Ledbetter? Better Not, Rules NJ Supreme Court

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in a recent decision that plaintiffs could proceed in their case against Seton Hall University, a private Roman Catholic university in South Orange, New Jersey, and certain school officials alleging violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (the “LAD”) for age and gender based discrimination.  Alexander, et al. v. Seton Hall University, et al., No. A-87-09, 2010 N.J. LEXIS 1229 (N.J. November 23, 2010).  In doing so, the Court reversed the New Jersey Appellate Court’s finding that plaintiffs’ case was untimely under the United States Supreme Court decision Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 550 U.S. 618 (2007), a decision concerning alleged violations of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”), and chastised the Appellate Court for “succumb[ing] to the draw of aligning our LAD jurisprudence to that which was developing under federal case law.” Id. at *27-28.

Plaintiffs,  three tenured female professors at Seton Hall University, all of whom are over 60 years old and boast decades of service to that institution, initiated this action in 2007 after obtaining a 2004-2005 annual report compiled by Seton Hall that detailed the salaries of its full-time faculty members.  That report revealed that higher salaries were paid to newer, younger faculty members as compared to those paid to long-term, older faculty members.  A gender based pattern of disparate compensation was also apparent.  Plaintiffs allege that they were the victims of discrimination in violation of the LAD, but also that age and gender based discrimination permeates several departments of the University.

The University’s position was that plaintiffs’ action was not timely because the violation, to the extent it occurred at all, “accrued as a discrete act of the discriminatory animus when the wage was established,” which was decades prior to filing of plaintiffs’ claims and well beyond the statue of limitations period. Id. at 18.  Plaintiffs argued to the contrary that “each paycheck that perpetuates a discriminatory wage continues the original LAD violation and sweeps in all prior and current discriminatory, disparate paychecks” and on that basis that plaintiffs were entitled to equitable relief from the two-year statute of limitations. Id.

What plaintiffs sought to do was import the continuing violation doctrine applied in hostile workplace cases into wage discrimination cases brought under the LAD.  It was not a new idea.  Plaintiffs in Ledbetter made a similar argument with respect to Title VII to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it was rejected. The Supreme Court specifically “rejected[ed] the suggestion that an employment practice committed with no improper purpose and no discriminatory intent is rendered unlawful nonetheless because it gives some effect to an intentional discriminatory act that occurred outside the charging period.” Ledbetter, 550 U.S. at 632.

Although it ran contrary to the well-established jurisprudence of the state, the New Jersey Appellate Court applied Ledbetter to plaintiffs claims against Seton Hall: “As our Supreme Court has followed Title VII jurisprudence in interpreting our LAD, we follow the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Ledbetter in this similar pay discrimination case.” Alexander v. Seton Hall University, 410 N.J. Super. 574, 587 (App.Div. 2009).

The New Jersey Supreme Court was not pleased.

In reversing the Appellate Court’s ruling, the Court found first that Ledbetter no longer represents federal policy with respect to Title VII claims following passage by Congress of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 amending Title VII, which clarifies that an unlawful act occurs “each time wages, benefits, or other compensation [are] paid” resulting from an earlier discriminatory practice. 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e-5(e)(3)(A).  The Court found that “[i]t would be an odd step to bring this state’s jurisprudence into conformity with case law that has been rendered obsolete.” Alexander, 2010 N.J. LEXIS 1229, *33. But, even “as it stood prior to the time Congress altered the federal landscape,” it failed to see the “allure” of aligning the state’s jurisprudence with federal case law. Id. at *28.

More important to the Court was its finding that New Jersey already has a developed approach to wage discrimination claims.  “Consistent with the LAD’s strong promise to eliminate discrimination from the workplace [New Jersey decisions treating the payment of discriminatory wages] reflect the public policy of this state to treat each issuance of a pay check that reflects discriminatory treatment toward a protected group as an actionable wrong under the LAD.” Id. at *29.

This case represents an unmistakable statement from the New Jersey Supreme Court that it will push back on unwarranted efforts to supplant the state’s jurisprudence with that arising under federal law.  Not only does the Court refer to the LAD as “our LAD” throughout its opinion, as if to mark its territory in the subconscious of the readers’ minds, but, ultimately, it held that the utility of federal jurisprudence in interpreting the LAD should be relegated to addressing “novel” issues that the state courts have not already figured out:

In sum, we reject the sea change that would be effected were we to adopt the Ledbetter majority approach to wage discrimination claims under our LAD. In light of settled prior case law that treated payment of unequal wages in violation of our anti-discrimination law as a series of actionable wrongs under the LAD, which are subject to the two-year statute of limitations, we see no persuasive reason for adopting the Ledbetter majority’s restrictive approach to the vindication of a plaintiff’s right to relief under the LAD for wage discrimination. Although we have turned for guidance to federal Title VII law when navigating new, uncharted paths as novel LAD issues have arisen, see, e.g., Carmona v. Resorts Int’l Hotel, Inc., 189 N.J. 354, 370, 915 A.2d 518 (2007) (stating, “we have frequently looked to case law under Title VII . . . for guidance in developing standards to govern the resolution of LAD claims” (citation omitted)); Lehmann v. Toys ‘R’ Us, Inc., 132 N.J. 587, 600, 626 A.2d 445 (1993) (calling federal Title VII precedent “a key source of interpretive authority” when construing LAD (citation omitted)); in the present matter, federal guidance is not necessary to settle any complicated legal issue under our LAD.

Alexander, 2010 N.J. LEXIS 1229, *31-2.  This case is a major victory for plaintiffs, but may also be important to LAD litigators generally.  Plaintiffs’ burdens in, for example, discrimination cases under New Jersey state law, are less onerous in many respects when compared to similar federal laws.  As a consequence, although the courts in the state will continue to look to federal jurisprudence for guidance, this opinion may help to maintain the state’s plaintiff-friendly status.