New Jersey is an “at will employment” state, meaning that employers can fire an employee for any reason, or no reason at all, provided that they do not violate the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) or other applicable laws or regulations. Private employers are subject to laws like the NJLAD and any contractual relationships they have with their workers. Public employers, including many government entities at the city, county, and state level in New Jersey, may also be bound by constitutional protections for due process and civil rights. A recent settlement between a New Jersey public school district and a former teacher illustrates how public employers may have additional obligations to their employees. The former teacher alleged that the school district scapegoated her for a controversy over the alleged censorship of a student’s yearbook photo. She claimed violations of her free speech and due process rights.
Both the U.S. and New Jersey Constitutions protect certain civil rights against infringement by the government. This may include infringement of employees’ civil rights by government employers. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right to free speech. Section 6 of the New Jersey Constitution specifically states that “[e]very person may freely speak, write and publish his sentiments on all subjects.” The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees due process and equal protection at all levels of government.
These protections would not be worth much without some method of enforcement. The New Jersey Civil Rights Act (NJCRA) allows individuals to file suit against the government for civil rights violations by government agents or employees. See N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:6-2. This law is similar to § 1983, the federal statute that allows lawsuits for deprivation of civil rights.