New Jersey Appellate Division Allows Discrimination and Retaliation Lawsuit to Proceed

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibits discrimination in numerous areas of life, including employment and education. Claims involving discrimination in educational environments are often quite similar to New Jersey workplace discrimination claims. While they might involve alleged acts by teachers, professors, coaches, or administrators rather than supervisors or managers, the standards of evidence are the same or very similar. New Jersey courts have recognized claims that allege hostile educational environments using the same test applied to hostile work environment claims. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently affirmed a lower court order denying a university’s motion for summary judgment in a lawsuit by former students alleging a hostile educational environment under the NJLAD. Notably, the claim alleges harassment of a group rather than individuals.

The NJLAD identifies race, sex, and sexual orientation as protected categories in the workplace. Employers may not discriminate on the basis of these and other factors, which may include subjecting one or more employees to harassment or a hostile work environment. The New Jersey Supreme Court described a four-part test for identifying a hostile work environment in a 1993 decision: The alleged conduct (1) only occurred because of the employee’s sex or membership in another protected category, and (2) it was so “severe or pervasive” that (3) a reasonable person belonging to the same protected category would conclude that (4) the conduct has changed the “conditions of employment” and rendered the “working environment…hostile or abusive.” The decision specifically involved sexual harassment, but New Jersey courts have since applied this test to claims involving alleged hostile work and educational environments based on other factors as well.

When assessing claims alleging hostile work environments or hostile educational environments, courts must consider how multiple acts of harassment or hostility may affect someone over time. In a 2003 decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court addressed the need to look at the “cumulative [e]ffect of individual acts,” rather than each alleged act in isolation.

The Appellate Division decision mentioned above involves a lawsuit filed by five former members of a women’s college basketball team against the university they attended. They allege that staff members, including coaches, subjected them to inappropriate and derogatory comments and conduct based on their race and their actual or perceived sexual orientation. They filed suit under the NJLAD for hostile educational environment and other claims.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing in part that the entire group could not bring a hostile education environment claim based on conduct directed at one specific plaintiff. The trial court disagreed and denied the motion. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s ruling.

Citing the New Jersey Supreme Court decisions mentioned above, the Appellate Division held that the plaintiffs had correctly asserted the four elements of a hostile environment claim. It also held that the group of plaintiffs could assert this claim based on conduct directed at only some of the plaintiffs. “[H]ostile words or actions against one,” the court stated, “would become known and indirectly experienced by all in this tight-knit group.” It remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

The Resnick Law Group’s team of knowledgeable and experienced employment attorneys represents employees, former employees, and job seekers in New Jersey and New York, helping them assert their rights in claims for unlawful employment practices under state and federal law. If you are involved in a dispute with an employer, please contact us online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997 today to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your rights and options.

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