Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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For five months when C.V. was a pre-kindergarten student in the Waterford Township School District, she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by Alfred Dean, the seventy-six-year-old bus aide who was supposed to be ensuring her safety. C.V.’s parents only discovered the abuse when C.V. came home without her underwear one day. C.V. and her parents sued the Waterford Township Board of Education and Waterford Township School District (collectively, Waterford) alleging, among other things, discrimination in a “place of public accommodation” “on account of . . . sex” in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD). The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Waterford and dismissed plaintiffs’ LAD claims. The court found plaintiffs could not, as a matter of law, prove to a jury that Dean’s conduct occurred because of C.V.’s sex, or that it would not have occurred but for C.V.’s sex. According to the trial court, “the but for element can’t be satisfied . . . where you have a compulsive sexual predator, a pedophile,” especially one who testified at his deposition “that he is a compulsive sexual abuser of children, boys and girls.” The Appellate Division affirmed, concluding that the LAD did not apply “to a sexual predator’s assault of a student on a school bus where there is no evidence his actions were based solely on the victim’s status as a member of a protected group.” The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division’s judgment because it conflicted with Lehmann v. Toys ‘R’ Us, Inc., 132 N.J. 587 (1993) and L.W. v. Toms River Regional Schools Board of Education, 189 N.J. 381 (2007). The Court reiterated that under Lehman, sexual touching of areas of the body linked to sexuality happens, by definition, because of sex. The Court affirmed the denial of plaintiffs’ motion to amend their complaint and to obtain certain records, and we remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. View "C.V. v. Waterford Township Board of Education" on Justia Law

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The Church of St. Theresa (St. Theresa’s) owned and operated the St. Theresa School. St. Theresa’s terminated art teacher and toddler room caregiver Victoria Crisitello for violating the terms of her employment agreement. That agreement required employees to abide by the teachings of the Catholic Church and forbade employees from engaging in premarital sex; Crisitello, who was unmarried, had become pregnant. In response to her firing, Crisitello filed a complaint against St. Theresa’s alleging employment discrimination in violation of the Law Against Discrimination (LAD), based on pregnancy and marital status. St. Theresa’s countered that its decision to terminate Crisitello was protected by both the First Amendment and the LAD. The New Jersey Supreme Court held: (1) the “religious tenets” exception of N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(a) was an affirmative defense available to a religious entity when confronted with a claim of employment discrimination; and (2) the uncontroverted fact was that St. Theresa’s followed the religious tenets of the Catholic Church in terminating Crisitello. The Court thus concluded St. Theresa’s was entitled to summary judgment and that the trial court correctly dismissed the complaint with prejudice. View "Crisitello v. St. Theresa School" on Justia Law

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After his employment was terminated in May 2008, plaintiff Harold Hansen brought claims against Rite Aid and other defendants alleging age discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, and gender discrimination in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), as well as several common law claims. After three trials, a jury returned a verdict in plaintiff’s favor on his LAD sexual orientation discrimination claim and awarded him a total of $420,500 in compensatory and punitive damages. Plaintiff moved for an award of counsel fees and costs. In plaintiff’s initial submission, he asked the trial court to determine that a reasonable hourly rate for his lead counsel and the attorney who assisted in the first of the three trials was $725, and that a reasonable number of hours spent on this matter was 3,252. He requested that the trial court determine the lodestar to be $2,355,892.50, and that the court apply a one hundred percent enhancement to the lodestar. Plaintiff also sought an award of costs. In total, plaintiff requested an award of $5,035,773.50. The trial court issued a seventy-three-page decision with a fifty-four-page spreadsheet reflecting its analysis of the time entries and disbursements set forth in plaintiff’s invoice. The court ruled that a reasonable hourly rate for plaintiff’s lead counsel in this case was $375 per hour and a reasonable hourly rate for the assistant attorney was $325 per hour. The court identified several categories of legal work improperly included in plaintiff’s fee application, including work on unrelated matters. The trial court also excluded all time entries reflecting plaintiff’s counsel’s representation of plaintiff in the Appellate Division and to the Supreme Court. Noting that plaintiff was successful on only one claim and that plaintiff’s lead counsel performed tasks that should have been assigned to a junior attorney or a paralegal, the trial court reduced the lodestar by twenty percent. Ultimately, the trial court awarded $741,387.97 in fees and costs. The Appellate Division affirmed. The New Jersey Supreme Court concurred with the Appellate Division that the trial court properly exercised its discretion when it set the reasonable hourly rate for plaintiff’s counsel’s work, assessed the number of hours reasonably expended by plaintiff’s counsel in pretrial proceedings and at trial, reduced the lodestar because of plaintiff’s limited success and other factors, and determined plaintiff’s application for an award of costs. View "Hansen v. Rite Aid Corp." on Justia Law

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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