On June 19, 2014, the New Jersey Appellate Division relied on language in an employment application that shortened the statute of limitations for certain claims available to the employee against his employer. The Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s decision finding that the employment application language was an enforceable contract and rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the contract was unconscionable.
In Sergio Rodriguez v. Raymours Furniture Company, Inc., the plaintiff completed an employment application for a driver’s helper position. Plaintiff was a native of Argentina, where he obtained an eighth grade education. Although he came to the United States at age sixteen, twenty years before applying for employment, he asserted that he had limited ability to read or speak English. Plaintiff took the application home with him, where a friend helped translate the document. He returned the completed application and admittedly did not have any questions about it.
The application contained a large, bold heading entitled “Applicant’s Statement.” Immediately following this title it stated, in bold and capitalized letters: “READ CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING – IF YOU ARE HIRED, THE FOLLOWING BECOMES PART OF YOUR OFFICIAL EMPLOYMENT RECORD AND PERSONNEL FILE.”
Under this statement, also capitalized, it stated the following: “I AGREE THAT ANY CLAIM OR LAWSUIT RELATING TO MY SERVICE WITH RAYMOUR & FLANIGAN MUST BE FILED NO MORE THAN SIX (6) MONTHS AFTER THE DATE OF THE EMPLOYMENT ACTION THAT IS THE SUBJECT OF THE CLAIM OR LAWSUIT. I WAIVE ANY STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS TO THE CONTRARY.”
Plaintiff signed the application and was hired as a driver’s helper. In April 2010, plaintiff was injured on the job and took a leave of absence. Several days after he returned to full duty, he was laid off as part of a company-wide reduction in force. Approximately nine months later, he filed a lawsuit asserting claims of workers’ compensation retaliation and disability discrimination in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”). After discovery, the trial court granted summary judgment for the employer, finding the complaint was time-barred based on the language in the employment application that the plaintiff had signed. Plaintiff appealed.
In its decision, the Appellate Division focused on the fact that the provision limiting the statute of limitations to six months in the employment application was clear and conspicuous because it appeared under a large, bold heading and the paragraph itself was capitalized. The court noted that the defendant permitted the plaintiff to take the application home to complete it. The plaintiff even sought assistance from a friend who was fluent in English, thus rebutting any claim that he did not understand what he was signing.
The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that shortening the time in which he could file suit was contrary to public policy. The Appellate Division cited a United States Supreme Court case holding that a limitations period could be shortened contractually as long as the shorter period was reasonable. New Jersey courts have upheld this principle in other contexts, and the Appellate Division expanded it to the employment context in this case.
The court specified that its decision was limited to state law claims that do not require the exhaustion of administrative remedies. For federal discrimination claims where a claimant must first file an administrative charge with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the EEOC has exclusive jurisdiction for 180 days, which would prevent an individual from bringing a lawsuit within a shortened limitations period. However, since plaintiff in this case only filed state law claims, the court upheld the requirement that he bring a lawsuit within six months which he had agreed to by signing his employment application and dismissed his claim.
This case demonstrates that New Jersey employers may shorten the amount of time an employee has to file a claim as long as the amount of time provided is reasonable. Employers should note that it is important for waiver language to appear in a clear and conspicuous manner. Employers should also be aware that the court’s ruling is limited to state law claims.