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Pellot v. GGB, LLC

Client: GGB, LLC

Court: Superior Court of New Jersey-Chancery Division-Burlington County

Brief Attorney: Ralph R. Smith, 3rd, Esq.

Trial Attorney: Ralph R. Smith, 3rd, Esq.

**Results may vary depending on your particular facts and legal circumstances**

Former employee claimed his discharge violated company policy requiring that only appropriate discipline be issued for a workplace policy infraction. Employee argued his second violation of company safety policy did not warrant employment discharge but only a work suspension. In dismissing the employee’s claim, the court determined that employer company had the right and discretion under its discipline policy to fire employee for second safety violation, and discharge was an appropriate disciplinary measure for employee’s policy violation.

 

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5 New Year’s Resolutions For Your Workplace In 2022

With 2022 around the corner, employers are presented with a wonderful opportunity to review internal policies/procedures and hopefully help avoid future workplace legal problems.  Here are five suggested New Year’s Workplace Resolutions for 2022.

  1. When was the last time your employee handbook was reviewed and updated? Policies and procedures need to be revised periodically to keep current with ongoing changes in the law, especially in a place like New Jersey, where it is frequently the case that new laws and decisions impose new legal requirements. Therefore, 2022 presents a great opportunity for employers to review handbook polices and bring them up to speed with any recent legal changes that impact your workplace, or to reflect changes in your workplace because of adjusting to doing business in a pandemic, i.e. work from home policies. Alternatively, if you do not have one yet, the upcoming new year provides a wonderful chance for your workplace to reap the benefit of having all relevant workplace policies stored in one collective document. Relatedly, when was the last time you conducted anti-harassment training for your workforce? While the pandemic has made this harder to do, virtual trainings are a great way to continue to meet all mandated employee training requirements.
  2. When was the last time your job descriptions were reviewed and updated? Job descriptions are very important, especially in gauging compliance with mandated accommodation requirements for persons with disabilities under both federal and state discrimination laws.  Ask yourself: do your job descriptions accurately reflect what an employee actually does in his/her job today?  Because courts often rely on how an employer defines the essential job functions of an employment position in assessing disability discrimination and failure to accommodate issues, it is important that employers maintain updated job descriptions so there will be a point of reference if any issues arise as to what the essential functions of a job position are for accommodation purposes. Moreover, just like employee handbooks, if you do not have job descriptions today, the beginning of the upcoming year is a good time to commence preparing them.
  3. Are your employee leave policies up to date? It is important under both federal and state leave laws that leave policies are accurate and current. One of the most effective ways of meeting this requirement is having updated leave policies in an employee handbook, so use the beginning of next year to check that such policies are accurate and up to date.
  4. When was the last time you conducted an audit of your payroll practices? One of the chief concerns to examine here is ensuring that all your employees are properly classified as exempt versus non-exempt employees for purposes of their proper compensation under federal and state wage and hour laws. It is always a good idea for an employer to do a quick review of employment classifications each year in case changes need to be made based upon any modifications in employee job responsibilities.
  5. Are you properly performing background checks on current and prospective employees? Remember, there are strict requirements concerning how such background checks are conducted under not only the Fair Credit Reporting Act but also under relevant federal employment discrimination laws such as Title VII. Several years ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a detailed compliance guidance on how the results of a background check can be utilized in assessing a person’s suitability for employment, and New Jersey also passed its own restrictions, i.e. Ban the Box rules, so it is important that all background check policies meet these requirements.
  6. And here is a bonus suggestion for you. Mandatory COVID vaccination requirements are still in flux. The OSHA rule for companies with 100 employees is no longer stayed, and the agency has advised that it will start investigating employers for compliance on January 10, 2022. (Public federal contractor and health care mandates are still subject to court orders barring enforcement of such standards to some degree.)  This means that employers need to start taking steps to meet the requirements of the OSHA mandate-by either collecting proof of employee vaccinations or ensuring weekly testing for employees. Remember also that disability and possible religious exemptions are potentially available to vaccination requirements and employers need to understand how to address such issues.

In sum, the upcoming new year provides a wonderful opportunity for employers to proactively evaluate internal policies and procedures to make 2022 a legally problem free year in your workplace.

A Happy and Healthy New Year to All and please continue to stay safe!!

 


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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Biden’s Vaccination Mandate

In my practice, I am already receiving multiple questions about President Biden’s September 9, 2021 directive requiring that companies with 100 or more employees mandate vaccinations for all work staff or alternatively conduct weekly COVID-19 testing.  Many of my employer clients want to know more about these requirements, in particular, whether they should already be mandating vaccinations or conducting employee testing pursuant to the President’s directive. The answer that I have given to my clients so far is no, nothing is yet required, because we still have no idea what the exact details of those vaccination/testing requirements will be.

Biden’s directive will not become effective until the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”), through its emergency rulemaking authority, issues an actual rule(s) that outlines the scope of the expected federal mandate and provides greater details on what will be required of employers with regards to both vaccinations and testing. Already, there have been murmurs of possible legal challenges to whatever rule is issued.

Through its emergency rulemaking powers, OSHA may issue rules and regulations to eradicate workplace safety risks.  The expectation is that OSHA will ultimately ground its rulemaking here on this issue on the claim that unvaccinated workers pose safety risks to others around them in the workplace. As followers of this blog know, vaccination mandates by employers have long been recognized as a legally valid exercise of employer authority, subject of course to possible health and religious related exemptions. We expect that similar exception requirements will be recognized under whatever emergency rule OSHA issues. We also expect that more details will be supplied about the scope of any required testing requirements once we have OSHA’s rule. While the legality of vaccination mandates by employers is well settled, legal experts differ as to whether OSHA, through its emergency powers, has the legal authority to impose vaccination mandates on employees through their employers. This difference of opinion has generated much of the discussions about the possibility of legal challenges to stop the enforcement of any vaccination rule issued by OSHA.

So, my best advice at this time is to stay tuned. Once we get the final emergency rule(s) from OSHA, there will be greater clarity on both the exact requirements the federal agency is imposing, as well as when employers will be expected to comply, assuming, of course, that no anticipated legal challenges succeed in disrupting or delaying implementation and enforcement.

 


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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The Legality of COVID-19 Employee Vaccinations Mandates

With the Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine recently receiving full Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) approval, the question on many employer’s minds is whether legally employers can now mandate employee vaccinations for COVID-19 as a condition of employment.  Even before this recent approval of the Pfizer Vaccine, many employers had already decided to require vaccinations (or alternatively frequent employee COVID-19 testing) even when vaccinations were only approved for emergency use. The emergency use status of the available vaccines made some employers think twice about issuing such a mandate, but with the approval of the Pfizer Vaccine for full use, this likely will now be a game changer and more employers will seek to issue such mandates. In just the last few days, we have already seen some high profile companies implementing mandatory vaccination programs, i.e. Disney, as well as state and local governments, including here in New Jersey.

As I indicated in earlier articles presented here in this blog, vaccine mandates have long been viewed as legal, provided employers made possible exceptions for employees with disabilities that precluded vaccination or for those with religious objections to such vaccinations. COVID-19 vaccination mandates have also recently withstood legal challenges as well in the last few months even with the vaccines having only emergency use approval.  Thus, so long as employers provide the type of exemptions noted above, an employer today may implement a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination program for employees.

If you plan to implement such a mandatory vaccination program, here are some important considerations that should be followed.

First, you should clearly advise employees of the nature of the program and outline the specific consequences that could follow for those who refuse to meet those requirements. The policy should also include language that indicates that exceptions from the requirement will be considered for the foregoing health and religious reasons. Importantly, you need to train your employees on how to handle such exemption requests, and what is legally (or not legally) allowed to be sought during the necessary interactive process while considering the exemption request. Beware in particular of religion-based exemption requests.  For example, there are various restrictions on when you as an employer should ask for information verifying the bona-fide nature of the posited religious belief.  Also, be aware that thanks to the internet today, employees for a fee can actually obtain certifications from various “ministry” religious organization websites that are supplying documentary support for vaccination exception requests (and even mask exemptions on religion grounds). I have seen some of those certifications already used with several of my clients to support a religious exemption to COVID-19 safety protocols, so make sure you proceed with caution anytime you are presented with a religious-based COVID-19 vaccination exemption request. Finally, whether you grant or deny a requested exemption, document the process and the reasons why the particular decision was made.

As more and more employers decide to implement vaccine mandates, we expect to see additional legal challenges filed. We will continue to keep you updated on all possible developments affecting this issue.

 


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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Employee Disclosure of COVID-19 Vaccinations

With more and more businesses taking the first steps to reopen as the pandemic begins to wane, I have been getting this question from more and more of my clients: Can we ask our employees to provide proof that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19?  The answer is that an employer may indeed ask that question and make that inquiry, but employers must be careful regarding how far they probe into that question.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has taken the position that asking someone whether they are fully vaccinated does not result in the disclosure of an employee’s medical information, so asking such a question is fair game for an employer. In the EEOC’s view, just asking the question is not a medical exam because there could be many reasons (other than, for example, employee health issues) that may be why an employee has not been vaccinated. Where you as an employer will need to be cautious is when you start asking questions beyond the vaccination proof issue, such as why the employee is not vaccinated.  There you might be treading too close to asking improper questions about an employee’s medical status. If you find yourself in that territory, you will have to evaluate the employee’s response within the framework of the Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA) (or Title VII’s, if the employee’s response implicates religious beliefs) requirement to justify proof of vaccination being “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” That can be a difficult standard to meet, so employers who wish to venture into this area would be wise to (1) strictly limit their inquiry exclusively to whether or not the employee is fully vaccinated; and (2) requesting proof of that vaccination, say asking for a copy of the vaccination card itself. That way you avoid getting into these medical issue topics, and you the employer would then keep any proof information you obtained from the employee confidential like you would with any other private information received on an employee.

As things continue to evolve, we expect to receive more guidance from the EEOC on what employers can do as part of their reopening efforts, and as that happens, we will provide further legal updates to assist employers in those reopening efforts.

 


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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Legal Marijuana and New Jersey Employee Rights

On February 22, 2021, Governor Murphy finally signed three bills into law that effectively lay the ground work for legalized use of recreational marijuana in New Jersey.  While it could be some time before widespread legalized marijuana is available for purchase as the state establishes the needed infrastructure for the sale of the drug through state licensed dispensaries, I have fielded a number of questions already from employers regarding how far they must accommodate employee use of recreational marijuana. The reality is that employees will have wider protections under the new use law, and though those protections are not absolute, most employers now will have to come to grips with the new reality that marijuana use after work hours will no longer be grounds to automatically discipline an employee.

The new law expressly bars an employer from firing or refusing to hire a person who uses marijuana in their free time. Nonetheless, employers who have “reasonable suspicion” that a worker is “high” during work hours may still drug test such an employee and ultimately fire or discipline them if the test result is positive. Moreover, if you happen to be a Federal contractor who is subject to drug free workplace requirements, you will have more latitude even under this new legal scheme in imposing restrictions for recreational marijuana use since failing to prevent drug use in your workforce could place in jeopardy your continuing contractor status.

The law further specifically allows an employer to do random, regular or pre-employment screening, but in doing so, it must include a “scientifically reliable” test of blood, urine or saliva, paired with a physical evaluation to determine if the employee is currently impaired, as well as a physical examination by an employee who undergoes training to spot marijuana impairment. What that training will require for such employer observers will likely be crafted as part of the expected regulatory framework to be implemented by the state. So stay tuned for additional developments on this topic.

Finally, a frustrating reality with which employers will now need to grasp even more is that, when it comes to marijuana, there is no widely-used and accepted physical drug tests for marijuana that can detect real time intoxication absent proof of immediate drug use and impairment. Instead, the current test merely reveals the presence of marijuana in the body, which can linger sometimes days or weeks after a person last consumed the drug. This could further limit the circumstances where corrective actions can be taken against an employee for recreational marijuana use.

Accordingly, in light of the passage of this statutory framework that paves the way for legal marijuana use, employers need to start reviewing their drug testing policies and bring them into compliance with the new standards for testing for marijuana use. Furthermore, once training standards are established, employers will need to designate corporate observers and ensure that they receive the requisite training to detect marijuana impairment.  The sooner employers start to address such issues, the better it will be in dealing with this changed legal landscape involving recreational marijuana use.

 


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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Bruce Harrison Retires After Long-Standing Career At Capehart Scatchard

Bruce Harrison, Esq. celebrated his retirement from Capehart Scatchart in October.  The former Managing Shareholder and Chair of the Employment & Labor Department, began his career at the firm in 1975. According to Mary Ellen Rose, the firm’s current Managing Shareholder, “Bruce’s very first act as managing shareholder in 1997 was to appoint a technology committee.  Obviously, this contribution cannot be underestimated or forgotten.”

Bruce was mentored by Blaine Capehart, who himself was mentored by the founding members of the firm.  Bruce continued the mentoring tradition at the firm by guiding and advising new attorneys as they joined the firm.  During his many years at the firm, Bruce did his best to impart an important lesson he learned from Blaine Capehart on always being civil to one another in the office.

The firm dedicated and renamed a conference room in Bruce’s honor to the Harrison Conference Room.  An official portrait of Bruce that will be placed in the room has been commissioned and will be presented at a later date.

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Is the Government Travel Advisory an Enforceable Order?

As most of us know, the Governors of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut have issued a “travel advisory” indicating that those who travel from certain states must quarantine for a period of 14-days after the last contact with those states. Is this “advisory” an enforceable order? Well, this topic is becoming one of the most complex of issues facing employers today during this pandemic.

The advisory is now effective and applies to all states that have a positive test rate higher than 10 per 100,000 residents or a state with a 10% or higher positivity rate over a seven-day rolling average. But, unlike the governors of New York and Connecticut, who issued executive orders announcing the restrictions, Governor Murphy of New Jersey has not. New Jersey issued a travel advisory instead. Hence, the question that forms the title of this article – is this travel advisory a state order that must be complied with in all due respects or is it a request from the state for persons to voluntarily engage in certain conduct?

The states that are currently on New Jersey’s travel advisory as of July 28, 2020 include the following:

  1. Alabama (added 6/24/20)
  2. Alaska (added 7/21/20)
  3. Arkansas (added 6/24/20)
  4. Arizona (added 6/24/20)
  5. California (added 6/30/20)
  6. Delaware (re-added 7/21/20)
  7. District of Columbia (added 7/28/20)
  8. Florida (added 6/24/20)
  9. Georgia (added 6/30/20)
  10. Iowa (added 6/30/20)
  11. Idaho (added 6/30/20)
  12. Illinois (added 7/28/20)
  13. Indiana (added 7/21/20)
  14. Kansas (added 7/7/20)
  15. Kentucky (added 7/28/20)
  16. Louisiana (added 6/30/20)
  17. Maryland (added 7/21/20)
  18. Minnesota (re-added 7/28/20)
  19. Mississippi (added 6/30/20)
  20. Missouri (added 7/21/20)
  21. Montana (added 7/21/20)
  22. Nebraska (added 7/21/20)
  23. Nevada (added 6/30/20)
  24. New Mexico (added 7/14/20)
  25. North Carolina (added 6/24/20)
  26. North Dakota (added 7/21/20)
  27. Ohio (added 7/14/20)
  28. Oklahoma (added 7/7/20)
  29. Puerto Rico (added 7/28/20)
  30. South Carolina (added 6/24/20)
  31. Tennessee (added 6/30/20)
  32. Texas (added 6/24/20)
  33. Utah (added 6/24/20)
  34. Virginia (added 7/21/20)
  35. Washington (added 7/21/20)
  36. Wisconsin (added 7/14/20)

The advisory has become a nightmare for many employers to deal with. I am being barraged with questions about whether employers with employees travelling to the listed states must honor the two week self-quarantine directive. In addition, must the employer pay the employer for such quarantine time?  Many employers are irked about that latter fact: that they might actually need to pay employees who are willfully traveling to hot spots where the COVID virus is spreading like a wildfire. So, what can an employer do in this situation?

The first thing that must be determined is whether the advisory has the force of a legal order that must be followed.  On first glance, the answer to this question would seemingly be no. An advisory is just that: a seeming recommendation to self-quarantine for two weeks after travelling to a designated hot spot for the virus. Moreover, unlike New York and Connecticut, New Jersey has not included any prescribed penalties for the failure to follow the advisory. All this seems to suggest that the advisory does not have the force of law, and employers could compel their employees to come to work and not follow the advisory, which by the way, has a long list of exclusions for certain essential employees and folks who are travelling to New Jersey to work, which also seems to support a conclusion that compliance with the advisory is strictly voluntary.

New Jersey has a COVID-19 website that most thoroughly outlines what the state expects concerning its travel advisory. In what can only be described as classic Orwellian doublespeak, here is what that website says about this compliance issue: “The self-quarantine is voluntary, but compliance is expected.

As a lawyer reading such language, it makes me think that, while couching compliance as voluntary, the advisory really is a legal directive from the state making compliance mandatory – and when push ever comes to shove, I suspect a judge would feel that same way too if any adverse action is taken against an employee who insists upon following the self-quarantine directive.  So what have I been telling employers in this instance: if you can, try and claim that you have an essential employee. A list of those persons can also be found on the NJ COVID website. Otherwise, you likely need to let the employee self-quarantine for the required two weeks.

After concluding that the travel advisory seems to be anything but voluntary, the next question to be addressed relates to whether an employer must pay employees who self-quarantine in light of the advisory. If it is indeed a quarantine order, an employee would be allowed to use either New Jersey Paid Sick Time or might be eligible for paid emergency sick time under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“FFCRA”). That seems to flow from my analysis so far.

But, I recently had a conversation with a federal Department of Labor Investigator. That department is responsible for investigating claimed violations of the FFCRA.  Significantly, I was told by this investigator that right now her colleagues in New Jersey believe that the travel advisory is a voluntary requirement: “it says advisory right” or so I was told by the investigator. Thus, it was her view that paid federal paid sick time was not available because a state quarantine “order” was missing, and without such an order, there is no paid sick time eligibility. Confusing, right?  I was further told that the investigators here in New Jersey are awaiting for actual guidance from Washington on this topic. Let’s hope that comes soon.

As can be seen from above, there are a lot of moving parts here when an employer is trying to decide how New Jersey’s travel advisory affects its workforce. One option for the employer is to avoid having to deal with the issue entirely by prohibiting employees from travelling to any of the listed states. Employers have the ability to take such an action. They can ban business trips to those states, and likewise place a moratorium on approving any employee vacations for the next few months while seeing how the pandemic develops further. That way you as an employer know that your employees are not visiting places where a quarantine is required.

Hence, it is confusing to try to figure out what an employer must do in light of New Jersey’s “voluntary” travel advisory that from all indications is really a state “order” requiring full compliance in all respects.  Consequently, employers should proceed cautiously, and guide their actions accordingly, in how they treat employees coming back from restricted states under the advisory.

 


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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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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