Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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Plaintiff Hamid Harris alleged that Donald Stabile, a Newark Police Department detective, falsely accused him of four armed robberies that were committed in Newark in January 2015, and unlawfully arrested him in connection with those robberies based on an improperly issued arrest warrant. After the charges against plaintiff were dismissed, he filed this action. Defendants the City of Newark, Detective Donald Stabile, and Police Officer Angel Romero following the trial court’s denial of their motion for summary judgment, contended the trial court erred in denying them qualified immunity as a defense to Harris’s claims brought under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (NJCRA). Defendants contended the trial court’s order denying summary judgment was a legal determination and should therefore be deemed appealable as of right, in keeping with both New Jersey appellate practice and federal law. The trial court reasoned that because Stabile did not have probable cause to arrest plaintiff, and because Stabile’s belief that plaintiff committed the robberies was objectively unreasonable, defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity. The Appellate Division ruled that “[t]he appeal is interlocutory as it is not from a final order” and dismissed defendants’ notice of appeal. The appellate court also denied defendants’ motion for leave to appeal. The New Jersey Supreme Court found the trial court’s order was a decision premised on factual findings as well as legal conclusions, not an exclusively legal determination. "In an NJCRA action, a defendant seeking to challenge a trial court’s order denying qualified immunity prior to final judgment must proceed by motion for leave to file an interlocutory appeal in accordance with Rules 2:2-4 and 2:5-6. View "Harris v. City of Newark, et al." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Michele Meade served as Township Manager for Livingston Township for eleven years, from 2005 until her termination in 2016 by Resolution of the Township Council. The Council cited a number of performance areas in the Resolution. An area central to this appeal was Meade’s supervision of Police Chief Craig Handschuch. In 2013, pre-school teachers at the Livingston Community Center observed a man dressed in camouflage, carrying a rifle bag, in the parking lot. The classes went into lockdown and patrol cars were dispatched. Handschuch and Sergeant Kenneth Hanna alerted the responders that the man was an officer involved in a training exercise. Meade went to the Community Center during or in the aftermath of the incident. Days later, Hanna signed a complaint alleging that Meade had violated N.J.S.A. 2C:33-28 by using “unreasonably loud and offensive coarse or abusive language” in addressing him. Meade emailed a report to Handschuch concluding that he and the unit conducting the training were responsible for the incident. That same day, Hanna signed a second complaint against Meade, alleging obstruction. Meade was acquitted of all charges in 2014. Meanwhile, the record reflected ongoing concerns with Handschuch’s performance. An email from one council member following Handschuch’s failure to appear at meetings called by the Council stated, “Bring [Chief Handschuch] up on charges, bring in an investigator or do nothing. . . . [H]e is YOUR employee . . . .” Nevertheless, Meade testified that certain members of the Council did not authorize hiring an investigator. In addition, Meade filed a certification that “Councilman Al Anthony . . . suggested to me that maybe Chief Handschuch did not like reporting to a woman and should report to him as the Mayor instead,” a claim Anthony disputed in his deposition. Meade filed a complaint aalleging that the Council terminated her and replaced her with a male Manager “to appease the sexist male Police Chief.” The trial court granted Livingston’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Meade was terminated for poor work performance and that the record revealed no gender discrimination in her termination. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding sufficient evidence was present for a reasonable jury to find that what Livingston Township Councilmembers perceived to be Police Chief Handschuch’s discriminatory attitude toward Township Manager Meade influenced the Council’s decision to terminate her, in violation of the Law Against Discrimination. View "Meade v. Township of Livingston" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Shelly Pritchett worked for the Juvenile Justice Center (JJC), which ran the state’s juvenile correctional facilities. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. When her second request for unpaid leave was denied, her supervisor refused to explain the denial or put the denial in writing. On November 1, 2011, Pritchett learned that she would be subject to disciplinary proceedings -- which would result in her termination without a pension -- if she did not resign by the end of the week. Pritchett applied for retirement disability benefits on November 4. Weeks later, her union representative informed the JJC that Pritchett believed she was forced into retirement against her will. The JJC’s Equal Opportunity Office expressed its opinion that the JJC “failed to engage in the interactive process,” which “resulted in a violation of the State Anti-Discrimination Policy,” but opined that Pritchett’s “request for reinstatement [was] mooted by [her] approval for disability retirement.” Pritchett filed a complaint alleging the State violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD). A jury awarded Pritchett compensatory damages in excess of $1.8 million and punitive damages of $10 million. The State challenged the punitive damages award. The trial court determined that the punitive damages amount was high but that no miscarriage of justice occurred. The Appellate Division affirmed in large part, but remanded for reconsideration of the punitive damages award, calling upon the trial court to consider the factors discussed in Baker v. National State Bank, 161 N.J. 220 (1999), and BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559 (1996). The State petitioned for certiorari review, arguing that the Appellate Division’s remand instructions were flawed in part because they failed to include direction to the trial court to apply heightened scrutiny when reviewing awards of LAD punitive damages against public entities. The New Jersey Supreme Court concurred with the state, modifying the Appellate Division's order to include instruction that the trial court review the punitive damages award with heightened scrutiny. View "Pritchett v. New Jersey" on Justia Law

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In June 2020, weeks after George Floyd was killed at the hands of a Minneapolis Police Officer, the New Jersey Attorney General issued two Directives calling for the release of the names of law enforcement officers who commit disciplinary violations that result in the imposition of “major discipline” -- termination, demotion, or a suspension of more than five days. A summary of the misconduct and the sanction imposed also had to be disclosed. In this appeal, the issues presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court came from challenges brought against the Directives by five groups representing state and local officers. The Appellate Division found that the Directives did not violate constitutional guarantees of due process or equal protection. The court also rejected claims that the Directives violate the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and that they impaired appellants’ right to contract and violate their constitutional right to collective negotiations. Finally, the appellate court concluded the Directives were not arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable, or against public policy. The Supreme Court found the Directives were consistent with legislative policies and rested on a reasonable basis. The Court did not find merit in the bulk of the remaining challenges, except for one that required "more careful attention:" Officers subjected to major discipline for the past twenty years said they were promised that their names would not be released, and that they relied on that promise in resolving disciplinary accusations. Essentially they asked the State to stand by promises they claimed were made throughout the prior twenty years. Resolution of that issue will require judicial review to decide if the elements of the doctrine of promissory estoppel were met. The identities of officers subject to major discipline since the Directives were issued in June 2020 could be disclosed; going forward, future disciplinary sanctions could be disclosed in the same manner. View "In re Attorney General Law Enforcement Directive Nos. 2020-5 and 2020-6" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Armando Rios, Jr., a Hispanic male, was hired by defendant Meda Pharmaceutical, Inc. (Meda) in May 2015. Defendant Tina Cheng-Avery was Rios’s direct supervisor. Rios claimed Cheng-Avery twice directed a racially-derogatory term toward him at their place of work. Rios says he reported her comments to Meda’s Director of Human Resources after each incident. Cheng-Avery placed Rios on probation in February 2016 for poor performance. Meda fired Rios in June 2016. Rios filed a complaint alleging in part that defendants violated the Law Against Discrimination (LAD) by creating a hostile work environment. The trial court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that no rational factfinder could conclude Cheng-Avery’s alleged comments were sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment. The Appellate Division affirmed. The New Jersey Supreme Court found that the remarks from the perspective of a reasonable Hispanic employee in Rios’s position, a rational jury could conclude the demeaning and contemptuous slurs, allegedly uttered by a direct supervisor, were sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment in violation of the LAD. The Appellate Division was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Rios v. Meda Pharmaceutical, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Mary Richter, a longtime type 1 diabetic and teacher, experienced a hypoglycemic event in a classroom. She sustained serious and permanent life-altering injuries. Richter filed a claim under the Law Against Discrimination (LAD), alleging that her employer failed to accommodate her pre-existing disability. The issues this appeal presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court were: (1) whether Richter was required to establish an adverse employment action -- such as a demotion, termination, or other similarly recognized adverse employment action -- to be able to proceed with an LAD failure-to-accommodate disability claim; and (2) whether plaintiff’s claim was barred by the “exclusive remedy provision” of the Worker’s Compensation Act (WCA) because she recovered workers’ compensation benefits. The Supreme Court held an adverse employment action was not a required element for a failure-to-accommodate claim under the LAD. Further, plaintiff’s LAD claim based on defendants’ alleged failure to accommodate her pre-existing diabetic condition was not barred by the WCA, and plaintiff need not filter her claim through the required showings of the “intentional wrong exception.” View "Richter v. Oakland Board of Education" on Justia Law

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Pfizer’s Human Resources Department sent an e-mail to Pfizer employees at their corporate e-mail addresses announcing Pfizer’s five-page Mutual Arbitration and Class Waiver Agreement (Agreement) and included a link to that document. The e-mail also included a included a link to a document that listed “Frequently Asked Questions,” including “Do I have to agree to this?” to which the response indicated, “The Arbitration Agreement is a condition of continued employment with the Company. If you begin or continue working for the Company sixty (60) days after receipt of this Agreement, it will be a contractual agreement that binds both you and the Company.” The “FAQs” document also encouraged any employee who had “legal questions” about the Agreement “to speak to [his or her] own attorney.” Pfize terminated Amy Skuse's employment in August 2017, and Skuse filed a complaint alleging that Pfizer and the individual defendants violated the Law Against Discrimination by terminating her employment because of her religious objection to being vaccinated for yellow fever. Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint and to compel arbitration. Skuse opposed the motion, contending that she was not bound by Pfizer’s Agreement, arguing that she was asked only to acknowledge the Agreement, not to assent to it, and that she never agreed to arbitrate her claims. The trial court dismissed Skuse’s complaint and directed her to proceed to arbitration in accordance with the Agreement. The Appellate Division reversed, identifying three aspects of Pfizer’s communications to Skuse as grounds for its decision: Pfizer’s use of e-mails to disseminate the Agreement to employees already inundated with e-mails; its use of a “training module” or a training “activity” to explain the Agreement; and its instruction that Skuse click her computer screen to “acknowledge” her obligation to assent to the Agreement in the event that she remained employed for sixty days, not to “agree” to the Agreement. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding the Agreement was valid and binding, and held the trial court was correct in enforcing it. View "Skuse v. Pfizer, Inc." on Justia Law

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This appeal involved a challenge to the City of Newark’s authority to create by ordinance a civilian oversight board to provide a greater role for civilian participation in the review of police internal investigations and in the resolution of civilian complaints. The Fraternal Order of Police, Newark Lodge No. 12 (FOP) filed a complaint claiming that the Ordinance was unlawful. Based on the record and arguments presented on cross-motions for summary judgment, the trial court held the Ordinance invalid and enjoined its operation in virtually all respects. The court left intact, however, the Ordinance’s grant of authority to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) to conduct general oversight functions, including aiding in the development of a disciplinary matrix for use by the police force. The Appellate Division invalidated the Ordinance’s required treatment of the CCRB’s investigatory findings, determining that the binding nature of the CCRB’s findings, absent clear error, impermissibly “makes the CCRB’s factual findings paramount to the findings of the IA department.” The New Jersey Supreme Court modified the Appellate Division's judgment, concluding: (1) state law permitted the creation by ordinance of this civilian board with its overall beneficial oversight purpose; (2) the board’s powers must comply with current legislative enactments unless the Legislature refines the law to specifically authorize certain functions that Newark intends to confer on its review board; (3) board can investigate citizen complaints alleging police misconduct, and those investigations may result in recommendations to the Public Safety Director for the pursuit of discipline against a police officer; (4) the board cannot exercise its investigatory powers when a concurrent investigation is conducted by the Newark Police Department’s Internal Affairs (IA) unit; and (5) where there is no existing IA investigation, the review board may conduct investigations in its own right. In addition, the review board could conduct its oversight function by reviewing the overall operation of the police force, including the performance of its IA function in its totality or its pattern of conduct, and provide the called-for periodic reports to the officials and entities as prescribed by municipal ordinance. View "Fraternal Order of Police, Newark Lodge No. 12 v. City of Newark" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Frank Chiofalo, a then-member of the New Jersey State Police (NJSP), filed a complaint under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) against his employer and certain supervisors (collectively, defendants). As the Assistant Administrative Officer of Troop B of the NJSP, Chiofalo was required to log documents that came in and out of headquarters and to collect reports from the Troop B commander. Chiofalo alleges he was subjected to adverse employment actions as retaliation for his engagement in protected activity related to two incidents. The first pertained to a claimed refusal to destroy internal NJSP documents. In 2012, a sergeant and a trooper participated in an unsanctioned escort on the Garden State Parkway, for which they later became subjects of internal review. Chiofalo claimed that the second protected activity occurred during an interaction with the Troop B Commander, in which he accused the Commander of not reporting his vacation time. Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging that Chiofalo failed to set forth a prima facie case under CEPA. The court denied the motion. The matter proceeded to trial, and a jury awarded Chiofalo compensatory and punitive damages. The Appellate Division reversed the trial court judgment, stating, with respect to the validity of a CEPA claim under N.J.S.A. 34:19-3(c), a plaintiff had to first find and enunciate the specific terms of a statute or regulation, or the clear expression of public policy, which would be violated if the facts as alleged are true. The appellate court concluded that Chiofalo failed to do so and that defendants were entitled to summary judgment on that basis. Specific to the timekeeping claim, the Appellate Division added that Chiofalo’s statement to the Commander “was hardly 'whistleblowing’ as contemplated by CEPA.” The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed in part, finding the trial court did not er in refusing to grant defendants' motion for summary judgment on one of plaintiff's two bases for whistleblowing charges. The Court affirmed with respect to the alleged timesheet violation. View "Chiofalo v. New Jersey" on Justia Law

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In January 2014, a General Order was issued under the authority of the Chief of the Barnegat Township Police Department that applied only to that department. The Order instructed officers to record by MVR several categories of incidents. It was undisputed that the MVR recordings at the center of this appeal were made in compliance with the Order. The MVR recordings at issue documented an incident in which police officers pursued and arrested a driver who had allegedly eluded an officer attempting a traffic stop. One officer’s decision to deploy a police dog during the arrest led to internal investigations and criminal charges against the officer. Approximately four months after the driver’s arrest, plaintiff John Paff sought access to the MVR recordings under OPRA and the common law. The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office (OCPO) opposed disclosure. Plaintiff filed a verified complaint and order to show cause, seeking access to the MVR recordings on the basis of OPRA and the common-law right of access. The trial court ordered disclosure of the MVR recordings. A divided Appellate Division panel affirmed the trial court’s determination. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division panel, concurring with the panel’s dissenting judge that the MVR recordings were not “required by law” within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1, that they constituted criminal investigatory records under that provision, and that they were therefore not subject to disclosure under OPRA. The Supreme Court remanded the matter to the trial court for consideration of plaintiff’s claim of a common-law right of access to the MVR recordings. View "Paff v. Ocean County Prosecutors Office" on Justia Law