Adapted from an article written by Rachel Wainer Apter in the April 2020 Labor and Employment Law Quarterly newsletter, which is distributed to members of the Labor and Employment Law Section. For information about joining the section email us at [email protected]
This is a unique moment for civil rights in New Jersey.
Since January 2017, the federal government has constricted the enforcement of federal civil rights laws except in a few specific areas, most notably religious liberty protections. In some areas, the federal government is affirmatively interpreting civil rights laws in a way that harms New Jersey residents, most notably transgender individuals and immigrants.
We are also seeing a dangerous rise in bias incidents based on race, national origin, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and disability.
In August 2019, the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights (DCR), along with the New Jersey State Police and the Attorney General, released a Bias Incident Report showing an increase from 417 reported bias incidents in 2016, to 549 in 2017, and to 569 in 2018. In January 2020, the Attorney General announced that according to preliminary data, there were 944 reported bias incidents in 2019. This is a 65% increase from 2018, and the highest annual total reported since 1996.
Meanwhile, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) turns 75 years old this month. The LAD was the first state-level civil rights statute to go into effect in this country. While we have come a long way since 1945, there is still much more to be done to ensure the promise of equal rights for all New Jersey residents.
Since Director Rachel Wainer Apter’s DCR appointment in October 2018, the DCR has worked to re-imagine itself as an agency that strongly prioritizes the enforcement of our state civil rights laws and that works proactively to prevent discrimination and harassment.
DCR accepted 521 new complaints and completed 598 investigations in 2019, compared to 423 complaints accepted and 504 investigations completed in 2018, for an increase of 23% and 19%, respectively.
DCR issued findings of probable cause to believe that a violation of the LAD had occurred in 52 cases, compared to 17 findings of probable cause in 2018, for an increase of 205%.
In 2019, an additional 138 cases were settled by the parties on mutually agreeable terms, including 96 cases that included monetary relief for the complainant. In all, DCR collected almost $1 million in damages for victims of discrimination and bias-based harassment.
In a particularly egregious case of sexual harassment that DCR prosecuted in the Office of Administrative Law after a finding of probable cause, DCR issued a final order requiring the respondent to pay the victim $258,568 for emotional distress and lost wages, and to pay the state $37,870 in statutory penalties and attorney’s fees.
DCR also participated in almost 100 public education, training or outreach programs in 2019, reaching more than 5,000 people.
Additionally, it issued several key amicus briefs and advanced several initiatives and investigations, including those on sexual harassment, equal pay, protecting the rights of transgender New Jerseyans, race discrimination based on hairstyle, Family Leave Act and protections for breastfeeding, Youth Bias Task Force and preparing the launching of an online civil rights portal.