s master calendar which included the class periods.  The school had one gymnasium.  In 2014, two gym classes and one fitness class typically used the gymnasium during a single class period.  Each gym teacher ordinarily provided instruction to that teacher’s class.  However, at certain times, all three classes were brought together for joint instruction.  Joint instruction occurred at least once per week.

On the day of the accident, the three classes were brought together for other exercises.  One teacher instructed the students to begin interval running, which required transitioning from walking to running and back to walking.  The minor J.R. stated that she had transitioned from walking to running when she approached students who were still walking.  She attempted to go around them when she fell.  She claims certain students were using cell phones at the time.  At the time that she fell, the teacher was in the gym teacher’s office.

Due to the fall, she suffered a displaced fracture of the fifth metatarsal base and avulsion fracture to the tip of the fibular malleolus in her right ankle.  She needed surgery to repair the fracture of her foot and stabilize the ankle.  She underwent a second surgery to have one the screws removed that had been used to repair the fracture.

At the trial court level, the defendants all filed a motion for summary judgment.  They argued that the plaintiff failed to establish that at the time she fell, the County Prep gymnasium constituted a dangerous condition of public property under the Tort Claims Act.  They also argued that she failed to show that the defendants breached any duty of care.  Additionally, the County filed a motion, making among other arguments that the plaintiff’s negligence claim failed because she could not establish a standard of care for the teachers at the County Prep without expert testimony.

The trial judge noted that plaintiff was not asserting a claim that the gymnasium itself constituted a dangerous condition of public property.  Rather, plaintiff’s claim was based on the alleged negligence of defendants.  The judge determined that the negligence claim failed as a matter of law because plaintiff did not establish the standard of care owed by “a teacher who was supervising a large class in the middle of the day.”  The judge found that to prove such a standard would require the expertise of someone who had experience in teaching and education and supervising children in class.  He found that the common knowledge doctrine did not relieve the plaintiff of the obligation to present expert testimony.

The plaintiff appealed the ruling, claiming that the judge erred by finding that she needed expert testimony to establish the standard of care for her negligence claims and by refusing to apply the common knowledge doctrine.

The Appellate Division noted that “it is well established that teachers and school administrators in New Jersey have a duty to supervise children in their facilities.”  The Appellate Division also noted that expert testimony is required “when the matter to be dealt with is so esoteric that jurors of common judgment and experience cannot form a valid judgment as to whether the conduct of the defendant was reasonable.”  Further, the Court stated that “without expert testimony, the jury would have to speculate as to the applicable standard of care.”

The Appellate Division agreed with the trial court judge that the plaintiff was required to present expert testimony to establish the standard of care.  The Court noted that the motion judge correctly decided that “the average juror does not have the required understanding of the manner in which school administrators schedule classes, whether students in gym class should be permitted to use electronic devices while exercising and the level of student supervision required when three gym classes have class in a gymnasium at the same time.”  The Appellate Division agreed that these subject matters are “so esoteric that jurors of common judgment and experience cannot form a valid judgment.”

The Court also agreed with the trial court judge that the common knowledge doctrine did not apply.  The plaintiff had argued that this doctrine applies “when the common knowledge of jurors is sufficient to enable them, using ordinary understanding and experience, to determine a defendant’s negligence without the benefit of the specialized knowledge of experts.”  The Appellate Division, however, agreed that an expert was needed in this case to establish the standard of care for the specific claims asserted in this case.

Accordingly, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s decision.  Because the plaintiff did not have an expert to establish the standard of care, the defendants were entitled to summary judgment, dismissing the lawsuit.

 


Betsy G. Ramos, Esq. is a member of the firm’s Executive Committee and Co-Chair of the Litigation Group. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years’ experience handling diverse matters. Her practice areas include tort defense, insurance coverage, Tort Claims Act and civil rights defense, business litigation, employment litigation, construction litigation, estate litigation and general litigation.

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Defendant-Operator With Right-of-Way Wins Dismissal

Not every intersection accident is a ‘he said/she said’ toss up for the jury to decide.

The First Department recently held that summary judgment dismissal was properly granted to the defendants, vehicle owner and operator, in an intersection accident where plaintiff’s vehicle was controlled by a stop sign, in the case of Yahaira Lugo v. Daytona Auto Sales, Inc., et al, 123 N.Y.S.3d 496, 2020 N.Y. Slip Op. 03199 (1st Dep’t 2020).  The defendants’ evidence established that the cause of the accident was the negligence of the driver of plaintiff’s vehicle, who failed to obey a stop sign in violation of New York’s Vehicle and Traffic Law Sect. 1142, which statute mandates that the driver of a vehicle approaching a stop sign shall stop and yield the right of way to any vehicle which has entered the intersection from another roadway or which is approaching so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard during the time when such driver is moving across or within the intersection.

In affirming the order granting dismissal, the court in Lugo cited to its prior decision in Namisnak v. Martin, 244 A.D.2d 258, 260, 664 N.Y.S.2d 435 (1st Dep’t 1997) for its reasoning that defendants, with the right-of-way at the intersection where the collision occurred were “entitled to anticipate that other vehicles will obey the traffic laws that require them to yield”.  Id.

The Lugo Court rejected plaintiff’s contention that the defendants’ vehicle may have been driving over the posted speed limit as being insufficient to raise a triable issue of fact as to comparative negligence, since there is no evidence it could have contributed to the accident.  Lugo, 123 N.Y.S.3d 496.

Established precedent is that a “presumption of negligence” arises from a failure to yield the right of way at a stop sign, and that bare speculation that another driver was “going fast” is not enough to overcome the presumption of negligence or to create and issue of fact for trial.  Murchison v. Incognoli, 5 A.D.3d 271, 773 N.Y.S.2d 299 (1st Dep’t 2004).  In another similar stop sign case, one driver’s statement that he may have been driving “five miles over the posted speed limit of 30 miles per hour” was insufficient to raise an issue of fact as to comparative negligence since there is no evidence that it could have contributed to the collision.  Martinez v. Cofer, 128 A.D.3d 421, 8 N.Y.S.3d 212 (1st Dep’t 2015).

The cases highlight how following the rules of the road, and obeying stop signs in particular, can lead to favorable rulings and victory in court.

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A Trivial Defect Remains a Jury Question

Two recent trial court decisions highlight Pennsylvania’s premises liability law regarding trivial defects. Kreitzer v. Madison Acquisitions, LLC, PICS Case No. 20-0425 (C.P. Lawrence April 9, 2020) and Jenkins v. Krenitsky’s Supermarket Corp., PICS Case No. 20-0424 (C.P. Lackawanna April 15, 2020) both involved defendant-property owners who moved for summary judgment arguing lack of notice and that any alleged defect was trivial thereby negating liability. In Kreitzer, the plaintiff fell due to an uneven sidewalk. The alleged defect was a one and a half inch change in elevation in the sidewalk. In Jenkins, the plaintiff fell in a pothole near the entrance of a supermarket. The plaintiff described the pothole as approximately two feet long and deep enough that both of her feet could be in the hole.

Both motions were similar in that both defendants argued there was no actual or constructive notice of any alleged defect. Additionally, both argued that any alleged defect was so trivial as to not warrant liability. In Kreitzer, the plaintiff argued that there was construction underway around the area of the fall that should have placed the defendant on notice of the change in elevation of the sidewalk. In Jenkins, the plaintiff argued that potholes do not form overnight and that it was right by the entrance so its existence should have been known through reasonable care. Interestingly, the defendant in Jenkins admitted that they had no policy to inspect the parking lot for defects and no regular inspections were conducted. In both cases, the defendants’ motions were denied as the courts found factual issues in each case for a jury to decide liability.

In Pennsylvania, “a sidewalk defect may be so trivial that a court must hold, as a matter of law, that the property owner was not negligent in allowing its existence.” Shaw v. Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, 80 A.3d 540, 542 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2013).  In Shaw, the plaintiff fell due to an uneven sidewalk in front of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Center City, Philadelphia. The change in elevation between sidewalk segments was allegedly between two and two and a half inches. The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania reversed the trial’s court granting of summary judgment to the hospital as it found the question whether the sidewalk defect was trivial was for a jury. Ultimately, there is no bright-line rule to determine what would constitute “trivial” to impose liability. “Each case presents a unique set of circumstances that must be evaluated on an independent basis.” Id. at 545.

In both Kreitzer and Jenkins, the trial courts held that neither circumstance could be decided at the summary judgment stage and must be submitted to a jury. Specifically, in Jenkins the court held that the defect was not obviously trivial due to its size since the plaintiff was able to place both feet in the pothole, but held that the ultimate question was still a matter for a jury.

The Pennsylvania courts have not created a hardline rule in determining what is considered trivial. There is no hardline rule regarding size, length, or depth of a defect that would absolve a property owner of liability. It may be impossible for the courts to establish any hardline rules regarding the size of a defect to be considered trivial for summary judgment purposes due to all circumstances of an incident that must be considered. Regardless, a property owner still should have proper policies and procedures in place for inspections of its property to show evidence that reasonable care was used.

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Recent Appellate Division Opinion Regarding Strict Liability

The Appellate Division on June 8, 2020 rendered an interesting as yet unpublished Opinion related to strict liability and exceptions thereto.  The matter is Goldhagen v. Pasmowitz, No. A-3430-18T4, 2020 WL 3041414 (App. Div. June 8, 2020).

Plaintiff Bonay Goldhagen appealed an Order granting Defendant Susan Pasmowitz’s Motion for Summary Judgment and denying her Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment on liability. The Appellate Division affirmed.

Factually, in July of 2015, Defendant Pasmowitz boarded “Louie,” an approximately 120-pound Rottweiler mix, and a second, smaller dog at a “dog hotel.”  Plaintiff was employed as a dog groomer and kennel assistant at the dog hotel. Significantly, Plaintiff had twenty (20) years of experience in the business, and was therefore indisputably aware that dogs can and do bite.

Further, Defendant specifically informed Plaintiff that Louie had previously bitten her own son. Indeed, Defendant alleged that when she advised Plaintiff that Louie was a very strong dog, and thus Plaintiff should “trust” him, as the dog was going to “throw his weight around,” Plaintiff dismissively responded that she knew how to handle dogs.

Defendant also noted on the kennel’s intake form that Louie must “eat separately from (her other dog)” and also must be “muzzle[d] for nail clippings.”

However, Defendant did not advise Plaintiff that Louie had bitten Defendant herself on the face, requiring Defendant to receive about thirty stitches, four (4) years earlier when Defendant removed a tick from his ear.  Plaintiff would rely heavily on this omission.

Thereafter, on the very first day of the dogs’ boarding, Plaintiff was feeding the two dogs together when she was bitten by Louie.

Plaintiff filed suit, and upon completion of discovery, Defendant moved for Summary Judgment and Plaintiff crossed-moved for Partial Summary Judgment on liability.

The Law Division Judge entered an Order and oral decision granting Defendant Summary Judgment and denying Plaintiff’s Cross-Motion.

The Judge relied primarily on Reynolds v. Lancaster Cty. Prison, 325 N.J. Super. 298, 323-44 (App. Div. 1999) where the Appellate Division had limited the absolute liability of dog owners under N.J.S.A. 4:19-16, by holding that an independent contractor who agrees to care for a dog could not assert a claim against a dog owner for a dog bite unless the dog owner “purposefully or negligently conceal[ed] a particular known hazard from the” independent contractor.

The Law Division Judge noted that while Defendant did not tell Plaintiff of the severe bite that she herself had sustained from her dog, this was far outweighed by the fact that Plaintiff was an experienced dog handler, and as such knew dogs sometimes bite; that Plaintiff knew the specific dog had previously bitten a child and needed muzzling for nail clipping; and that Plaintiff had seen co-workers previously bitten by dogs.

Thus, the Judge found that this was insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact to defeat Defendant’s Motion. Rather, the Court found that Plaintiff had possessed adequate information provided by the Defendant regarding Louie’s specific history.

Notably, the Judge found that “the quality or consequences … of the dog bite” was not relevant or a material inquiry in this instance to defeat the Summary Judgment Motion.

The Judge held that as Plaintiff was a long-time professional in this industry, she should have taken necessary precautionary measures to safely address the needs of a dog, as well as her own.

Plaintiff appealed, arguing any assumption of risk and comparative negligence did not apply under N.J.S.A. 4:19-16 and she was entitled to Partial Summary Judgment on liability under the statute.

N.J.S.A. 4:19-16 states, in relevant part:

“The owner of any dog which shall bite a person while such person is on or in a public place, or lawfully on or in a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog, shall be liable for such damages as may be suffered by the person bitten, regardless of the former viciousness of such dog or the owner’s knowledge of such viciousness.”

To recover under [the statute], a Plaintiff must prove that the Defendant owned the dog, that the dog bit the Plaintiff, and that the Plaintiff was in a public place or lawfully on the owner’s property.” DeRobertis v. Randazzo, 94 N.J. 144, 158 (1983). “Satisfaction of the elements of the statute imposes strict liability … for damages sustained by [the] Plaintiff.” Pingaro v. Rossi, 322 N.J. Super. 494, 503 (App. Div. 1999).

However, in Reynolds, recognizing an exception to the imposition of strict liability, the Appellate Division held that:

“[w]hen a dog owner turns his dog over to an independent contractor who has agreed to care for the dog, the owner is not liable under the dog-bite statute when the dog bites the independent contractor unless the owner knew, or had reason to know, the dog was vicious and withheld that information. Similarly, under the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, as described in Emmons v. Stevane, 77 N.J.L. 570, 573-74 (E. & A. 1908)], it would appear that an owner would not be liable under the statute to an independent contractor who undertakes the care of a domestic animal with knowledge that it is particularly dangerous.

325 N.J. Super. at 324.

The Appellate Division held that the principles articulated in Reynolds applied to this case.  The Plaintiff in Reynolds had worked for a guard dog company as a dog handler and he was seriously injured when one of the company’s dogs attacked him. Id. at 306. Of course, in general, a landowner has the duty to “use reasonable care to protect independent contractors [from] ‘known or reasonably discoverable dangers.’” Id. at 321-22.  The Court was persuaded by case law from other states regarding veterinarians, and held that “a veterinarian has all of the characteristics of an independent contractor” and “the owner [of a dog] is not liable under the dog-bite statute when the dog bites the independent contractor unless the owner knew, or had reason to know, the dog was vicious and withheld that information.” Id. at 324.

Accordingly, the Appellate Division held that like the dog handler in Reynolds, Plaintiff was an independent contractor who “agree[d] to care for a dog.” Ibid. She was “aware of the risk that any dog, regardless of its previous nature, might bite while being” cared for. Ibid. And as the Motion Judge determined, even though Defendant did not tell Plaintiff that Louie had bitten her, there was no dispute that Plaintiff was made aware of several crucial facts, including Louie’s aggressive nature; that he had bitten Defendant’s son; that he had to be muzzled during nail clippings; and that he should not be fed with Otis – “the latter being the precise situation when Plaintiff was bitten.”

Accordingly, the Appellate Division concluded that, based on the evidence presented, a reasonable factfinder could only reach one conclusion: that Plaintiff had sufficient warning that Louie might bite her while she was caring for him. Thus, as there was no genuine issue of material fact, as a matter of law, Defendant was entitled to Summary Judgment.

While the fact pattern of this matter is of course extreme, this opinion is an important reminder that there can be exceptions even in situations where the general rule is that of strict liability.  Similarly, the arguments in this matter as to dog groomers and veterinarians could easily be analogized to any number of other backgrounds with which a given Plaintiff may present.  Therefore, consideration should be given to an analysis of exactly what knowledge a given Plaintiff possessed, along with any information provided to that Plaintiff by the Defendant, before assuming that strict liability applies.

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County Found Not Liable For Trip Over Pipe Due To Plaintiff’s Failure To Prove Notice

Plaintiff Ellen Cavilla tripped over a partially exposed pipe and broke her wrist while fishing in Gaskill Park in April 2015.  She sued Atlantic County for negligence due to her injuries.  The issue in Cavilla v. County of Atlantic, 2020 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 877 (App. Div. May 11, 2020), was whether a negligence claim could be maintained against the County under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act due to lack of notice of the pipe.

The defendant County claimed that it had no actual or constructive knowledge of the alleged dangerous condition, as required under the Act.  Hence, it moved for summary judgment on the trial court level, which was granted.

To maintain a claim for personal injury under the Tort Claims Act, a plaintiff must demonstrate five elements.  For a public entity to be liable for an injury caused by a condition of its property, the plaintiff must establish: “1) that the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury; 2) that the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition; 3) that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred; 4) that the public entity created the dangerous condition or had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition; and 5) that the public entity’s actions were palpably unreasonable.”

In this case, the issue was whether there was proof that the public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition.  To prove actual notice, the public entity must have actual knowledge of the existence of the condition and knew or should have known of its dangerous character.  For a public entity to be deemed to have constructive knowledge of a dangerous condition, that occurs “only if the plaintiff establishes that the condition had existed for such a period of time and was of such an obvious nature that the public entity, in the exercise of due care, should have discovered the condition and its dangerous character.”

Based upon the Appellate Division’s review of the record, the Court found that the plaintiff could not successfully establish a prima facie case of negligence because she had not presented evidence that the County had actual or constructive notice of the location or condition of the pipe.  The plaintiff argued that the photographs of the pipe created a fact question as to the constructive notice issue.  The Appellate Division disagreed with that argument.  The Court noted that these photographs, viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff, may establish that a dangerous condition existed, but they did not establish that the County had actual or constructive notice of that condition.

The plaintiff argued because the County was “actively” and “regularly” mowing the area, it must have been aware that the pipe was present.  Neither the trial court, nor the Appellate Division found that argument to be persuasive.

The superintendent of Atlantic County Parks provided an Affidavit, indicating that he conducted a diligent search of the Park’s records and found no record of a visitor notifying the Park system of any dangerous condition regarding the pipe.  According to the record, the first time the Park system was notified of this condition was when the County received plaintiff’s present claim.

The Court noted in a footnote that the photographs of the pipe were taken 9-18 months after the accident.  They showed the pipe was at least partially obscured by soil and grass.  While the plaintiff initially maintained that these photographs accurately depicted the condition of the accident scene on the date of her fall, she subsequently provided a second Affidavit in which she claims that the pipe was discernable.  The Court noted that there was an “inherent tension” between her argument that the pipe was sufficiently concealed to constitute a dangerous condition and yet was of such an obvious nature as to put the County on actual or constructive notice of the condition.

The Appellate Division found that plaintiff failed to establish the notice element but also noted that the plaintiff failed to satisfy element number 5, in that she presented no evidence that the County had acted in a palpably unreasonable manner.  There was no proof presented that the County was notified of any condition regarding the pipe until the plaintiff filed the complaint. Hence, the plaintiff had failed to present any evidence from which to conclude that the County acted in a palpably unreasonable manner.

Accordingly, even when viewing the plaintiff’s evidence in the light most favorable to her, the Appellate Division found that she had not established a prima facie case of negligence under the Tort Claims Act.  Thus, the County was entitled to summary judgment.  Accordingly, the Appellate Division affirmed the summary judgment in favor of the County, dismissing the complaint.

 


Betsy G. Ramos, Esq. is a member of the firm’s Executive Committee and Co-Chair of the Litigation Group. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years’ experience handling diverse matters. Her practice areas include tort defense, insurance coverage, Tort Claims Act and civil rights defense, business litigation, employment litigation, construction litigation, estate litigation and general litigation.

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COVID-19 and The High Risk Employee

With businesses reopening thanks to modifications of state stay at home orders, employers are beginning to contemplate what their new work environments will look like when employees return. Over the past several months, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (‘EEOC”) has provided guidance to employers regarding the ways that a company can safeguard its workplace in this new era of COVID-19. One hot question is whether employers, out of fear of legal liability from possible COVID-19 workplace exposure, can prevent high risk employees who suffer the greatest possible complications from COVID-19 from returning to work merely because of that possibility of greater harm. The EEOC says no, at least not automatically, just because of that high risk of possible complications.

According to the EEOC, employers cannot bar high risk employees from returning to work merely because of that high risk. Rather, before an employer can take such action, the employer must engage in the traditional interactive process required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA’) any time an employee with a disability needs a workplace accommodation. Since high risk employees have one or more underlying medical conditions that cause them to be high risk, the EEOC directs that employers engage in the interactive process to determine whether there are ways of minimizing that employee’s exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace. As part of that interactive process, the employer can assess whether the employee would pose a direct risk of harm to either themselves or others, but in making that assessment, there must be actual objective proof of possible harm.

Under this standard, a direct threat assessment cannot be based solely on an underlying condition being on the Center for Disease Control’s list of high risk factors. Rather, the determination must be an individualized assessment based on a reasonable medical judgment about a particular employee’s disability – not the disability in general – using the most current medical knowledge and/or on the best available objective evidence. The ADA regulations require an employer to consider the duration of the risk, the nature and severity of the potential harm, the likelihood that the potential harm will occur, and the imminence of the potential harm. According to the EEOC, assessment of these factors should also include considerations based on the severity of the pandemic in a particular area and the employee’s own health (for example, is the employee’s disability well-controlled), and his/her particular job duties. A determination of direct threat also should include an analysis of the likelihood that an individual will be exposed to the virus at the worksite. Measures that an employer may be taking in general to protect all workers, such as mandatory social distancing or the wearing of face masks and gloves, also would be relevant in determining the possibility of a direct threat of harm. Thus, according to the EEOC, ultimately an employer may only bar an employee from the workplace only if, after going through all the foregoing steps, the facts support the conclusion that the employee poses a significant risk of substantial harm to himself/herself that cannot be reduced or eliminated by reasonable accommodation.

In light of this EEOC directive, employers should not rush to judgment in deciding to bar a high risk employee from returning to the workplace due to COVID-19. Adherence to the traditional interactive process required by the ADA will enable an employer to navigate through this complicated issue and reduce the chances of significant legal harm arising from the mishandling of such fears during this continuingly evolving pandemic.

 


Ralph R. Smith, 3rd is Co-Chair of the Employment and Labor Practice Group. He practices in employment litigation and preventative employment practices, including counseling employers on the creation of employment policies, non-compete and trade secret agreements, and training employers to avoid employment-related litigation. He represents both companies and individuals in related complex commercial litigation before federal states courts and administrative agencies in labor and employment cases including race, gender, age, national origin, disability and workplace harassment and discrimination matters, wage-and-hour disputes, restrictive covenants, grievances, arbitration, drug testing, and employment related contract issues.

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Police Officers Found Not to Be Immunized in Alleged Failure to Render Assistance to Injured Plaintiff at Motor Vehicle Accident Scene

Two Jersey City Police Officers were dispatched to a motor vehicle accident in Jersey City at 2:26 am involving the truck of the decedent Hiram Gonzalez (“Gonzalez”), which he advised them had spun out of control. After responding to the accident, Gonzalez was left at the scene of the accident by the officers after he turned down the offer of a ride and, instead, allegedly advised them that he would wait for his brother to give him a ride. The facts were in dispute as to whether they should have known he was intoxicated at the time. At about 3:42 am, he was struck and killed while walking in the middle of the roadway. The issue in Estate of Gonzalez v. City of Jersey City, 2020 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 689 (App. Div. April 17, 2020), was whether the officers and the City were immune from tort liability for his fatal accident.

Both officers denied noting any signs that Gonzalez was intoxicated. Based upon an autopsy performed, Gonzalez’s blood alcohol level was a .215. Plaintiff’s toxicology expert opined that Gonzalez’s blood alcohol level when he encountered the officers was a .20, which was 2 ½ times higher than the legal limit for driving.

At the trial court level, the defendants filed for a summary judgment based upon various Tort Claims Act immunities, including N.J.S.A. 59:3-(2)(a), absolute immunity for injuries resulting from the exercise of judgment or discretion. The plaintiff argued that the officers’ acts were ministerial and, under N.J.S.A. 59:2-3 and N.J.S.A. 59:3-2, the officers were not immunized for the negligent performance of a ministerial act.

The trial court judge granted the defendants’ summary judgment motion. He found that the officers had conducted their duties in good faith and that they had no duty to remove Gonzalez from the highway. They offered to give him a ride and secured a ride with a family member before leaving him behind the guardrail. The judge found that the defendants’ actions were immunized under N.J.S.A 59:3-3 (good faith enforcement of laws). He also found that there was no statutory duty to take Gonzalez to a treatment facility because he had no outward signs of intoxication.

The plaintiff appealed, arguing that an officer may be liable for the negligent performance of his or her ministerial act and, therefore, the officers were not immune from liability under the Tort Claims Act. Further, plaintiff argued that the court erred in finding the “officers had the discretion to abandon an intoxicated victim of a motor vehicle accident on a dark, rainy highway bridge.”

The Appellate Division disagreed with the trial court’s ruling and reversed. The Court noted that police offers have a duty to respond to accident scenes and render assistance. In responding to this motor vehicle accident, the Court found that the officers were performing a ministerial duty and would be subject to liability for the negligent performance of this duty. The police do not enjoy immunity for negligent performance of ministerial duties.

The Appellate Division found that there were factual issues that must be resolved by a jury as to whether the officers were negligent. There was conflicting factual evidence as to Gonzalez’s behavior, his conversations with the officers, the circumstances of the inoperability of his car, the officers’ version of their exchange with the dispatcher (as to why they left him at the scene),  and the assessment the area where he was left. The Court ruled that these issues could not be made on a summary judgment record. Thus, the Appellate Division reversed and remanded the matter back to the trial court.

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EEOC Updates Guidance on COVID 19 Workplace Prevention

Last month, I wrote an article outlining the steps that employers may take to guard against coronavirus in their workplace. Thanks to a recent Guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), employers were able to implement several steps, such as taking employee temperatures and insisting that employees stay home if sick, to prevent COVID 19 spread in the workplace. Recently, the EEOC has expanded on this Guidance, and has added another tool for employers to use in their fight to prevent contagion of their workplace. Now, not only can employers require that previously positive COVID 19 employees provide medical documentation that they are fit to return to work, but employers can now also actually choose to administer COVID-19 testing themselves to all employees before they enter the workplace to determine if they have the virus. The one important question that the Guidance does not answer, however, is where employers will actually get those tests to administer given the well-publicized testing shortages that currently exist in fighting the on-going pandemic.

So, why is such testing permitted? Given the current pandemic, according to the EEOC, such testing is “job related and consistent with business necessity” because any employee who is COVID 19 positive poses a direct threat of harm to the safety of other employees, which is the standard applied for allowing such employee medical testing under the Americans with Disabilities Act. (“ADA”) The EEOC nevertheless cautions that, consistent with this ADA standard, employers should ensure that the tests are accurate and reliable. In this regard, Employers are urged to review guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about what may or may not be considered safe and accurate testing, as well as guidance from CDC or other public health authorities, and check for updates. Employers are also advised to consider the incidence of false-positives or false-negatives associated with a particular test. Finally, the Guidance further warns also that accurate testing only reveals if the virus is then currently present, and that a negative test does not mean the employee will not acquire the virus at some later juncture.

In the end, while allowing testing, the EEOC ultimately urges that employers should still require – to the greatest extent possible – that employees observe infection control practices (such as social distancing, regular handwashing, and other similar measures) in the workplace to prevent transmission of COVID-19 as recommended by the CDC and other federal and state health organizations.

So, if you are an employer lucky enough to have access to testing, you now have the green light from the EEOC to administer such testing across your workforce.  If you do decide to implement such testing measures, remember that, it being a medical test, ADA confidentiality and privacy rules apply to both the communication of (and maintenance of) results, and such sensitive private medical information should only be shared with others on a need to know basis.

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NJ Supreme Court Order Extending and Tolling Court Deadlines Due to COVID-19 Pandemic

On Friday, March 27, 2020, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued an omnibus order addressing the suspension of court proceedings, extension of deadlines and tolling time periods (including the time to file Notices of Tort Claims). The Court had been issuing almost daily orders but this order addressed the extension of those time periods based upon the current restrictions on movement and activity recommended by NJ DOH and CDC, as well as the Governor’s Order 107. The major effect of this order is to continue the stay of all jury trials, restart arbitration hearings on a virtual basis on April 27, 2020, require depositions to be conducted on a virtual basis, extend discovery deadlines for 6 weeks from March 16, 2020 to April 26, 2020, and toll the statute of limitations during this 6 week time period as well.

Per this Order, the Court placed into effect and/or renewed the following provision:

  • No new civil jury trials will be conducted until further notice.
  • Time for completion of discovery and time for filing motions for summary judgment are relaxed to permit the extension of discovery deadlines through April 26, 2020.
  • Time for issuance of summons is extended from 15 days to within 60 days of the Track Assignment Notice for notices issued from March 16 through April 26, 2020.
  • Time frame for service of valid and timely Notices of Tort Claim will be tolled from March 16 through April 26, 2020.
  • Time periods for discovery (including interrogatories, inspection of documents and property, IMEs, and requests for admission) will be extended from March 16 through April 26, 2020.
  • In computation of time for discovery end dates, the period of March 16 through April 26, 2020 shall be excluded due to exceptional circumstances.
  • Special Civil Part and Small Claims trial calendars are suspended through April 26, 2020.
  • The requirement to submit courtesy copies of motion papers, not exceeding 35 pages, to the trial court judge is suspended.
  • Civil arbitrations scheduled from March 16 to April 26, 2020 have or will be postponed and rescheduled.
  • Effective April 27, 2020, Civil Arbitrations will resume with participation in any session to be via video and/or telephone conference and initiated by an arbitrator or panelist.
  • The arbitration rules are relaxed to permit an extension of timeframes and authorize arbitration hearings to be conducted in a location other than the courthouse.
  • Through April 26, 2020, depositions should be conducted remotely using necessary and available video technology and court reporters may administer and accept oaths remotely.
  • To the extent practicable, all court matters including hearings, conferences, and arguments will be conducted by video or phone conferencing and in-person appearances will be permitted only in emergent situations.
  • All depositions and appearances for any doctors, nurses, or healthcare professionals involved in responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency are suspended through April 26, 2020 unless requested by the health profession or that are for matters related to COVID-19.
  • For computation of time periods under the Rules of Court and under any statute of limitations for matters in all courts, for purposes of filing deadlines, the additional time of March 28 through April 26, 2020 shall be deemed the same as a legal holiday. (The Court previously designated the time period of March 16, 2020 to March 27, 2020 to constitute a legal holiday.)
  • Electronic signatures are now permitted on all original filings temporarily during this crisis.

 

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