Third Circuit Reinstates New Jersey Employee’s Civil Rights Claim

While federal and New Jersey employment laws offer protections for most employees against a variety of adverse employment actions, public employees have an additional layer of protection from the U.S. and state constitutions. Certain employment actions could violate employees’ constitutional rights, and those employees may be entitled to damages. Section 1983 and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (NJCRA) allow people to file lawsuits for deprivation of constitutional rights under certain circumstances. This may include rights that other statutes also protect. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled in favor of a public employee in a claim alleging retaliation based on his union activities. While the National Labor Relations Act addresses this kind of retaliation, the suit asserts claims under § 1983 and the NJCRA. The Third Circuit reinstated claims that the plaintiff had brought against the county and a former county official.

Both § 1983 and the NJCRA allow individuals to file suit in connection with actions that allegedly deprive them of constitutional rights. The NJCRA also includes alleged interference with the “exercise or enjoyment” of such rights through “threats, intimidation or coercion.” The two statutes only allow lawsuits for actions taken “under color of law.” This generally refers to actions taken in an official capacity or based on the legal authority of one’s public position.

The Third Circuit case examined the lawsuit under several precedent cases that may relate to civil rights claims against employers. In a 2006 ruling, the Third Circuit established a three-prong test for certain constitutional claims based on retaliation. A plaintiff must prove the following:
1. They engaged in constitutionally protected conduct.
2. They faced “retaliatory action” that would “deter a person of ordinary firmness from exercising [their] constitutional rights.”
3. The retaliatory action resulted from the constitutionally protected conduct.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs. of N.Y.C. addressed the standard of proof for retaliation claims against officials not directly involved in the alleged retaliatory conduct. A plaintiff must establish that the retaliation resulted from the “execution of a government’s policy or custom.”

The plaintiff in the Third Circuit case worked as a corrections officer for a county jail. He also served as a union president. He alleged widespread retaliation by the deputy director of the county’s Department of Corrections (DOC). He filed suit against the county, the DOC, the DOC director, and the deputy director for First Amendment violations under § 1983 and the NJCRA. At trial, the U.S. District Court dismissed the claims against all defendants except the deputy director. It later ordered the remaining defendant to pay $1.1 million in damages.

The Third Circuit reversed the order dismissing the claims against the other three defendants. It found that the plaintiff had pled sufficient facts to state a case for retaliation under Monell. It cited Third Circuit precedents stating that:
Public union membership is a constitutionally protected activity; and
– A plaintiff can satisfy their burden under Monell by proving that a “policymaker was deliberately indifferent” to a constitutional violation.
The court held that the plaintiff had presented evidence that the DOC director met this standard.

If you believe your employer has violated your rights by engaging in unlawful activities in New Jersey or New York, you need a skilled employment attorney on your side. The Resnick Law Group can advise you of your rights and advocate for your interests. Schedule a confidential consultation with us today through our website or by calling 973-781-1204 or 646-867-7997.

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