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Owens v. Feigin

June 3, 2008

BRIAN SCOTT OWENS, SR., AND SHANNON EILEEN OWENS, HUSBAND AND WIFE, AS INDIVIDUALS, AS GUARDIANS AD LITEM FOR THEIR MINOR CHILDREN, BRIAN SCOTT OWENS, JR., B. MONTANA OWENS AND LANE FINLEY OWENS, AS GENERAL ADMINISTRATORS OF THE ESTATE OF MATTHEW OWENS AND AS ADMINISTRATORS AD PROSEQUENDUM FOR THE ESTATE OF MATTHEW OWENS, DECEASED, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
GERALD FEIGIN, M.D., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT, AND WILLIAM D. BOLLETINO, JR., WILLIAM D. BOLLETINO, SR., SUSAN D. BOLLETINO, THEODORE WOODSIDE, WOODSIDE FUNERAL HOME, HONDA CORPORATION, AND JOHN DOES 1 THROUGH 125, INCLUSIVE, FICTITIOUS NAMED DEFENDANTS, JOINTLY, SEVERALLY, AND IN THE ALTERNATIVE, DEFENDANTS.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 394 N.J. Super. 85 (2007).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(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).

The Court considers whether the notice-of-claim requirement in the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (TCA), N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 12-3, applies to a cause of action under New Jersey's Civil Rights Act (CRA), N.J.S.A. 10:6-1 to -2.

Plaintiffs Brian Owens, Sr., and his wife, Shannon, filed a complaint on February 9, 2006, asserting claims arising out of the death of their son, Matthew. Among the defendants named in the complaint was Dr. Gerald Feigin, the medical examiner for Salem County. In part, Mr. and Mrs. Owens alleged in the complaint that Feigin deliberately violated their civil rights in violation of New Jersey's Civil Rights Act. Although timely notices of claim were presented to other public entities and employees named as defendants, Mr. and Mrs. Owens did not serve a notice of claim on Feigin.

Feigin moved to dismiss the claims against him, asserting that they were barred for failure to satisfy the TCA's notice-of-claim requirement. Noting that the TCA mandates that a plaintiff file a notice of claim within ninety days of the accrual of the cause of action against a public entity or employee unless the claimant demonstrates good cause to justify a late filing, the trial court dismissed all claims against Feigin.

The Appellate Division reversed, holding that Mr. and Mrs. Owens did not need to satisfy the TCA's notice-of-claim requirement to bring a CRA claim. 394 N.J. Super. 85, 97 (2007). This Court granted the petition for certification. 192 N.J. 473 (2007).

HELD: Nothing in the language or legislative history of New Jersey's Civil Rights Act (CRA), N.J.S.A. 10:6-1 to -2, convincingly evidences that the Legislature meant to import the requirements for suit contained in the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (TCA), N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 12-3, as necessary predicates for bringing a CRA claim. Therefore, the notice of claim requirement in the TCA does not apply to causes of action under the CRA.

1. The CRA was adopted by the Legislature in 2004 to assure a state law cause of action for violations of state and federal constitutional rights and to fill any gaps in state statutory anti-discrimination protection. The CRA's sole procedural component is found in N.J.S.A. 10:6-2(d), which states that CRA actions may be filed in Superior Court and directs a court to hold a jury trial upon application of any party. The CRA is facially silent about any other procedural requirement that a plaintiff must satisfy in order to bring a CRA cause of action. (Pp. 4-5).

2. In respect of legislative history, the sponsors' statement, committee statements, and floor amendments are bereft of any express or implied expression of intent that the TCA's notice-of-claim requirement was envisioned to constitute a prerequisite to the maintenance of a CRA claim. In a statement issued by Governor McGreevey at the bill's signing, the Governor commented that the CRA does not create any new substantive rights, override existing statutes of limitations, waive immunities or alter jurisdictional or procedural requirements that are otherwise applicable to the assertion of constitutional and statutory rights. However, the Court finds this statement to be, at most, ambiguous on the issue presented in this case. Plainly read, it states that whatever procedural requirements previously applied to statutory and constitutional claims shall apply to the vindication of such claims through the CRA. But the mix of statutory and constitutional claims captured by the CRA makes ready identification of common procedural notice requirements difficult. (Pp. 5-7).

3. The CRA creates a statutory cause of action for damages against public defendants, and arguably could fall within the TCA's purview. However, no statutory cause of action subject to the TCA's procedural requirements has been brought to the Court's attention. In the few cases involving statutory claims against public entities where the TCA's requirements were in issue, including cases involving New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination, Workers' Compensation Law, and Conscientious Employee Protection Act, the TCA's requirements were found inapplicable. Furthermore, the CRA's purpose includes rectifying violations of constitutional rights, the protection of which has never depended on the satisfaction of the TCA's procedural and substantive requirements. (Pp. 7-8).

4. Given the stark field of case law universally rejecting the importation of the TCA's notice-of-claim requirement into other statutory claims, or for any constitutional claim, the Court believes that the Legislature would have spoken expressly on the subject had it intended that the TCA's notice requirement serve as a prerequisite to a CRA cause of action. Instead, neither the plain language of N.J.S.A. 10:6-2 nor that statute's legislative history contains any indication of such intent by the Legislature. In light of the broad remedial purpose of the CRA, and absent any legislative expression to the contrary, the Court is unconvinced that the Legislature chose to condition the rectifying of an infringement on an individual's vital constitutional rights, or of injurious discriminatory conduct, on satisfaction of the TCA's notice-of-claim requirement. Therefore, the CRA claim against Feigin was improperly dismissed. (Pp. 8-9).

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED, as modified, and the matter is REMANDED to the Law Division for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, WALLACE, and HOENS join in the Court's opinion. JUSTICE ...


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