The violation of the civil rights of protected classes of people in New Jersey is an unfortunate but not uncommon occurrence. However, there are several laws in New Jersey that protect persons in New Jersey from such illegal acts. Experienced New Jersey civil rights attorneys can help people who are victims of such illegal conduct assert their rights and remedy improper action or practices by public employers, law enforcement and other government officials.
WHAT ARE CIVIL RIGHTS CASES
The New Jersey Civil Rights Act
In 2004, the legislature passed the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (CRA) (N.J.S.A. 10:6-1). The legislature enacted the CRA to protect the substantive rights guaranteed to New Jersey citizens (and possibly others) by the New Jersey and U.S. Constitutions and New Jersey and federal law. The legislature modeled the CRA on Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The CRA gives people the right to sue government entities and employees who have allegedly violated their civil liberties set forth in the New Jersey and U.S. Constitutions. Those civil liberties include, but are not limited to:
- Freedom of speech;
- Freedom of religion;
- Freedom of association;
- Freedom to petition the government;
- The right to due process; and
- Equal protection under the law.
Who Can Be Sued Under the CRA?
Individuals whose civil rights have been violated can file civil suits against local, county and state agencies and employees. The CRA uses the phrase of persons who “act under the color of law,” meaning government entities/employees.
What Types of Lawsuits/Complaints Are Made Under the CRA?
There are varied situations in which people believe their civil rights have been violated:
- Employment discrimination. This includes people who have been unlawfully fired, passed over for promotion or denied raises;
- Harassment claims;
- Police brutality;
- False arrest;
- Unlawful search and seizure;
- Denial of welfare, housing or educational benefits;
- Racial profiling;
- Hate crimes;
- Banning or infringing freedom of speech;
- Treating a public employee different than others for reasons that are not relevant to a legitimate government interest.
Unlike the LAD, the CRA Recognizes Claims Based on Political Affiliation
If persons are discriminated against because of their political affiliation, the CRA may offer them a remedy. Example: Police Officer Jones supports mayoral candidate Smith in his campaign against incumbent Mayor Doe. Officer Jones attends fundraisers for candidate Smith and has a lawn sign supporting Smith.
Incumbent Mayor Doe wins the election. Three months later, Officer Jones, who was on the list to be promoted to sergeant, is passed over for promotion because he voiced his support for candidate Smith and not Mayor Doe
Can Officer Jones sue the town, police department and Mayor Doe?
Under the LAD, the answer is no. The LAD does not recognize discrimination because of political affiliation as a cause of action.
However, the CRA does. In the example above, if Officer Jones can show that but for his support for candidate Smith, the police department would have promoted him, he may have a cause of action against the town, police department, and Mayor Doe. Discriminating against Officer Jones because of his political affiliation violated his First Amendment right of freedom of speech.
In order to win a political affiliation discrimination case under the CRA, the victim has to prove that:
- The victim is not in a senior staff/policy-making position (such positions may require that the employee, in fact, be politically affiliated with the mayor, county leader, etc.);
- The victim engaged in protected conduct (in the example above, campaigning for a political opponent of the incumbent mayor is protected speech under the CRA); and
- The conduct was the reason the incumbent mayor took adverse action against the victim.
Experienced New Jersey civil rights attorneys can help police officers, firefighters, business administrators, members of sanitation departments, etc., who may be victims of political affiliation discrimination secure their rights under the CRA.
Claims Based on Intimate Association
The CRA also recognizes claims of civil rights violations based on the victim’s intimate associations with other people. For instance, if a firefighter was denied a promotion because the firefighter’s father was a political rival of the head of the town council, the firefighter can make a claim under the CRA against the town and the fire department.
The denial of the promotion would amount to a breach of the firefighter’s recognized First Amendment right to freedom of association.
Claims Based on Violation of a Person’s Due Process Right
CRA claims are frequently made when people’s due process rights are violated by law enforcement. Persons who are the victims of unlawful searches and seizures, improper arrests, police brutality, or racial profiling may have legitimate and significant claims against law enforcement.
Law Enforcement Defendants Can Assert the Defense of Qualified Immunity
Law enforcement officers who are sued under the CRA relating to their performance of their lawful duties may assert the defense of qualified immunity.
The qualified immunity defense has been long recognized in federal and state courts (although it has recently come under attack). Law enforcement officers may assert the defense of qualified immunity. However, to be successful, the officers’ conduct must not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights, which a reasonable person would recognize.
The judge will decide whether a qualified immunity defense is available, not the jury. In deciding that issue, the court will look at the incident in a light most favorable to the party suing the law enforcement officer(s). The court asks itself two questions: (1) did the officers’ conduct violate a constitutional right? (2) Was the right clearly established?
If a Person Sues or Makes a Complaint for a Violation of the CRA, What Damages Can She Collect?
Aggrieved persons who sue or file a claim under the CRA can seek economic damages including lost wages as well as other damages including emotional distress. Additionally, successful plaintiffs can recover attorneys’ fees and costs from defendants.
The CRA has a two-year statute of limitations. Therefore, persons who believe government officials or agencies have violated their civil rights must sue within two years of when the civil rights violation occurred.
New Jersey Discrimination Lawyers
There are additional laws protecting New Jersey citizens and others from illegal retaliation and discriminatory practices:
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (federal);
- Family and Medical Leave Act (federal);
- Americans with Disabilities Act (federal);
- Fair Pay Act (federal);
- New Jersey Equal Pay Act;
- New Jersey Family Leave Act;
- New Jersey Law Against Discrimination; and
- New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act.
Experienced New Jersey Civil Rights Attorneys Can Assist Persons Whose Civil Rights Have Been Violated
People living in New Jersey, and possibly people who are seeking to live and/or work in New Jersey, may face illegal actions by state, county or local governments and/or their employees. These illegal acts may result in civil rights violations. Government employees, such as police officers, firefighters, teachers, and business administrators may face illegal retaliatory actions because of their personal relationships or because of their political party or politician they support (or perhaps choose not to support).
Whatever the circumstances, the knowledgeable New Jersey civil rights attorneys at Schiller, Pittenger & Galvin, P.C., can analyze your case. We can identify which or how many of your civil rights have been violated and what the best course of action should be. If you believe that a government employee violated your civil rights or those of a loved one, contact the civil rights attorneys at Schiller, Pittenger & Galvin P.C., in their Scotch Plains office at 908-490-0444. Or you can email them here.