Right to Jury Trial

Article 1, §9 of the New Jersey Constitution guarantees the right to a jury trial in all civil cases. N.J.S.A. Const. Art. 1, ¶ 9.

The importance of the fundamental right to a jury trial under our system of justice was expressed by the late William H. Rehnquist, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, as follows:

The founders of our Nation considered the right of trial by jury in civil cases an important bulwark against tyranny and corruption, a safeguard too precious to be left to the whim of the sovereign, or, it might be added, to that of the judiciary… Trial by a jury of laymen rather than by the sovereign’s judges was important to the founders because juries represent the layman’s common sense, the ‘passional elements in our nature, and thus keep the administration of law in accord with the wishes and feelings of the community. Parklane Hosiery Co. v. Shore, 439 U.S. 322, 343, (1979) (Rehnquist, J., dissenting) (citation omitted).

Fundamental Principles of Summer Judgment

Despite the  constitutional right to a jury trial, under Rule 4:46-2 of the New Jersey Court Rules a court may grant summary judgment dismissing a plaintiff’s case where a defendant (movant) demonstrates that (1 ) there is “no genuine issue as to any material fact challenged, and (2) that the moving party is entitled to a judgment or order as a matter of law.”

In the seminal case of Brill v. Guardian Life Insurance, 142 N.J. 520, 528-529 (1995), the Court stated that summary judgment may be granted where “the evidence is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.”

In a motion for summary judgment if there is the slightest doubt as to the existence of a material issue of fact relevant to a claim, the motion should be denied. Saldana v. DiMedio, 275 N.J. Super. 488, 494-95 (App. Div. 1994).

Further, in considering a motion for summary judgment, the court must view all facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, which is usually the plaintiff.  Globe Motor Co. v. Idewgdalev, 225 N.J. 469, 479 (2016).

Additionally, genuine issues of material facts as to intent or credibility cannot be decided on a motion for summary judgment, as those issues are fundamentally reserved only for a jury to decide in a trial.  McBarron v. Kipling Woods, 365 N.J. Super. 114, 117, (App. Div. 2004).

Furthermore, a court sitting on summary judgment cannot weigh the evidence and decide issues of material facts based on  the papers submitted. On a motion for summary judgment, “it [is] not the court’s function to weigh the evidence and determine the outcome but only to decide if a material dispute of fact existed”). See Parks v. Rogers, 176 N.J. 491, 502 (2003); Caballero v. Cablevision Sys. Corp., 2019 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 935, at *2 (App. Div. Apr. 24, 2019) (“[a] summary judgment motion does not present an opportunity for the judge to weigh the evidence or make credibility findings…. The judge’s essential role is to identify disputed questions of fact, assess their materiality, and determine whether a rational factfinder could resolve the disputed facts in the non-moving party’s favor.” (Citation omitted).[1]

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD)

New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), specifically N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(a), provides that it shall be an unlawful practice for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of, inter alia, race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry, age, disability, marital status, civil union status, domestic partnership status, sexual orientation, pregnancy, breastfeeding, sex, gender identity or expression, disability, or service in the military, etc.

Enacted in 1945 as the “first state anti-discrimination statute in the nation, the LAD ensures that the ‘civil rights guaranteed by the State Constitution are extended to all its citizens.’” L.W. ex rel. L.G. v. Toms River Regional Schools Bd. of Educ., 189 N.J. 381, 399 ((2007) (citation omitted).

In a 1990 amendment to the LAD, the New Jersey Legislature declared that “the practices of discrimination … threatens not only the rights and proper privileges of the inhabitants of the State but menaces the institutions and foundation of a free democratic State…” (N.J.S.A. 10:5-3).

In Lehmann v. Toys R, Us, Inc., 132 N.J. 587 (1993), the New Jersey Supreme Court stated that the “LAD was enacted to protect not only the civil rights of individual aggrieved employees but also to protect the public’s strong interest in a discrimination-free workplace.” Id at 600. Emphasis added). The Court stated that “[f]reedom from discrimination is one of the fundamental principles of our society.” Id.

The goal and purpose of the LAD is “nothing less than the eradication of the “cancer of discrimination.” Fuchilla v. Layman, 109 N.J. 319, 334 (1988)

The LAD is, thus, liberally construed to achieve the State’s goal of eliminating discrimination. N.J.S.A. 10:5-3 (“[t]he Legislature intends that … this act shall be liberally construed in combination with other protections available under the laws of this State.”).

No Direct Evidence Required to Prove Discrimination

As recognized by all courts, most employers and decision makers are sophisticated enough to hide motives they know are illegal. As such, they do not leave a paper-trial or other direct evidence of discriminatory animus, such as recordings, text messages, emails, or writings on the wall. See, for ex., Zive v. Stanley Roberts, Inc., 182 N.J. 436, 446 (2005) (“direct evidence of discrimination is often unavailable as there will seldom be eyewitness testimony as to the employer’s mental process.”); Aman v. Cort Furniture Rental Corp., 85  3d 1074, 1082 (3rd Cir. 1996) (“[d]efendants of even minimal sophistication will neither admit discriminatory animus nor leave a paper trail demonstrating it; and because most employment decisions involve an element of discretion…it is so easy to concoct a plausible reason for not hiring, or firing, or failing to promote….”) (emphasis added); U.S. Postal Serv. Bd. of Governors v. Aikens, 460 U.S. 711, 716 (1983) (“[a]ll courts have recognized that the question facing triers of fact in discrimination cases is both sensitive and difficult …. There will seldom be ‘eyewitness’ testimony as to the employer’s mental processes” (citation omitted); Chipollini v. Spencer Gifts, Inc., 814 F.2d 893, 899 (3d Cir.1987) (“we do not require direct proof of … discrimination because it is often unavailable or difficult to find….‘Even an employer who knowingly discriminates… may leave no written records revealing the forbidden motive and may communicate it orally to no one.’”(citation omitted.)

In the absence of direct evidence of discrimination, courts permit a plaintiff to present her case to a jury if she comes up with circumstantial evidence sufficient to demonstrate that her termination was more likely than not motivated by discrimination.

New Jersey courts analyze an indirect-proof LAD claim based on the framework delineated by the United States Supreme Court in McDonnell-Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Zive, supra at 447 (2005).

“The McDonnell-Douglas test was formulated ‘to compensate for the fact that direct evidence of intentional discrimination is hard to come by.’” Bergen Commer. Bank v. Sisler, 157 N.J. 188, 209-10 (1999)

As noted by the United States Supreme Court, “[t]he reasons for treating circumstantial and direct evidence alike is both clear and deep rooted: ‘Circumstantial evidence is not only sufficient, but may also be more certain, satisfying and persuasive than direct evidence.’” Desert Palace, Inc. v. Costa, 539 U.S. 90, (2003) (citation omitted) (emphasis added).

Prima Facie Case- First Stage (Step) of McDonnel-Douglas

Under the McDonnell- Douglas burden-shifting framework, if the plaintiff sets forth a prima facie case of discrimination, a presumption is created that the employer unlawfully discriminated against the plaintiff. In a case of age discrimination, the plaintiff set forth a prima facie case of discrimination if she demonstrates that (1) she was in a protected class (over age 18); (2) she was qualified for the position from which she was fired; (3) she suffered an adverse employment  decision; and (4) she was replaced by a sufficiently younger person to create an inference of age discrimination, or the termination took place under circumstances that give rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination. Zive, supra at 441.

Establishing a prima facie case in an age discrimination case is not a difficult task, as these cases inherently involve termination of an older person and replacement by someone substantially younger.

Employer’s Articulated Legitimate Non-Discriminatory Reason- Second stage (step) of McDonnel-Douglas.

After the employee point out to the judge evidence in satisfaction of her prima facie case, the “burden” then shifts to the defendant to “assert” what is referred to as a “legitimate non-discriminatory reason” for termination.  Zive, supra at 448 (citation omitted).

The employer’s “burden” at this stage is very light, as just about any reason for termination that is not on its face discriminatory would suffice, such as lateness, smoking in bathroom, taking too many breaks, etc. In fact, even a false reason would be sufficient at this stage of the test.

Third and Final Stage (Step)- the Pretext Stage

The third and final stage of the McDonnel-Douglas burden shifting framework is called the Pretext stage.  Under this stage, in order for plaintiff to get his/her case to the jury, the plaintiff must put out to the court evidence from which a jury could conclude that the employer’s asserted was not the true reason but a pretext for discrimination. That is, an excuse (or ruse) for discrimination.

There are several ways a plaintiff could demonstrate “pretext” for discrimination. For instance, if the employer fires an employee alleging violation of company policy, and employee points out to the judge evidence that she did not violate company’s policy, then, together with the prima facie case, pretext has been demonstrated, and the case must proceed to the jury to determine whether discrimination motivated the termination.

Other ways, include, but not limited to, employer treating an employee differently on account of an impermissible factor, such as age, race, sex, disability, ethnicity, etc. For instance, if the employer terminates a black employee for stealing or being late, or for some other reason which violates company policy, but simply suspends a white employee for the same offense (or vice versa), that is evidence from which a jury could conclude as discrimination.  That is, two individuals of different race, sex, ethnicity etc., committing the same offense, but given vastly different treatment, constitutes evidence of discrimination.

Many discrimination cases are dismissed on summary judgment. However, a summary judgment motion could be defeated by seeking comprehensive discovery relating to any alleged policy plaintiff was accused of violating, as well as defendant’s disciplinary actions against other similar situated employees.

At Chatarpaul Law Firm, P.C. we focus mainly on employment discrimination and civil rights violations, including state and federal statutory and constitutional rights violations. Kindly contact us at 201-222-0123 or via email at [email protected] if you have any information relevant to this case, or if you are a victim of workplace discrimination, harassment, or other statutory or constitutional law violations.

[1]In the Caballero case, the plaintiff was represented by Jay Chatarpaul of the Chatarpaul Law Firm. In that case, a Superior Court dismissed the discrimination claims. On appeal, the Appellate Court agreed with the arguments made in the brief submitted by Chatarpaul Law Firm that the court below improperly decided issues of credibility and engaged in weighing of the evidence on a motion for summary judgment. The Appellate Court reversed the lower court, ordering the case be sent to the jury.