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The duty to provide “reasonable accommodation” to an employee with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) poses significant challenges and legal risks to employers.  Determining when an employee’s request for a workplace accommodation is “reasonable” and thus must be accommodated, verses an “unreasonable” one that can be rejected by the employer, is often the subject of costly legal challenges.  A recent decision from the New Jersey Appellate Division shows how employers who implement an ongoing “interactive process” as well as offer reasonable accommodations along the way can successfully defend claims of disability discrimination.

The Facts: 

Plaintiff Robin Thomas was employed by the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) as a secretarial assistant, a role requiring interaction with co-workers and access to her unit’s files.  In 2000, Thomas was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that was adversely affected by cold and requested a work area without direct exposure to air conditioning.  The DOC accommodated that request.

Classifying workers as independent contractors can result in significant cost savings for employers, who are relieved of the obligation to offer company sponsored employee benefits (paid time off, health insurance contributions, etc.), to pay into state-sponsored employee benefit programs (e.g., paid sick leave, temporary disability, unemployment), and comply with other employment laws.  However, a recent decision from the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, illustrates that employers who misclassify workers as independent contractors rather than employees – thereby depriving them of the benefits of employee status – learn a tough lesson when workers challenge their employment status.

The Court Proceedings:

In Rodriguez v. De LaRosa (App. Div. 12/11/23), Barber shop owner Reynaldo De La Rosa hired Jonathan Rodriquez and other immigrants from the Dominican Republic to work six days a week as independent contractor barbers and to reside in housing he owned.  Rodriguez ultimately filed suit against De LaRosa in the Special Civil Part (a court with a jurisdictional cap on damages of $15,000) claiming he should have been classified as an employee and as required by New Jersey’s Wage and Hour Law, paid overtime for all hours in excess of 40 hours in the preceding two-year period.  After a four-day trial, the lower court agreed that Rodriguez did not meet the requirements for classification as an independent contractor under the “ABC test” used to determine independent contractor status and awarded him $15,000 in unpaid overtime wages.

Effective March 11, 2024, the U. S. Department of Labor (DOL) will implement its final rule, Employee or Independent Contractor Classification Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, rescinding the 2021 Trump era Independent Contractor Rule that made it easier for employers to establish independent contractor status.  The final rule substantially mirrors the Department’s proposed rule issued in October 2022.

Reaffirmation of the Economic Realities Test:

As noted in the DOL’s accompanying FAQ found here, the final rule “continues to affirm that a worker is not an independent contractor if they are, as matter of economic reality, economically dependent on an employer for work.”  The final rule reverts back to the narrower “totality of the circumstances” economic reality test in effect prior to 2021 that applied the following six non-exhaustive factors to analyze employee or independent contractor status:

In a December 11, 2021 press release, New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Plotkin and New Jersey Department of Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo announced the filing of the first lawsuit under a 2021 law that enhances the State’s authority to curtail illegal misclassification of workers as independent contractors through actions such as direct suits in the Superior Court, work-stoppage orders and enhanced penalties.

“When employers unlawfully and callously toss their workers into the ‘independent contractor’ category they are not only depriving them of a steady paycheck, they are also stripping them of earned sick leave, workers compensation, minimum wage, and more,” said AG Plotkin.  “These are national, profitable corporations with deep pockets who are padding their profits with illegal labor schemes, and they seem to have no plans to stop this kind of behavior.”  Labor Commissioner Asaro-Angelo cautioned that companies profiting through misclassification “have been put on notice.  We are proud to have the strongest worker protection laws in the country, which also safeguard employers who play by the rules.  Misclassifying employees will not be profitable, nor overlooked.”

Under New Jersey law, workers are presumed to be employees unless the employer can establish the three criteria of what is commonly called the “ACBC test”: 1) the worker is largely free from the control or direction of the company over the performance of the work; 2) the type of work being performed by the worker is outside the company’s usual course of business, or is performed outside the company’s place of business; and 3) the worker has their own independent trade, job, profession or business.  Treating workers who do not meet these stringent criteria deprives them of the rights and benefits afforded to employees, including minimum wage, overtime, workers compensation benefits, temporary disability benefits, earned sick leave, job protected family leave, equal pay, unemployment payments, and statutory protection against unlawful discrimination.

In a retrenchment of the #MeToo movement’s maxim that “all women must be believed,” a federal jury in Philadelphia found that a University engaged in anti-male bias when it investigated female resident’s sexual assault claim and awarded the accused male employee a whopping $15 million dollars in damages.

The Facts:

The plaintiff, Dr. John Abraham, was the Director of the Musculoskeletal Oncology Center at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, a professor at Thomas Jefferson University and a partner in the Rothman Orthopedic Institute.  After a pool party hosted by Dr. Abraham at his home, he engaged in sexual activity with a subordinate female resident physician.  Dr. Abraham claims he then filed a report with the University that the resident had intoxicated him and aggressively pursued sex without Dr. Abraham’s consent.  Dr. Abraham maintains that this complaint was not acted upon.  Thereafter, the female resident filed a report with the University alleging she was raped by Dr. Abraham.

The Federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (“TCJA”) amended section 2010(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (the “Code”) to provide that, for decedents dying and gifts made after December 31, 2017 and before January 1, 2026, the basic exclusion amount (BEA) and Generation-Skipping Transfer Tax (“GST”) exemptions would increase to $10 million as adjusted for inflation. On January 1, 2026, these exemptions will revert to $5 million (the pre-TCJA figure), adjusted for inflation. The inflation adjustments over the years since 2018 have resulted in BEA and GST Exemptions of $12,920,000 in 2023.

On November 9, 2023 the IRS issued Revenue Procedure 2023-34 setting forth the inflation adjusted transfer tax exemptions for 2024. The BEA will be $13,610,000—an increase of $690,000. The increase means that in 2024, an individual may make gifts during life or at death totaling $13,610,000 without incurring gift or estate tax; a married couple will be able to transfer $27,220,000 of assets free of transfer taxes. The GST Exemption under section 2631 of the Code will also increase to $13,610,000.

The annual gift tax exclusion provided by Code section 2503 will increase in 2024 to $18,000 per donee (or $36,000 if spouses elect gift-splitting).

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When a taxpayer contributes $250 or more to a charitable organization, in order for the taxpayer to claim an income tax charitable deduction the organization must provide the taxpayer with a contemporaneous written acknowledgment of the gift.  I.R.C. § 170(f)(8)(A).  The acknowledgment must include (i) the amount of cash and a description (but not the value) of any property other than cash contributed, (ii) an explicit statement of whether the donee organization provided any goods or services in consideration for part or all of the gift, and (iii) a description and good faith estimate of the value of the goods or services referred to in clause (ii), or if such goods and services consist solely of intangible religious benefits, a statement to that effect.  I.R.C. § 170(f)(8)(B).

The following recent cases have confirmed the need for strict compliance with the Internal Revenue Code (the “Code”) in connection with securing the charitable deduction.

Izen v. Commissioner, 38 F.4th 459 (5th Cir. 2022).  Taxpayer contributed a 50% interest in a private jet to the Houston Aeronautical Heritage Society and claimed a deduction of $338,080, which was disallowed.  Taxpayer’s income tax return did not include a contemporaneous written acknowledgment of the gift.  Taxpayer subsequently obtained and filed an acknowledgment of the gift, but the Fifth Circuit found it was not contemporaneous and lacked a statement about whether donee provided goods or services in consideration for the gift.  The taxpayer argued substantial compliance.  The court said that while substantial compliance may suffice to meet the requirements imposed by the Treasury, it does not satisfy requirements imposed by the Code.

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On August 30th, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued a long-awaited proposed rule that if adopted, will substantially expand the ranks of workers eligible for overtime payments for work in excess of 40 hours, as required by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Under present FLSA regulations, certain “white collar” workers who meet minimum salary requirements and perform specified duties may be classified as “exempt” employees ineligible for overtime.  The current salary threshold to qualify for the white collar exemptions is $35,560 annually, and $107,432 for the “highly compensated employee” exemption.  The proposed rule would increase that minimum salary threshold to $55,068 per annum, and $149,988 for highly compensated employees.

How Businesses Will Be Affected

The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 requires all U.S. employers, regardless of size, to complete a Form I-9 upon hiring a new employee to work in the United States. This form serves to verify an employee’s identity and ability to work in the country.

On August 1, 2023, a new Form I-9 was released, which employers must begin to use no later than October 31, 2023. Additionally, employers that verified remote hires’ Form I-9 identity and work authorization documents virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic are required to physically inspect those documents by August 30, 2023. Failure to comply with Form I-9 requirements may result in civil and criminal fines and penalties. It is therefore critical that employers understand and implement Form I-9 requirements in accordance with these recently established deadlines as set forth herein.

Completing Form I-9

The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) is responsible for enforcement of employee rights under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to engage in protected concerted activity, such as organizing unions, discussing wages and discipline, and other terms and conditions of employment.

Many employers are not mindful of the fact that these rights extend to both unionized and non-union workplaces.  With the decline in union membership, the NLRB has increasingly turned its focus away from unionization issues to workplace practices that may run afoul of employee rights under the NLRA, as illustrated by two recent decisions from the Board.

The Landmark Stericyle Decision’s Impact On Employee Handbooks and Other Workplace Rules

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