Age Discrimination is Unlawful Even in “At Will” State

Even though New Jersey is an “at will” employment state, the New Jersey State Supreme Court this past summer ruled that failure to renew a contract because of age is against the New Jersey’s Anti-Discrimination Law. (1)

The case involved Rose Nini, a former dean at Mercer County Community College, who claimed the College refused to renew her contract because of her age – 73. Nini had worked at the College for a total of 26 years under several contracts. In the spring of 2005, the College announced it would not renew her contract. (2) According to Nini, this was solely due to her age. The school, however, contended that since Nini was an “at will” employee, they acted within their rights in choosing not to renew her contract. (1)

“At will” employment basically means that employees have the right to resign from a job for any reason and employers have the right to terminate employees for any reason provided, of course, those reasons do not violate other rights protected under state or federal law. (3)

Nini filed suit against the College in September 2005. In the suit she alleged that the College’s former president let her know he did not believe she should be working at her age. The trial court decided that, because Nini’s employment was contractual, the New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination did not protect her. According to the court, Nini was not terminated; she just wasn’t rehired. (1)

The case was later appealed and the trial court’s decision was overturned. The matter was then brought to the State Supreme Court. In the meantime, Nini and the College reached an agreement and asked that the case be dropped. The Court, however, recognizing the extent of public interest in the case, ruled on the matter anyway. (4)

In its ruling, the State Supreme Court found that while employers do have the right to refuse to hire people over 70 years of age that exception applies only to new hires. The court’s ruling made it clear that refusing to renew contracts because of an employee’s age is discriminatory. (1)

(1) http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2010/06/nj_supreme_court_rules_refusal.html

(2) http://www.newjerseynewsroom.com/state/nj-supreme-court-rules-against-mercer-county-community-college-on-age-discrimination-case

(3) http://employeeissues.com/wrongful_termination.htm

(4) http://chronical.com/blogPost/NJ-Supreme-Court-Sides-With/24461/