Limits on the Ability of the Director of the Division of Civil Rights to Sue in Superior Court

Sashihara v. Nobel Learning Communities, Inc., ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2019). In this case, M.M. (“Jane”), a child with Down’s Syndrome, was enrolled by her parents at a school operated by defendant. Jane began school there at seven months of age, in an “infant” program. When Jane reached age three, she entered an “Intermediate” level program that did not provide diapering services. Defendant told Jane’s parents that Jane needed to be toilet-trained within a few months in order to remain enrolled. But Jane’s doctor said that, due to Jane’s condition, she would not be able to toilet-train until age five or later. Defendant dis-enrolled Jane when she did not meet defendant’s deadline.

Jane’s parents filed a complaint with the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights (“DCR”) on Jane’s behalf, claiming discrimination against Jane based on her Down’s Syndrome. Invoking the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”), the DCR then filed a complaint against defendant for failure to provide reasonable accommodations, failure to contract with Jane’s parents due to Jane’s disability, and subjecting Jane to differential treatment. The DCR sought injunctive relief, compensatory damages for Jane’s parents, and punitive damages for the Director of the DCR, the named plaintiff.

Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint in part. The Law Division granted that motion. Thereafter, defendant sought and won summary judgment on the injunctive relief claims. The DCR appealed, but the Appellate Division, applying de novo review on all issues, affirmed in an opinion by Judge Hoffman.

The DCR had two arguments: one based on statutory grounds and the other based on the State’s parens patriae power. Both grounds failed.

Judge Hoffman noted that, under N.J.S.A. 10:5-13, only a “complainant” can sue in Superior Court. The DCR Director asserted that he could be a “complainant.” But the panel cited a provision of N.J.S.A. 10:5-13 that requires the DCR to notify a “complainant” of his or her rights under the statute. It would be an absurd result to call for the DCR Director to notify himself of statutory rights, Judge Hoffman ruled. Another provision of the same statutory section allows “a complainant [to] file a request with the [DCR] to present the action personally or through counsel to the Office of Administrative Law.” That too would produce an absurd result if the DCR could be a “complainant.”

Moreover, the statute “specifically references several instances where the Director may file in Superior Court.” But this circumstance was not one of them. Accordingly, the Director of the DCR lacked the power to bring this case in Superior Court.

Judge Hoffman went on to rule that “[p]arens patriae does not apply here because it exists to help those unable to protect themselves. In this case, the LAD gives those who have been discriminated unlawfully against the authority to protect themselves by filing causes of action. In fact, Jane’s parents demonstrated this ability by filing their verified complaint with the DCR less than one month after defendant dis-enrolled Jane.”

The Director’s claim that defendant unlawfully refused to contract with Jane’s parents based on Jane’s disability foundered on the language of N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(1). That provision allows suits based on characteristics of various classes of persons, but “child” is not one of them. The Director argued that the presence of “spouse” in the statutory list meant to encompass anyone in the “family.” But Judge Hoffman did not agree, citing the principle of applying a word’s ordinary meaning when interpreting statutes.

Finally, the Director’s claim for injunctive relief was properly rejected, the panel held. But the statute and regulations allowed the Director to seek temporary injunctive relief only, not permanent injunctive relief. And there were procedures to be followed that the Director did not follow, “and does not even argue that he did.”