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Ali v. Rutgers

November 30, 2000

YUSEF ALI, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
RUTGERS, THE STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Verniero, J.

Argued September 12, 2000

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

In Montells v. Haynes, 133 N.J. 282 (1993), this Court held that claims arising under the Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49 (LAD), are subject to the two-year statute of limitations for personal injuries found at N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2, rather than the general six-year limitations period established under N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1. We further concluded that, because the holding in Montells represented a new rule of law, it would not apply to "cases the operative facts of which arose before the date of [that] decision." Montells, supra, 133 N.J. at 298.

In this LAD case, plaintiff alleges facts arising both prior to and after the date of the Montells decision, July 27, 1993. We conclude that in cases in which the operative facts arise both before and after the date of Montells, plaintiffs must file their actions prior to the expiration of the six-year limitations period or within two years from the date of this opinion, whichever is earlier. Under that standard, plaintiff's complaint was timely filed and may proceed.

I.

Defendant Rutgers University established the Paul Robeson Cultural Center on its New Brunswick campus in 1969 to help promote a culturally diverse educational experience for its students. Defendant hired plaintiff to work at the Center in a temporary position in 1980. Plaintiff's position became permanent in 1981. To confirm that status, John S. Salapatas, Associate Provost of the University, wrote plaintiff a letter dated August 4, 1981, stating in part: "I am very pleased to be able to offer you the appointment of Director of the Paul Robeson Cultural Center . . . . The starting date of this appointment is September 1, 1981, with an annual salary of $20,224. You would be eligible to receive salary increases which have normally occurred each year." Plaintiff accepted the offer in writing three days later, also referring to the appointed position as "Director."

In June 1992, the Associate Provost established an ad hoc committee to review the organizational structure of the Center. The committee issued a report outlining a recommended set of changes in the Center's structure, including the creation of several new positions. Based on that report, defendant established the position of "Director of the Paul Robeson Cultural Center," which had not been previously listed as an official title on its payroll.

On November 24, 1992, plaintiff learned that defendant regarded him as the "Administrative Coordinator" of the Center, not its "Director." Plaintiff served as the highest-ranking employee at the Center until defendant hired a "Director" in September 1993. Plaintiff continued to work at the Center as "Administrator" until the summer of 1995 without a change in salary.

From September 1, 1995, until June 30, 1996, plaintiff was on unpaid leave to pursue an adjunct faculty position at another institution. Plaintiff did not return to the Center. Instead, on June 3, 1996, plaintiff filed a complaint in the Law Division against defendant, alleging that notwithstanding the "Director" designation expressed in the August 4, 1981, letter, he was paid only as an "Administrative Coordinator." He asserted breach of contract and discriminatory conduct based on race in violation of LAD.

Defendant filed an answer, denying all allegations. Thereafter, defendant moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted defendant's motion after hearing arguments of counsel. Defendant's counsel opened that argument by informing the court that plaintiff's counsel had determined not to pursue the LAD claim because of the statute of limitations. Plaintiff's counsel verified that determination, stating to the trial court: "Your Honor, with respect to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, there is a two-year statute of limitations and I can't contest that[.]" Accordingly, counsel focused on plaintiff's contract claim. In granting defendant's motion, the trial court ruled that the contract claim could not be sustained, that plaintiff had not exhausted his administrative remedies, and "[t]hird, . . . that the contract claim, as well as the New Jersey LAD claim[,] are barred by statute of limitations."

Shortly thereafter, plaintiff filed a motion for reconsideration solely to address the LAD statute-of-limitations issue. In a letter to the court, plaintiff's counsel stated candidly that she may have been "incorrect" in her concession expressed at the earlier proceeding. Plaintiff's corrected position was that Montells did not bar his complaint because the underlying facts had arisen prior to the date of that decision. The trial court denied the motion.

Before the Appellate Division, plaintiff appealed the grant of summary judgment, asserting that the trial court erred in its finding that there was no sustainable contract claim, in holding that plaintiff did not exhaust his administrative remedies, and in denying plaintiff's application for reconsideration in respect of the LAD claim. In response, defendant argued that there was no contract between the parties or, alternatively, that plaintiff's contract claim was time-barred, that plaintiff had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, and that plaintiff's LAD claim was similarly barred. Additionally, defendant argued that irrespective of any analysis under Montells, plaintiff was judicially estopped from asserting his LAD claim in view of his counsel's statement before the trial court in the summary judgment proceeding.

In an unreported opinion, the Appellate Division agreed with defendant that there was no sustainable contract claim and that plaintiff's LAD claim was time-barred under Montells. In view of its disposition, the Appellate Division did not examine the trial court's alternative holding that plaintiff failed to exhaust administrative remedies; nor did the court decide the question of judicial estoppel. Plaintiff petitioned this Court solely to address the Montells issue. We granted certification, 163 N.J. 76 (2000). Following oral argument, we invited the parties to submit additional briefs concerning whether plaintiff's LAD claim was barred by the doctrine of judicial estoppel.

II.

The LAD does not contain a specific statutory limitation for filing a claim in Superior Court. Until the decision in Montells, the applicable statute of limitations had been unclear. As a result, federal and state courts grappled with that question, sometimes arriving at inconsistent conclusions. See, e.g., United States v. Bd. of Educ., 798 F. Supp. 1093, 1099 (D.N.J. 1992) (finding six-year period applicable); White v. Johnson & Johnson Prod., Inc., 712 F. Supp. 33, 38 (D.N.J. 1989) (applying two-year period); Fischer v. Quaker Oats Co., 233 N.J. Super. 319, 320 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 117 N.J. 628 (1989) (accepting without analysis six-year period).

As noted, this Court settled the question in Montells. The Court reasoned that because discrimination claims under the LAD resembled personal-injury actions, the two-year limitations period found at N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2 should control. Montells, supra, 133 N.J. at 291-92. However, because the issue at that time was so unsettled, the Court determined that its holding should apply prospectively only. Id. at 298. Accordingly, the Court directed that the two-year limitations period would apply "only to cases in which the operative facts arise after the date of the decision[,]" namely, July 27, 1993. ...


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