The Employers Association of New Jersey (EANJ) now offers a class for Municipal Human Resource Managers.
It is sponsored by the Garden State Municipal Joint Insurance Fund which is one of the largest joint insurance funds in New Jersey and whose member municipalities comprise over one million residents.
Various factors have converged to increase the frequency of lawsuits against New Jersey municipalities alleging discrimination, harassment and retaliation.
Changes in the law have lowered barriers to litigation, as employees, with or without their unions, have become emboldened to take a chance and sue their employers for a monetary award. Some even use social media to champion their cause. And, of course, as public employees, municipal workers - from police officers to DPW workers – enjoy additional labor protections by virtue of a collective bargaining agreement or civil service laws.
All of this adds up to municipalities being targets for lawsuits by aggrieved and disgruntled employees.
And the costs of the legal defense, settlements and awards are ultimately borne by the taxpayer.
However, every employer in New Jersey can take responsible measures to avoid needless litigation, states John Sarno, president of EANJ.
“Generally speaking, employers need to take strong and aggressive measures to prevent and rectify discrimination, harassment and retaliation,” he says.
One the first cases that held employers to a high duty of care dealt with a Burlington County sheriff that used a racial slur to refer to his African-American deputy.
In that case, when the deputy greeted the sheriff at the firing range, he said to another supervisor, "There's the jungle bunny." After the deputy complained about the matter, which she said caused her great mental distress, she began to be shunned by her fellow officers. She discussed the matter with the media, which reported the incident widely. She was then shunned more at work and later left for extended disability leave.
The deputy sued for an emotional distress award and the sheriff failed to win re-election.
The lower courts held that a single racial slur was not sufficient to support an emotional harm suit but the New Jersey Supreme Court revered and held that a single racial slur can create a hostile work environment.
“Obviously, workplaces that are disrespectful or rough-around-the-edges are vulnerable to suit” says Sarno.
Because of this decision, which has been extended to include sexual and gender-based remarks, most private sector employers provide training to supervisors and try to act proactively.
But municipal employers have been slow to act.
But with escalating litigation costs, municipal human resources managers must manage employment liability risks, providing assistance and guidance to departments and personnel.
To manage these risks competently, employment decisions must be informed with a thorough analysis of downside risks and legal exposure, he says.
The three-part course is running in December, 2019 and will cover all aspects of equal employment law, whistleblowing and conducting an internal investigation.