NJ Law Firm Hit With COVID-19 Bias Suit From Ex-Worker

By Bill Wichert
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Law360 (June 28, 2021, 4:02 PM EDT) -- A former client relations coordinator has slammed The Matus Law Group with a disability discrimination suit in New Jersey state court, alleging the firm tried to avoid paying her for the time she spent quarantining after testing positive for COVID-19 and ultimately fired her in retaliation for contracting the virus.

Matus Law Group, which specializes in estate planning and real estate law, searched for Cynthia Wisenfelder's replacement while she was in quarantine and then terminated her a few days after she returned to work, according to the state Law Against Discrimination complaint filed on Friday.

The firm "discriminated and retaliated against plaintiff, culminating in her termination, all because plaintiff contracted COVID-19," the complaint says. The firm's founder, attorney Christine Matus, and its office manager, Jennifer Martinez, also are named as defendants.

Wisenfelder began working for the firm in November 2018, and her duties included "answering calls from clients, managing the firm's calendar, and maintaining client files," the complaint says. The day after her 58th birthday, she learned on Nov. 9, 2020, that her husband had tested positive for COVID-19, the complaint says.

After Wisenfelder informed Matus and Martinez about the positive result, she was "told to stay home," and Matus "callously reminded plaintiff that this was her last day of paid time off," the complaint says. Wisenfelder said she told Matus that she believed she qualified for paid leave under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, or FFCRA.

The following day, Wisenfelder found out that she had tested positive for COVID-19 and immediately told Matus about her diagnosis, the complaint says.

"In an egregious disregard for plaintiff's health and safety, defendant Matus reiterated to plaintiff that she had no more paid time off, and would not be paid during her quarantine unless she worked from home," according to the complaint.

Wisenfelder said she reiterated that "she should be covered by the FFCRA, and was met with silence." The complaint says that "upon information and belief," Matus had hung up on her.

In a subsequent "shocking text message exchange" between the two women, Wisenfelder said, "'I can't believe I[']m dealing with a serious illness.. I'm positive with COVID-19 and all you care about is telling me you're not paying me for having to quarantine. Shame on you when there are things out there like FFCRA..that cost you nothing..,'" the complaint says.

"'Thank you. I accept your resignation,'" Matus allegedly replied, according to the complaint.

Wisenfelder said she texted Matus that she had not resigned and had no plans of doing so. Matus Law Group ultimately paid Wisenfelder for her time in quarantine, her attorney, Matthew A. Luber of McOmber McOmber & Luber PC, told Law360 on Monday.

Although she was "extremely ill during her quarantine," Wisenfelder "continued to carry out duties assigned to her, working on two separate occasions while battling COVID-19," the complaint says.

While in quarantine, Wisenfelder discovered that three of the four other members of the firm's office also had tested positive for COVID-19 and that no one was working in the office, the complaint says. Wisenfelder said she reached out to Matus and Martinez about whether she also could work remotely following her quarantine, but Matus never got back to her.

Martinez had previously told her that Wisenfelder would need to show in writing that she tested negative for COVID-19 before she could return to work, the complaint says. Based on that direction, Wisenfelder said she provided defendants on Nov. 29 with proof of her negative test and returned to work the following day.

But Wisenfelder said she encountered "a hostile work environment toward her."

Wisenfelder was "the only employee working full time in the office while everyone else worked remotely," and Matus "actively avoided" her, the complaint says. Wisenfelder said she felt "ostracized at work," particularly by Martinez's remark that "'we all worked while home with COVID,' implying that plaintiff was the only one who did not work from home during quarantine."

In her inbox, Wisenfelder also found a Nov. 22 email that contained "a job application from an individual seeking employment" with the firm, the complaint says. The firm was clearly "actively searching for an individual to replace plaintiff while plaintiff was in quarantine," the complaint says.

On Dec. 4, after Wisenfelder was called into Matus' office, the attorney fired her, "stating that she did not want plaintiff to be unhappy with her job," according to the complaint.

Wisenfelder said she told Matus that "she was both happy and very good at her job" and reminded Matus of "the many compliments given to plaintiff regarding her performance," including from Matus' own family members, the complaint says.

"Further, clients often commented to plaintiff how professional, helpful, and friendly she was to them. On one occasion, defendant Matus informed plaintiff that a client told Matus they retained defendant MLG because of how well plaintiff handled a phone call with them," the complaint says. "Defendant Matus responded, 'Regardless, this is your last day.'"

Matus and other representatives of her firm did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

Luber told Law360 on Monday in a statement, "As alleged in the complaint, our client was punished for requesting basic benefits information and a reasonable accommodation pertaining to COVID-19. Such retaliatory conduct is reprehensible, and Ms. Wisenfelder looks forward to her day in court."

Wisenfelder is represented by Matthew A. Luber, Armen McOmber, Christian V. McOmber, Kelly E. Adler, Charles J. Kocher, Meghan A. Clearie and Jeffrey D. Ragone of McOmber McOmber & Luber PC.

Counsel information for the defendants was not immediately available Monday.

The case is Cynthia Wisenfelder v. Christine L. Matus LLC et al., case number L-1684-21, in the Superior Court of New Jersey, County of Ocean.

--Editing by Daniel King.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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