Each claim brought against an employer has a statute of limitations which is the deadline for filing a lawsuit. Most lawsuits must be filed within a certain amount of time. In general, once the statute of limitations on a case expires the legal claim is no longer valid. However, a legal doctrine called the continuing tort or continuing violation theory if applicable may create an equitable exception to the statute of limitations deadline. Under this doctrine for an individual who is subjected to a continual, cumulative pattern of tortious conduct, the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the wrongful action ceases.   In Youngclaus v. Residential Home Funding Corp., 2024 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 347 (App. Div. Mar. 5, 2024), our Appellate Division recently applied the continuing violation theory in a gender discrimination and wrongful termination lawsuit brought under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).

In Youngclaus, plaintiff Georganne Youngclaus, was employed as a marketing manager and director of marketing at Residential Home Funding Corp. (RHFC). Youngclaus filed a lawsuit against RHFC, alleging gender discrimination, sexual harassment, emotional distress, and wrongful termination, and in doing so, detailed twenty-one instances of discriminatory acts spanning from 2016 to 2020.

However, in January 2022, plaintiff’s initial complaint faced dismissal due to failing to state claim upon which relief could be granted based on the LAD’s two-year statute of limitations. Undeterred, plaintiff filed a second lawsuit in March 2022, emphasizing her wrongful termination on July 20, 2020, as the last act of the discriminatory actions. Despite this, the trial court dismissed her second complaint, arguing she again failed to specify identifiable discriminatory acts within the two-year statutory period.

On appeal, our Appellate Division initially discussed how a wrongful termination claim accrues on the date that an employee is terminated. Holmin v. TRW, Inc., 330 N.J. Super. 30, 46 (App. Div. 2000). To establish a prima facie case for wrongful termination, a plaintiff must show: “(1) [they are] a member of a protected class; (2) [they were] performing [their] job at a level that met [defendant’s] legitimate expectations; (3) [they were] terminated; and (4) [they were] terminated under circumstances that give rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.” Young v. Hobart W. Grp., 385 N.J. Super. 448, 463 (App. Div. 2005). Plaintiff Youngclaus argued the trial court erred in dismissing her complaint because the wrongful termination by itself was within the LAD’s two-year statute of limitations, since her complaint was filed on March 4, 2022, and she was terminated on July 20, 2020.  The Appellate Division agreed finding plaintiff’s wrongful discharge claim qualified as a discrete alleged act of discrimination under LAD, which states: “It shall be an unlawful employment practice . . . [f]or an employer, because of the . . . sex . . . of any individual . . . to discharge . . . from employment such individual . . . .” N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(a).

Then, turning to whether Youngclaus’ hostile work environment sexual harassment claims that occurred before the alleged wrongful discharge were actionable, the Appellate Division relying on the New Jersey Supreme Court decision in Roa v. Roa, 200 N.J. 555 (2010), reversed the trial court’s rulings that the acts preceding the alleged wrongful termination qualified as discrete acts, rather than a continuing violation. In Roa, the Supreme Court explained the rationale underlying the continuing violation theory as follows:

the continuing violation theory was developed to allow for the aggregation of acts, each of which, in itself, might not have alerted the employee of the existence of a claim, but which together show a pattern of discrimination. In those circumstances, the last act is said to sweep in otherwise untimely prior non-discrete acts.

Id. at 569.

Following the precedent established in Roa, the Youngclaus appellate court held that, “plaintiff’s complaint pled a plausible basis for a continuing violation. Indeed, each of the pre-termination acts, if proved, would constitute a pattern of sexual harassment and gender discrimination that was severe or pervasive, and created a hostile or abusive work environment.”

Youngclaus demonstrates the application and importance of the continuing violation theory as a reasonable exception to the statute of limitations in employment discrimination claims because it allows employees to pursue claims encompassing a series of discriminatory actions, even if some occurred outside the statute of limitations, as long as the pattern persists. There, the Appellate Division soundly concluded Youngclaus’ termination was not merely a discrete event but part of a broader pattern of discriminatory conduct. By upholding the continuing violation theory, the Appellate Court ensured Georganne Youngclaus’ claims were not unjustly barred.

If you believe you are or have been a victim of unlawful workplace discrimination you are urged to call the attorneys at Mashel Law (732) 536-6161 or fill out the contact form on this page for immediate help. Mashel Law, located in Marlboro, New Jersey, is dedicated to protecting the rights of its employees.

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