NJ Employers May Not Cut Statutory Time Limits in State Anti-Discrimination Law

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A statute of limitations is a time limit to file a legal claim. New Jersey’s anti-discrimination statute of limitations in employment law cases is two years from the date of an adverse employment action, such as being fired. The state’s Supreme Court recently ruled that an employer may not, by contract, force an employee to file such a claim in less than those two years. The decision prohibits employers from replacing the statutory deadline with a shorter deadline created in a contrary writing.

The Court ruled that an employment application, contract, or handbook provision created by the defendant, Raymours Furniture Co., which would have forced workers to file Law Against Discrimination (LAD) claims in court within six months from the date of an adverse employment action, violated New Jersey’s public policy of eradicating discrimination in the workplace. The Company operates furniture stores under the Raymour & Flanigan name.

The decision states, in part:

The cause of action that plaintiff brings is factually premised on his employment relationship, but it is not a simple private claim. Plaintiff alleges an LAD violation – a law designed for equal parts public and private purposes….Responsible employers are partners in the public interest work of eradicating discrimination, but such responsible behavior takes time. A shortened time frame for instituting legal action or losing that ability hampers enforcement of the public interest.

As the Supreme Court stated, when the LAD was first passed, there was no statute of limitations included. Many years ago, the Court itself imposed a two-year statute of limitations for LAD cases. That stood for 23 years before the Legislature amended the law and expressly stated a time limit for filing a claim. Over time, the law has been strengthened, adding more protections for more people, yet the Legislature has never changed the Supreme Court’s time limit of two years.

The Court further wrote:

The private right of action authorized by the LAD advances and fulfills the private and legislatively declared public interest in the elimination of discrimination…a contractual limitation on an individual’s right to pursue and eradicate discrimination of any form prohibited under the LAD is not simply shortening a limitations period for a private matter. If allowed to shorten the time for filing plaintiff’s LAD action, this contractual provision would curtail a claim designed to also further a public interest.

The Court reasoned that it may take more than six months for a plaintiff to have sufficient facts to support a claim for discrimination and with only six months to file, a plaintiff’s attorney may file prematurely, without enough evidence to substantiate a claim.
Plaintiff Sergio Rodriguez filed his lawsuit claiming he was discriminated against due to his disability (knee injury) and in retaliation for filing a worker’s compensation claim. When he was hired in 2007, part of the two page application stated any discrimination claim involving Raymours would have to be filed within six months and that Rodriguez waived any contrary statute of limitations.

Rodriguez filed suit nine months after he was laid off, three days after he returned to full duty from a medical leave. Raymours stated it hadn’t discriminated against him and that he was laid off because of substandard job performance.

The statute of limitations waiver in the Raymours application stated as follows: “I agree that any claim or lawsuit relating to my service with Raymour & Flanigan must be filed no more than six (6) months after the date of the employment action that is the subject of the claim or lawsuit. I waive any statute of limitations to the contrary.”

This language was above the signature line and below it in capital letters, in boldfaced type, the instructions said: “Read carefully before signing – if you are hired, the following becomes part of your official employment record and personnel file.” A trial by jury was also waived “in any litigation arising out of, or relating to, my employment with Raymour & Flanigan.”

Rodriguez, born in Argentina, claims he could not read or speak English well at the time. A friend helped with the application, reading to him the sections that had to be filled out, but not the waiver.

Rodriguez was first hired as a helper then transferred to a customer service center and in 2008 he was promoted to a driver position. As part of that process he filled out another application that lacked the statute of limitations waiver. In 2010 he injured his knee while delivering furniture.

At first the court system ruled for the Company. Judge Donald Coburn, a recall judge in Morris County, dismissed the case due to the waiver. That decision was upheld by the Appellate Division, which ruled the application was a contract of adhesion (the parties had unequal bargaining power and it was a take it or leave it contract with nonnegotiable terms) — but that didn’t make it unenforceable. The appellate court stated a contract could shorten a statute of limitations if the time allowed were reasonable. The state’s Supreme Court has now overruled that finding.

For employees there are three important take-aways:

  • If you are given a job application or an employment contract that seeks to limit your rights or you don’t understand it, please contact our offices. We will review the provisions with you so you fully understand it and its possible implications for you. We don’t want you signing away important legal rights without realizing it.
  • Just because there is language in an employment application, contract, or employee handbook that doesn’t necessarily make it legally binding. If the language limits your time to file a legal action, states you’re an independent contractor when you aren’t, or tells you that you must bring any legal claims to arbitration, it is worth checking with an experienced employment lawyer for workers.
  • Employment applications, contracts, or handbook terms may be ruled unenforceable by a judge. However, as this case demonstrates, challenging the legality of employment provisions can be difficult and take time, energy, and expense. The Rodriguez lawsuit was filed in 2011, it went all the way to the state Supreme Court in 2016, and it’s first starting down a path to the merits of the case.

If you want help with legal language in a job application, employment contract, or handbook provision; or believe you’ve been discriminated or retaliated against at work; please contact our law offices right away. We will discuss the facts, advise you about the law, and provide you with your best options to protect your rights and recover any money damages that may be due.