New Jersey Supreme Court Again Declines to Follow U.S. Supreme Court

Alexander v. Seton Hall University, 204 N.J. 219 (2010).  In this LAD wage discrimination decision, the Supreme Court addressed whether the continuing tort doctrine would allow the plaintiffs to assert claims that dated back 20, 25 and 29 years, respectively.  The lower courts had relied on the analysis of the United States Supreme Court in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 550 U.S.618 (2007), and had barred all claims.

Holding that only claims for wage discrimination within two years of the complaint could stand, the Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed.  The Court found that New Jersey’s LAD jurisprudence would not be “enhanced by importation of the [United States] Supreme Court’s Ledbetter analysis.”  While noting that Congress had overruled Ledbetter, the Court saw no reason to make LAD jurisprudence congruent with federal law, “not in respect of the case as it stands now, or as it stood prior to the time Congress altered the federal landscape.”  Though New Jersey courts often look to federal employment decisions “when navigating new, uncharted paths as novel LAD issues have arisen,” the Court saw no reason to do that in Alexander, since “federal guidance is not necessary to settle any complicated legal issue under the LAD.”  The Court thus rejected the “restrictive” view of Ledbetter.

This is one of a number of decisions in which the Supreme Court of New Jersey has declined to apply United States Supreme Court precedent to New Jersey state statutes.  An area in which our Supreme Court has done that repeatedly is in the context of attorneys’ fee-shifting statutes.  Examples are Rendine v. Pantzer, 141 N.J. 292 (1995) (declining to follow City of Burlington v. Dague, 505 U.S. 557 (1992), as to fee enhancement for contingency risk), and Mason v. City of Hoboken, 196 N.J. 51 (2008) (declining to follow Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home v. West Virginia Dep’t of Health & Human Resources, 532 U.S. 598 (2001), as to the “catalyst doctrine”).  Alexander makes clear that the Court will go its own way where the issues are clear, especially where there is prior New Jersey precedent, and will not be bound by the United States Supreme Court.