A LIABILITY-EXPANDING AGENDA
LEGISLATURE ENACTS MOST EXPANSIVE EQUAL PAY LAW IN COUNTRY
On April 24, 2018, Governor Phil Murphy (D) signed the Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act into law, the strongest and most expansive equal pay law in the country. The New Jersey law is considered the “strongest” in the country, not because of the additional protections it provides for employees, but rather for its draconian penalties and extensive look back period, all of which greatly benefit trial lawyers.
The law prohibits pay discrimination for “substantially similar work” based on characteristics protected by the New Jersey Law against Discrimination (i.e. race, sex, age, nationality etc.). Each payment of unlawfully disparate wages constitutes a separate offense. When coupled with the availability of both treble and punitive damages, and the extension of the statute of limitations to allow for up to six years of back pay, the new law provides a gift to plaintiffs’ lawyers.
In addition, the New Jersey law’s comparison of positions involving “substantially similar” work is so vague both sides will need to call in multiple experts to support their views. This will severely bog down the courts and turn them into de facto human resources departments.
The New Jersey law is an outlier, even compared with the laws of the most progressive states. California and Massachusetts, for example, only allow for a two and three-year statute of limitations respectively. Plaintiffs in those states also can only recover twice the amount of lost wages, as opposed to treble and punitive damages. For these reasons, Governor Chris Christie (R) issued a conditional veto of a similar bill in 2016.
MORE MONEY TO WORKERS’ COMP LAWYERS
Legislation enacted in August, S. 2145, gives another boost to the plaintiffs’ bar. The new law allows an attorney to collect more money at the expense of a client who was injured at work.
Previously, attorneys who represented clients in workers’ compensation claims were paid only for the incremental value they might bring over and above an employer’s insurance carrier’s initial offer of compensation. After all, the workers’ compensation system is set up to provide prompt, no-fault compensation without protracted litigation.
Now, an attorney can collect fees on total compensation his or her client receives, instead of any additional value the lawyer obtains. This change encourages unnecessary litigation that will delay payments to workers and allows lawyers to take a portion of their client’s recovery where the lawyer did not get anything other than what the employer offered to pay the employee.
SENATOR SCUTARI INTRODUCES TWO PROBLEMATIC LIABILITY-EXPANDING BILLS
The so-called “New Jersey Insurance Fair Conduct Act,” S. 2144, would authorize new lawsuits against insurers. The legislation creates a private right of action for a claimant against his insurer for unreasonable delay or denial of a claim. It rewrites the legal definition of “bad faith” in the insurance context in a manner that is so expansive that plaintiffs would be able to sue insurance companies for normal errors that occur in the ordinary course of business.
The legislation also is packed with financial incentives for trial lawyers to file lawsuits, such as the ability to obtain treble (triple) damages and attorneys’ fees and costs. If enacted, this proposal will open the floodgates for frivolous bad faith claims and could cause insurance premiums to skyrocket by as much as forty percent. New Jersey residents already pay among the highest average premiums in the nation, and this bill would only increase those costs. The bill, which passed the Senate in June, awaits Assembly consideration.
Another bill introduced by Senator Nicholas Scutari, S. 1766, would drastically expand the state’s wrongful death statute. Current New Jersey law provides fair and predictable compensation to those who file wrongful death claims, providing recovery for “pecuniary and economic loss.” The proposed legislation allows damages for “mental anguish, emotional pain and suffering, loss of society, and loss of companionship.” If enacted, S.B. 1766 would allow for purely emotional damages and introduce considerable uncertainty into litigation. This would make cases more difficult to settle and would increase insurance premiums for all New Jersey residents. The Senate Judiciary Committee reported the bill favorably in April 2018.