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Hernandez v. Region Nine Housing Corp.

November 26, 1996

WILFREDO HERNANDEZ, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,V. REGION NINE HOUSING CORP., NEW BRUNSWICK UAW ASSOCIATES, AND JOAN WILK, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at The opinion of the Court was delivered by Handler, J. Chief Justice Poritz and Justices Pollock, O'hern, Garibaldi, Stein and Coleman join in Justice HANDLER's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Handler

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

Wilfredo Hernandez v. Region Nine Housing Corp., et.al. (A-33-96)

Argued October 7, 1996 -- Decided November 26, 1996

Handler, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

The issue raised in this appeal is whether an individual who received an adverse administrative determination from the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 is thereafter precluded from filing suit under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination in the State Superior Court, Law Division on a claim arising from the same facts.

Region Nine Housing Corporation (Region Nine) suspended its employee, Wilfredo Hernandez, a United States citizen of Hispanic origin, for speaking Spanish in the lobby of the apartment building where he worked. In order to return to work, he was required to sign a statement praising the terms of his employment and was ordered not to speak Spanish in public areas of the building. Three months after his reinstatement, Region Nine terminated Hernandez for unsatisfactory work performance

Hernandez filed a complaint with the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights (DCR), alleging that he was unlawfully suspended and terminated because of his national origin. Thereafter, Hernandez filed a claim with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging that his suspension and termination violated Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC issued a "determination" letter, finding that Region Nine's English-only policy was discriminatory and violative of Title VII. The EEOC failed to find reasonable cause to believe that Hernandez's termination was discriminatory. The EEOC issued Hernandez a Notice of Right to Sue. Approximately two weeks after the EEOC issued its determination letter, Hernandez voluntarily withdrew his complaint from the DCR before it had taken any action on the complaint.

Shortly after the EEOC issued its determination letter, Hernandez filed suit in the Superior Court, Law Division against Region Nine, alleging that his suspension and discharge violated New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination (LAD). The Law Division granted Region Nine's motion for summary judgment, concluding that Hernandez's claim was precluded by the adverse EEOC determination. The Appellate Division affirmed.

The Supreme Court granted Hernandez's petition for certification.

HELD: An adverse determination by the EEOC does not preclude the filing of suit in Superior Court on a claim arising from the same facts.

1. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination embodies this State's strong public policy to fight discrimination against any of its inhabitants. In order to further this goal, the Legislature has directed that the LAD be interpreted liberally. (pp. 4-5)

2. Title VII embraces a similar national policy and does not preempt state efforts at anti-discrimination. (p.5)

3. Under the LAD, a complainant must choose to pursue his remedy for redress either administratively through the DCR or judicially by filing suit directly in Superior Court. (pp. 5-7)

4. Unlike the LAD, Title VII does not provide for an election between administrative and judicial remedies. However, a complainant cannot institute suit directly in federal district court but must first file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. (p.7 )

5. Although the EEOC has broad investigatory powers, a complainant has the right to sue regardless of whether or not the EEOC finds reasonable cause to support his or her allegations of discrimination. (pp. 8-9)

6. EEOC determinations are generally admissible at subsequent trials. (pp. 9-10)

7. A final determination under the LAD in either the DCR or the Superior Court precludes the complainant from bringing any other action based on the same grievance. A plaintiff is permitted to switch forums only before a final determination has been rendered. (p. 10)

8. An adverse EEOC determination does not bar a complainant from pursuing a Title VII action in either federal or state court. (p.11-13)

9. Title VII does not provide an election of remedies. Further federal law is explicit that Title VII is a complement to state anti-discrimination statutes and instituting a Title VII action ...


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