N.J. Court OKs Employment Contract That Shortened Worker’s Time to Sue

By | July 3, 2014

A New Jersey appeals court recently affirmed that a worker was bound by a contractual provision, contained in an employment application, which shortened the two-year statute of limitations for filing claims against his employer to six months.

The appeals court also affirmed the trial court’s decision to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint against his former employer — which was filed nine months after his alleged wrongful termination — because it was filed after the agreed-upon six-month period has lapsed. The appeals court issued its ruling on June 19.

In August 2007, plaintiff Sergio Rodriguez sought employment with Raymour & Flanigan, a retail furniture company. Court documents show that Rodriguez, an immigrant from Argentina, took home an English-language application form, filled it out and signed it with help from a friend who is fluent in English.

The two-page application form contained an “Applicant’s Statement” above the signature line. The statement contained 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.”

The statement also contained a provision whereby the employee would waive trial by jury for relevant claims, as follows: “I waive trial by jury in any litigation arising out of, or relating to, my employment with Raymour & Flanigan, including claims of wrongful or retaliatory discipline or discharge; claims of age, sexual, sexual orientation, religious, pregnancy or racial discrimination; claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Title IX, Americans with Disabilities Act, Age Discrimination in Employment Act, Employee Retirement Income Security Act, Fair Labor Standards Act, and all other applicable non-discrimination, employment or wage and hour statutes.”

Plaintiff was then hired as a helper in mid-September 2007. The two-page application form was the only document plaintiff completed in connection with his hiring.

In 2010, the furniture company promoted plaintiff to the position of driver. For his new position as a driver, he filled out a four-page driver’s application form with the company. The form required the applicant to provide relevant employment information but did not contain any provisions shortening the period during which an action against the employer could be brought or waiving a jury trial.

In April 2010, while delivering furniture to a customer’s home, plaintiff injured his knee and was diagnosed with a torn meniscus, which required a temporary absence from work. The injury was surgically repaired in July 2010. Plaintiff was then permitted to return to light-duty work in September 2010 and then to unrestricted work a couple of weeks later.

But three days after plaintiff returned to unrestricted work, his company instituted a company-wide reduction in force, laying off a total of 102 workers, including plaintiff.

The company said plaintiff was selected to be laid off because of his sub-standard job performance. But plaintiff alleged in his complaint, filed in July the following year, that he was terminated in retaliation for having filed a workers’ compensation claim and was discriminated against based upon disability, in violation of the Law Against Discrimination.

The appeals court stated in its ruling that the primary issue in this appeal is whether a contractual provision, contained in an employment application — by which the employee waives the two-year statute of limitations applicable to claims against the employer and shortens the period for such claims to six months — should be enforceable.

The appeals court noted that the trial court had rejected the employee’s unconscionability argument. The trial court found that the provision was clear in its terms, was conspicuously placed in the application form, and was reasonable and not contrary to any public policy. Therefore, the trial court concluded that the provision was enforceable.

Plaintiff also contended that a second application form he completed for a promotion several years after his initial hire did not contain the shortened limitation period. Plaintiff argued that the second application form thus constituted a novation and voided the initial contract.

The trial court also rejected that second argument, noting that a novation is never presumed and finding nothing in the second application or in the circumstances of its completion to suggest any intent to void the provisions of the initial contract.

And because plaintiff filed his complaint nine months after his alleged wrongful termination by his former employer, the trial court granted defendant’s summary judgment motion and dismissed the complaint as time-barred.

On appeal, plaintiff made the same arguments as he made in the trial court, the appeals court stated in its ruling. “We agree with the trial court’s analysis and conclusions, and we affirm,” the appeals court stated.

The case is Sergio Rodriguez v. Raymours Furniture Company Inc., t/a Raymour & Flanigan, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, Docket No. A-4329-12T3 (argued March 18, 2014 – decided June 19, 2014).

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