The statute of limitations under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) is two years. Ordinarily, that means you must file your lawsuit within two years after (1) a “discrete act” of discrimination such as being fired, demoted, or suspended, or (2) the last act of a pattern of harassment. But on December 10, 2010, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that an exception called the “discovery rule” can extend the LAD’s statute of limitations. The discovery rule applies when an employee is unaware that he suffered an injury, or unaware that someone else is at fault for causing his injury, until after the statute of limitations has expired.
The case, Henry v. New Jersey Department of Human Services, involves an African American employee, Lula Henry, who was hired for an entry-level nursing position with Trenton State Psychiatric Hospital in April 2004. Ms. Henry claims Trenton State did not place her in a more senior position because of her race, in violation of the LAD.
According to Ms. Henry, she first suspected she was the victim of race discrimination in 2004, but did not have any concrete evidence at the time. It was not until 2006 that she learned that (1) another black nurse had filed a race discrimination lawsuit against Trenton State, and (2) Trenton State had hired a Caucasian nurse with the same credentials as her for higher level job classification, which was inconsistent with Trenton State’s explanation for why it did not place her in a higher level position.
In July 2007, Ms. Henry filed a race discrimination lawsuit against the New Jersey Department of Human Services, its Acting Commissioner, Trenton State Psychiatric Hospital, and Trenton State’s Chief Executive Officer. The trial court dismissed her case based on the statute of limitations since she filed her case more than two years after the alleged discriminatory actions. On appeal, the New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed the dismissal of her case.
But the New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed. It found the fact that Trenton State gave Ms. Henry a non-discriminatory explanation for why it placed her in an entry-level position may have led her not to pursue the issue until she learned new information that caused her to believe Trenton State’s explanation was false. It found the circumstances could be enough that the LAD’s two year statute of limitations would not begin until Ms. Henry learned the new information that supported her suspicion that Trenton State had discriminated against her because of her race. As a result, it sent her case back to the trial court to conduct a hearing. At that hearing, Ms. Henry will try to prove she did not have a “reasonable suspicion” of race discrimination, and that a reasonable person in her position could not have discovered a basis for a discrimination claim through reasonable diligence. If she is able to prove this, then she will be able to proceed with her discrimination case even though she filed it more than two years after the alleged discrimination occurred.