By passing and signing into law the New Jersey Equal Pay Act (EPA), our state legislature and Governor Murphy made clear that unequal pay practices based on a person’s gender, race, national origin, disability or other protected class characteristic, for employees performing same or similar work, will not be tolerated in New Jersey. A powerful remedy found in the EPA allows an aggrieved employee to seek back pay damages for discriminatory pay practices going back 6-years!
The passage of the EPA meant that the statute of limitations for claims based on discriminatory pay was expanded from 2-years under the existing New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) to a period of 6-years. Specifically, this look-back provision of the EPA found at N.J.S.A. 10:5-12A, , states that, “…liability shall accrue and an aggrieved person may obtain relief for back pay for the entire period of time, except not more than six years, in which the violation with regard to discrimination in compensation or in the financial terms or conditions of employment has been continuous, if the violation continues to occur within the statute of limitations…” (emphasis added).
A plain reading of the EPA makes clear that a victimized employee is permitted to recover damages for 6-years of unequal pay so long as it is shown to the satisfaction of a court that the complained of unequal pay practices continued to take place one or more times after the EPA took effect on July 1, 2018. Despite the apparent clarity of the EPA, some employers sought to challenge this 6-year claw back period arguing that by giving effect to the 6-year statute of limitation as of its effective date would mean the law was being given a manifestly unfair retrospective application. Retrospective application of a new law or rule depends on whether there has been a departure from existing law. State v. G.E.P., 458 N.J. Super. 436, 444-445 (App. Div. 2019). If there is a departure from exiting a law, the new law or rule is only given prospective effect. Id. A new rule or law exists if “‘it breaks new ground or imposes a new obligation …. [or] if the result was not dictated by precedent existing at the time the defendant’s conviction became final.'” Id. quoting State v. Lark, 117 N.J. 331, 339 (1989) (quoting Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 301 (1989)).