Sometimes, it is unclear what is the right thing to do. Other times, it is glaringly obvious. Like when someone tells you that you need to “play ball” to keep your job, by lying and making a false complaint against a former coworker. Emiliano Rios, an emergency medical technician for Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center, found himself in just such a situation a few years ago, after Meadowlands fired Rios’s coworker, Heatherlee Bailey. Fortunately, Rios knew right from wrong, and refused to participate. Fortunately for Rios and New Jersey employees, the Appellate Division, in its April 14, 2020, decision in this matter, held that Rios had a “good faith and reasonable belief” that what Meadowlands had asked him to do was wrong. Emiliano Rios v. Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center, Superior Court Of New Jersey Appellate Division DOCKET NO. A-3846-18T1 (April 14, 2020).
Bailey was fired in November 2013. A few months later, Bailey filed a sexual harassment complaint against Meadowlands and others. Rios had been friends with Bailey, but was unaware of the alleged harassment, and Rios had never reported any harassment or discrimination to Meadowlands’ Human Resources Department. Bailey did not tell Rios that she was going to sue Meadowlands, and Rios did not encourage Bailey to do so.
After Bailey filed suit, Meadowlands employees, including Rostik Rusev, the Coordinator of EMS, and Glenn Berchtold, an Assistant Director of EMS, repeatedly insisted that Rios be a “team player,” and “play ball and help the hospital.” They demanded that Rios take out a restraining order against Bailey and falsely claim that Bailey had given him a hard time. The pressure Rios faced was immense, with Rusev telling him that Rios was “an employee of the hospital and [was] required to protect the hospital.” In addition, Rusev and Berchtold discussed the possibility of Rios being promoted from Supervisor of EMS to Assistant Director of EMS, if he went along with the plan. In the face of such enormous pressure, Rios stood firm. He objected to Meadowlands’ plan to retaliate against Bailey for her lawsuit, and refused to be a “team player.” Meadowlands responded by firing him.
Rios filed a lawsuit under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”), claiming that Meadowlands had illegally terminated him in retaliation for his refusal to cooperate with Meadowlands in Bailey’s lawsuit and refusing to lie about Bailey. Defendant Meadowlands filed, and won, a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Rios could not make out the first element of a retaliation claim under the LAD, because he could not show that he had a good faith reasonable belief in Bailey’s initial claim of discrimination. The New Jersey Appellate Division reversed, holding that the proper question was whether Rios had demonstrated that “there was a good faith and reasonable basis for his opposition to defendant’s actions that are forbidden by the LAD.”
Having properly framed the question, the Court held that Rios “demonstrated he had a good faith and reasonable belief defendant’s requests constituted efforts by defendant to unlawfully retaliate against Bailey for the filing of her discrimination and harassment complaint.”
It is heartening to see the Courts making good decisions upholding the rights of employees. In this day and age, it is even more heartening to see employees like Rios risking it all to do what is right.
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