Articles Posted in Race Discrimination

On February 28, 2011, New Jersey’s Appellate Division issued an unpublished opinion ruling that a jury should decide whether the New Jersey Department of Corrections (“DOC”) retaliated against one of its employees, Bienvenido Montalvo.

Mr. Montalvo Filed a National Origin Discrimination Complaint With the EEOC

Mr. Montalvo worked for DOC as a senior corrections officer at Northern State Prison (“NSP”). On October 5, 2004,he filed a complaint with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) in Newark, New Jersey. He claimed several superior officers harassed and retaliated against him because of his national origin, Hispanic/Puerto Rican. The EEOC sent Mr. Montalvo’s Charge of Discrimination to DOC in Trenton on October 7. It is unclear exactly when NSP received a copy of Mr. Montalvo’s Notice of Charge of Discrimination, but the evidence seems to indicate that DOC received it sometime in October 2004.DOC Unfairly Disciplined Mr. Montalvo After He Complained About Discrimination

On November 4, 2004, Mr. Montalvo received a notice of disciplinary action charging him with conduct unbecoming and other sufficient causes for allegedly assaulting a prisoner on October 28. DOC suspended him without pay pending a hearing, and told him he was subject to potentially being fired. However, after a hearing in December 2004, the charges against Mr. Montalvo were dismissed because DOC failed to present any evidence to support them. Mr. Montalvo was then reinstated to his job with full back pay.

The Trial Court Dismissed Mr. Montalvo’s Retaliation Claim

Mr. Montalvo sued DOC and six of its employees alleging national origin discrimination and retaliation in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”), among other claims. However, the trial court dismissed his retaliation claim, finding he did not have enough evidence to support it.

The Appellate Division Reinstated Mr. Montalvo’s Retaliation Claim

Security Guard.jpgThe Appellate Division disagreed, and instead ruled that Mr. Montalvo is entitled to a trial. It concluded that he suffered an “adverse employment action” because a reasonable employee might not file a discrimination claim if he knew his employer would respond by falsely accusing him of committing an assault, suspending him without pay, and forcing him to defend himself at a disciplinary hearing. It further found it is possible for a jury to find from the evidence that DOC knew about Mr. Montalvo’s EEOC complaint when it disciplined him. The Court concluded that a reasonable jury could believe the discipline was retaliatory, based on evidence including the fact that (1) DOC suspended him less than a month after he filed his Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC; (2) the officers who brought the disciplinary charges against him told him he had a target on his back and they wanted to fire him in October 2004; and (3) DOC sought to discipline him despite a videotape and several reports from the day of the alleged assault which confirmed he had done nothing wrong. Accordingly, the Appellate Division sent Mr. Montalvo’s case back to the trial court for a jury trial.

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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.

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What is a Disparate Impact Case?

On May 24, 2010, the United States Supreme Court decided another employment law case. Specifically, in Lewis v. City of Chicago, the Supreme Court clarified how to determine if an employee has met the filing deadline to bring a “disparate impact” discrimination case under federal law.

A disparate impact case is one in which an employee claims the employer’s policy has an unequal negative impact based on an unlawful reason. Unlawful factors include race, national origin, gender, age, pregnancy or disability among others.

For example, an employer might use a test to decide which employees it hires or promotes. Even if the employer has no intent to discriminate, the test might disproportionately select fewer employees in a legally protected group. For example, if a significantly lower percentage of African-American or Hispanic job candidates are hired or promoted based on the test results, then the test might be considered to have a disparate impact based on race. A job criteria that has a disparate impact based on an illegal factor violates the law unless the company can prove it has a “business necessity” for using the criteria.

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