New Jersey Supreme Court Limits Retroactive Reach of State Wage Theft Law

New Jersey employment laws protect workers from wage theft. This may occur when an employer requires unpaid work from an employee, and the rate of pay that the employee receives for the total amount of hours worked falls below the state minimum wage. It also often happens when an employer does not pay the time-and-a-half rate required by state law for overtime. Employers that engage in wage theft are liable to employees for unpaid wages and additional damages. A law that took effect in 2019 expanded the “lookback” period for wage theft claims. This is the length of time before the date of an employee’s claim for which they may recover unpaid wages and damages. In May 2024, the New Jersey Supreme Court resolved a dispute over whether this lookback period extends before the date the 2019 law took effect. The court held that it does not.

Before the 2019 law, the lookback period for wage theft claims under both the Wage and Hour Law (WHL) and the Wage Payment Law (WPL) was two years. Suppose an employer begins engaging in wage theft against an employee in July 2014. If that employee filed a wage theft claim on July 1, 2018, they would only be able to recover damages for the period beginning on July 1, 2016.

The new law, enacted as Chapter 212, took effect as soon as the governor signed it on August 6, 2019. It expanded the lookback period from two to six years. It also added new damage provisions, including liquidated damages of up to 200% of the unpaid wage amount. Disputes soon arose about whether the expanded lookback period could include employer conduct that occurred before the law’s effective date. A claim filed on August 5, 2019 could recover damages back to August 5, 2017. The question was whether a claim filed on August 7, 2019 could reach back to August 7, 2013. One such dispute made its way to the state supreme court.

The two plaintiffs in the New Jersey Supreme Court case alleged wage theft by the defendant, a construction company. According to the court, the defendant “required [them] to perform ‘pre-shift’ and ‘post-shift’ work.” They claimed that this work was unpaid beginning in May 2019, three months before Chapter 212 took effect. One plaintiff complained to management, but the defendant allegedly failed to take action. Both plaintiffs were laid off in November 2021. They filed a class action complaint for WHL and WPL violations against the defendant in 2022.

The U.S. Constitution bars the retroactive application of criminal laws. New Jersey law only allows courts to apply new civil laws retroactively in limited situations. The New Jersey Supreme Court followed a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Landgraf v. USI Film Products, which looked at whether a law “attaches new legal consequences to events” that were “completed before its enactment.”

The state supreme court found that Chapter 212’s expanded damage award provisions count as “new legal consequences.” As a result, Chapter 212 does not apply retroactively to conduct that occurred before August 6, 2019.

If your employer has engaged in unlawful workplace practices and violated your rights in New Jersey or New York, you may have a legal right to damages and other relief. The skilled employment lawyers at the Resnick Law Group advocate for workers in a wide range of claims. Please contact us today at 973-781-1204, 646-867-7997, or online to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case.

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