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Supreme Court Found Question of Fact as to Whether Police Officer Entitled to Qualified Immunity for Shooting of Plaintiff

The plaintiff Bryheim Jamar Baskin claimed that a justifiable police chase ended in an unjustifiable police shooting due to the use of excessive force in violation of the Federal Constitution.  The issue decided by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Baskin v. Martinez, 243 N.J. 112 (2020) was whether the defendant Detective Rafael Martinez, who chased and eventually shot Baskin, was entitled to qualified immunity and, hence, a dismissal of the lawsuit on a summary judgment basis.

Certain facts were undisputed.  The police chased 20 year old Baskin after he crashed his car into an unmarked car occupied by Detective Martinez.  Baskin fled on foot with a handgun, which he discarded out of Martinez’s sight.  Thereafter, Baskin found himself trapped in a walled yard with no way to escape.  It is at that point, that the facts become disputed.

According to Baskin and an eyewitness, Baskin put his hands up above his head and turned toward the pursuing police officer with his palms open and no weapon.  He claims that he made no gesture that he was reaching for a weapon and that he posed no threat.  Baskin and the eyewitness state that Baskin’s hands were in the air in a sign of surrender when Detective Martinez shot him in the abdomen, causing serious and permanent injuries.

On the other hand, Detective Martinez asserts that when Baskin finally came into sight, he turned and pointed in the detective’s direction with an object that looked like a gun.  Detective Martinez claimed that he feared for his life and, only at that time, did he discharge his weapon.  There was no handgun found where Baskin fell.  There were two cell phones located nearby.

Based upon these facts, the trial court granted Detective Martinez qualified immunity and dismissed Baskin’s §1983 action.  A split three judge Appellate Division panel reversed and reinstated the case.  Due to the dissent in the Appellate Division, the issue of whether Detective Martinez was entitled to qualified immunity came to the Supreme Court as an appeal as of right.

The Supreme Court did affirm the Appellate Division majority, but it was a split decision of a 4-3 vote.  Regardless, the Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division, finding in favor of the plaintiff on a summary judgment basis.

The Court noted that it must accept as true the testimony of Baskin and the independent eyewitness, who both stated that Baskin’s hands were above his head, in an act of surrender when Detective Martinez shot him.  Under that scenario, a police officer would not have had an objectively reasonable basis to use deadly force.  The use of deadly force is prohibited against a non-threatening and surrendering suspect.  Hence, the Supreme Court concluded that Detective Martinez was not entitled to qualified immunity on a summary judgment basis.

The Court discussed what was needed to establish qualified immunity, which is as follows:

1.Whether the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, establishes that the official violated the plaintiff’s constitutional or statutory rights; and

2.Whether the right allegedly violated was “clearly established” at the time of the officer’s actions.  A right would be clearly established “if it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.”

Further, the Court pointed out that under the qualified immunity case law, the Court is required not only to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff but also to draw all reasonable inferences in his favor that are supported by the summary judgment record.  Based upon the facts, the Court cannot give credence to Detective Martinez’s account of the last moments of his encounter with Baskin and cannot resolve the disputed issues of material fact as would a jury.  The Court must accept as true the testimony of Baskin and the eyewitness that, as Detective Martinez “rounded the corner of the house, Baskin was standing with his open and empty hands above his head – not reaching for a weapon or making a threatening gesture.”

Under the law, it is clear that every police officer would understand that “it is not objectively reasonable to shoot a person suspected of committing a crime after he has placed his empty hands above his head in an act of surrender.”  The law is also clear that a suspect’s conduct leading up to his attempt to surrender cannot alone justify using deadly force against the suspect when his hands are above his head in an act of submission and he no longer poses a threat.  While the facts may be disputed as to whether Baskin’s hands were empty and up in the air, for qualified immunity purposes, the Court must consider the totality of the circumstances through the perspective of an objectively reasonable police officer on the scene.  The Court must also accept Baskin’s version of these events that are in dispute and draw all reasonable inferences in his favor.

The Court noted its understanding that police officers often must make split second decisions in highly volatile situations and does not minimize the challenges of dangers facing a police officer engaged in pursuit of a suspect who is observed carrying a gun.  The Court accepted that Detective Martinez had a legitimate and obvious basis to be concerned for his safety.  Had Baskin turned toward him with a gun in his hand, Detective Martinez would likely have had an objectively reasonable basis to use deadly force to protect himself.  The Court stated that “the justification for use of deadly force at one point and a dangerous encounter does not give an officer the right to shoot a suspect when the use of deadly force can no longer be justified.”

Detective Martinez testified that when he rounded the corner, he saw Baskin turning toward him pointing an object that appeared to be a gun.  However the facts were sharply disputed as to whether that occurred and whether Baskin pointed anything at him, even if it turned out just to be a cell phone.

Because of the conflicting accounts of what occurred at the time of the shooting and other disputes of material fact, the Supreme Court found that this issue must be submitted to a jury for resolution of the facts.  At that point, the trial court can determine the merits of the application for qualified immunity.  After the jury makes its fact findings, Detective Martinez will be able to renew his qualified immunity application if there is a basis to do so.  Hence, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Appellate Division and remanded the case back to the trial court.

 


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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A Refresher on Handling Reasonable Accommodations

In this current age of COVID-19, employers are seeing more and more requests from employees seeking a workplace reasonable accommodation. Some of these requests emanate from the employee’s own health condition that increases risks for COVID-19 complications. On the other hand, some employees are seeking to avoid coming into work because close family members have health conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19. So, how should employers respond to such requests?

As most employers know, possible accommodation duties flow from both federal and state anti-disability discrimination laws. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requires that accommodations be made to assist a disabled employee in performing the essential functions of an employee’s job position. Here, in New Jersey, the state’s Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) also imposes a similar duty.

In facing the accommodation requests of the kind referenced above, the first thing that I counsel employer clients to do is confirm that the employee indeed has a disability that may need to be accommodated. In today’s COVID-19 world, we are seeing more and more employees seeking an accommodation of working virtual from home because of concerns about vulnerable family members with whom they live. Since the employee is not asking for an accommodation for his/her own medical condition, neither the ADA nor the LAD requires that the employer accommodate the request. This does not mean that the employer cannot work with the employee to address such concerns-what it does mean is that legally the employee has no right to demand such an accommodation.

If the employee is conversely seeking an accommodation for his or her own medical condition, the employer is obligated to explore the possibility of an accommodation by engaging in the interactive process of examining possible ways of addressing the request.  This interactive back and forth includes the right on the employer’s part to obtain medical information to substantiate the request for accommodation. For employees who have a greater vulnerability of COVID-19 health risks, several of my clients are also seeing a higher volume of requests to work from home. Many of these clients are concerned about providing such an accommodation because it gives rise to possible burdens on staffing and the ability to provide services to clients.  As part of any analysis of such a request, my recommendation is always to scrutinize closely the medical reason for the request, and obtain detailed information from the medical provider about whether other non-work restrictions have been imposed. For example, has the doctor told the employee that he/she should not be leaving the home for any reasons or placed any similar type of stay at home restrictions on the employee. I also urge employers to alert the employee’s doctor to the steps taken in the workplace to protect employees from COVID-19 exposure so the physician can assess risks in light of the actual workplace to be encountered by the patient employee. Using such an exacting approach will better allow the employer to ferret out legitimate accommodation needs from those which arise from general fears of possible workplace COVID-19 exposure that ordinarily are not a sufficient legal reason for an accommodation.

The interactive process is a critical aspect of handling all workplace accommodation requests and should not be ignored because of the possible abuse of accommodation requests by employees fearing COVID-19 exposure. Even in situations where ultimately the employer may believe that it will cause an undue hardship to accommodate the employee, the interactive process must still be pursued before ultimately denying the accommodation request due to an undue hardship. In my experience, this is where employers get themselves into the most trouble. In this COVID-19 world, it is tempting to just ignore this step in the process and deny a suspicious accommodation request outright, but doing so is fraught with peril.

So, by following the foregoing steps, employers will better handle accommodation requests in the age of COVID-19 and minimize potential risks of liability claims hurting your business.

 


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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Vaccines and the Workplace

Anyone watching the news today has seen report after report about a possible vaccine for the coronavirus and the speedy progress being made towards its development.  This vaccine is hoped by many to be the cure all to allow the world to go back to some semblance of the normalcy that existed before the commencement of the current pandemic. While all would seemingly acknowledge that an effective and reliable vaccine for COVID-19 would be wonderful news, the success of the vaccine in bringing back normalcy will largely depend upon how willing the general public will be in taking the vaccine. Which leads me to the question that I have already been asked by several of my clients: in an age of a pandemic, can employers force their employees to undergo a vaccine treatment as a condition of employment?

While the current pandemic is new, the above question is not. With the rise of the anti-vaccine movement, employers have actually had to grapple with this issue, especially those in the health care industry. In this regard, there are already several reported cases regarding whether hospitals and other health care providers can require employees to have flu and tuberculosis vaccines as a condition of continuing employment. Employees have been fired for not agreeing to be vaccinated, and a body of law has developed addressing this issue. Absent a compelling reason for refusing a vaccination, the case law holds predominantly that employers can indeed require vaccinations as a term and condition of employment, and employees without a valid religious or medical reason for rejecting a vaccination can indeed be fired. In the large majority of such cases, the courts have determined that the employer has a compelling interest in maintaining the safety of their workplace and the health of those whom they serve. Such legal principles would thus seemingly support the idea that, when a vaccine is discovered for COVID-19, an employer could mandate that employees receive such inoculations, subject to having to consider the possible exemptions previously noted. In an age of a pandemic, and a virus that has killed hundreds of thousands of victims worldwide, it is hard to fathom a more serious threat to public health and an employer’s workforce and its customers that could justify a required vaccine employer directive.

Moreover, in March 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) also issued COVID-19 guidance specifically addressing the issue of whether employers covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) can compel all employees to take the influenza vaccine (while noting that there was not yet a COVID-19 vaccine). In responding to this question, the EEOC stated that an employee could be entitled to an exemption from a mandatory vaccination under the ADA based on a disability that prevents the employee from taking the vaccine, which would be a reasonable accommodation that the employer would be required to grant unless it would result in undue hardship to the employer.  Under the ADA, “undue hardship” is defined as “significant difficulty or expense” incurred by the employer in providing an accommodation. The EEOC made similar mention of a possible religious obligation exception under Title VII also absent the required showing of an undue hardship.

Finally, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (“OSHA”) similarly has declared that employers may require employees to be inoculated against the flu, provided the employer provides to its employees an explanation of the benefits of the inoculation, and further allows for an exception for those employees who reasonably believe that they are at significant risk of serious medical complications from having the vaccination.

So, as we wait for a vaccine to become available, employers should begin thinking about what they will be demanding of their employees regarding the need to receive a vaccination when it begins to be widely distributed. Should employers require vaccinations of all employees, or only those employees who are most high risk for serious complications from COVID? If an employer opts for the latter, could that approach open the door to discrimination claims from those who are older or have disabilities who are at higher risk? And, how do you handle the expected requests for religious and medical accommodations, and can you avoid such duties by arguing that accommodation would impose an undue hardship by increasing the risk of possible COVID spread in your workforce?

Employers:  Begin your analysis of these issues now because if the reports in the news are indeed true of expedited success in creating a vaccine, you will need to address those issues much sooner than you presently think.

 


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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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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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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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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