By: Jennifer Weitz, Esq. and Ty Hyderally, Esq.
In a recent unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division underscored that a waiver between two parties may only be enforced according to its exact terms. In Reid v. City of Plainfield, 2021 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2185, the Appellate Division found that the language at issue was not a blanket waiver of the plaintiff’s rights, and the intent of the parties to the waiver could not adequately be decided based on affidavits in a motion for summary judgment.
Plaintiff Kenneth Reid was a police lieutenant with the City of Plainfield. Id. at *1. In December 2015 police officers responded to a call about a car accident with an intoxicated driver. Id. at *1-2. When the officers arrived, the driver was unconscious. Id. at *2. To confirm intoxication, the officers requested a blood draw search warrant but were refused by the Assistant Prosecutor, on account of their not being able to identify the driver. Id. Subsequently, the two officers misrepresented that they had identified the driver, and the search warrant was issued. Id.
After the fact, one of the responding officers had second thoughts and reported the incident to Reid. Id. Reid said he would notify the Union County Prosecutor’s Office (“UCPO”) but failed to do so. Id. However, the UCPO found out anyway and investigated. The UCPO declined to file criminal charges, instead recommending administrative discipline against Reid and the officers involved. Id.
One week after the Plainfield Police Department began an internal investigation, Reid suffered a minor stroke and was hospitalized. Id. At trial, Reid testified that Plainfield Police Director Carl Riley visited him in the hospital and asked Reid how old he was and when he was considering retirement. Id. at *2-3. Reid testified that Riley alluded to the potential disciplinary charges and told Reid that the charges could “go away” if Reid retired. Id. at *3. Reid took this as a threat. Id.
In February 2016 Reid received a preliminary notice of disciplinary charges pending a final hearing. Id. The notice listed eight disciplinary charges and two violations of the New Jersey Administrative Code. Id. Two months later, in April 2016, Reid, represented by counsel, and the City of Plainfield, including the Police Department, entered into a Stipulation of Settlement. Id. Reid acknowledged certain types of misconduct, and that the disciplinary charges were not racially motivated. Id. at *4. The Department was required to withdraw all pending disciplinary issues against Reid, and Reid retired “in good standing.” Id.
The following year, in 2017, Reid filed a Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) complaint against the defendants, alleging age discrimination (Reid was 58 at the time of his forced retirement) and hostile work environment disability and/or perceived disability harassment and discrimination (because Reid was allegedly harassed and intimidated during his medical leave.) Id. at *5. The defendants filed motions for summary judgment based on the Stipulation. Id. at *6. The trial court found “no genuine issues of material fact regarding the language of the agreement or the intent of the parties.” Id. at *7. However, Reid asserted that he did not waive his claims under the LAD, and that there were in fact genuine issues of material fact, making summary judgment inappropriate. Id.
The Appellate Division sought to determine whether Reid released all claims against the defendants by entering into the Stipulation. Id. at *7-8. The Court noted that “the scope of a release is determined by the intention of the parties” (internal quotes omitted), and that questions about intent “cannot ordinarily be fairly disposed of on affidavits in a summary judgment application” (internal quotes omitted). Id. at *8. The Court then examined the case relied on by the trial court, which also featured a waiver signed by the plaintiff. In that case, the waiver provided it was in “full satisfaction of any and all claims or demands…arising either directly or indirectly out of [the plaintiff’s] present or past employment relationship.” However, the Appellate Division distinguished the case before it, noting that the Stipulation between Reid and the defendants released defendants from claims Reid “now has, or hereafter can, shall or may have, with respect to the subject matter of this disciplinary action.” Id. at *9. Similarly, the waiver within the Stipulation also referenced “disciplinary action.” Id. at *10. The Court noted that the reference to “disciplinary action” might actually have been intended as a limitation. Id.
The Court also found that the trial court did not consider whether there were genuine issues of material fact regarding Reid’s claims. Id. Reid alleged defendants pressured and harassed him into retiring, and that the evidence showed a prima facie case of age and disability discrimination and a hostile work environment. Id. The trial court must view the evidence “in a light most favorable to the non-moving party” (internal quotes omitted), which the Appellate Division found it failed to do. Id. The Court reversed and remanded. Id.
As was made clear to both parties in this case, a waiver of certain rights does not imply a waiver of all related or derivative rights. At the same time, anyone who signs a waiver should ensure that the language used is specific to the matter at hand, to avoid extinguishing any potential future rights.
En nuestra firma hablamos español. This blog is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice, and may not reasonably be relied upon as such. If you face a legal issue, you should consult a qualified attorney for independent legal advice with regard to your particular set of facts. This blog may constitute attorney advertising. This blog is not intended to communicate with anyone in a state or other jurisdiction where such a blog may fail to comply with all laws and ethical rules of that state of jurisdiction.