New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination was written in recognition of the importance of freedom from discrimination, and to establish the “clear public policy of this State to abolish discrimination in the workplace.” To that end, the law has frequently been expanded upon and constantly re-examined to ensure that its original intent is correctly applied to myriad unique situations. A recent appellate decision demonstrates how liberally construed the law is meant to be, and that what is most important is achieving the goal of “workplace equality.”

The case at the center of the appellate court’s decision was filed by Rosemary Beneduci, who at the age of 66 had worked for Graham Curtin, P.A. a law firm, for nearly thirty years. Beneduci took three months of disability leave for knee surgery, then took a second leave a month later due to problems with her other knee. She scheduled knee replacement surgery for late January of 2018.

In December of 2017, Beneduci received a call from Peter Laughlin, the managing partner to whom she reported. Laughlin informed her that the firm was merging with McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP, and that a conversation with a former Graham Curtin attorney who now worked at McElroy suggested that her employment at the new firm was in a “precarious situation.” She responded by informing him that she expected to return from disability a few months after her surgery and followed that conversation with an email reiterating her plan to return to work in late March or mid-April at the latest. Laughlin asked her to lunch and offered her a severance package in exchange for terminating her employment, which she rejected both in person and later via a letter from her attorney, which notified the firm of her NJLAD claims of wrongful termination, retaliatory termination, failure to hire, and aiding and abetting harassment based on age, disability, and use of disability leave in violation of the law.

At the heart of Beneduci’s claim is the fact that when Laughlin moved into a partnership role in the new firm, he arranged for Graham Curtin staff to take on new roles at McElroy based on his recommendations and suggestions. The only two employees not recommended and transferred over were Beneduci and a part-time receptionist who voluntarily retired. Her claim against both law firms and Laughlin accused them of failing to extend her the same offer as the other Graham Curtin employees for reasons proscribed by the Law Against Discrimination. The Law Division noted that had Graham Curtin been a continuing business and not brought back from work, the case would have been appropriate for a jury; but because there was no “’requirement that [a business] who’s closing their doors, even if they have an opportunity to give work, or help someone secure work,’ must do so,” there was no issue of fact to be determined.

Beneduci appealed this decision. She asserted that this was too narrow an interpretation of the law, and pointed out that a similar case heard in the state of Maryland had acknowledged that anti-discrimination laws should be interpreted in a way that is broad and remedial. She also stressed the fact that she had been specifically told that her job was in a “precarious situation,” and that she was the only Graham Curtin employee denied the opportunity to make the transition.

Though Laughlin and the law firms denied that disability or age discrimination had been involved in Beneduci not being offered the same opportunity as all of the other Graham Curtin employees, his deposition also included comments about her not having worked for the firm for almost a year and that there was a sense that she did not intend to return to work. When specifically asked whether her disability had played a role in his not having attempted to secure a job for her at the new firm, he stated, “It certainly played a factor.” I had someone who hadn’t worked for us … approaching a year by the time the move was made. So … finding a position that didn’t exist for somebody that hadn’t worked for us for a year was not at the top of my agenda.”

Reviewing all of the deposition evidence submitted and other facts in the case, the Superior Court of New Jersey reversed the lower court’s decision and permitted the case to move forward. They noted that the lower court had asked the wrong question regarding the case – whether Graham Curtin and Laughlin had a duty to ensure that she had a job after their firm closed. The Superior Court said that the proper question was whether the firm had violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination by denying her employment at McElroy due to her age, disability, or use of disability leave. The court assessed that a fact-finder could find that had happened, and that therefore she should have the right to present her claims.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination is one of the most progressive and egalitarian laws in the country, and it provides significant power to those who have faced discrimination. If you believe that an employer has discriminated against you in hiring, termination, or your treatment at work, our experienced attorneys can help. Contact us today to set up a time for us to discuss your situation.