NJ Supreme Court: State Police Did Not Waive Sovereign Immunity Against Plaintiff’s ADA Claim

by John G. Geppert, Jr. on February 7, 2017

In Brian Royster v. New Jersey State Police, the Supreme Court of New Jersey ruled that the New Jersey State Police (NJSP) was entitled to sovereign immunity with respect to plaintiff’s claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The plaintiff, a former state trooper, had argued that the NJSP either waived the defense through its litigation conduct or is estopped from asserting the defense of sovereign immunity because it failed to raise it until after the jury returned a verdict.

NJ Supreme Court: State Police Did Not Waive Sovereign Immunity Against Plaintiff’s ADA Claim

Facts of the Case 

Brain Royster suffers from ulcerative colitis, which requires that he have immediate access to restroom facilities at his place of employment. After returning from a medical leave to treat this condition, he was assigned to conduct surveillance from a vehicle. Even though Royster repeatedly requested to be transferred to a position that allowed access to a restroom, he remained on surveillance duty for approximately seven months.

Royster filed suit, alleging that the NJSP failed to make reasonable accommodations for his disabling medical condition in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). After a jury found in Royster’s favor on the ADA failure-to-accommodate claim, and awarded $500,000, the NJSP moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. For the first time, the NJSP asserted that, as an arm of the State, it enjoyed sovereign immunity.

In response, Royster argued that it was fundamentally unfair to allow the NJSP to raise the sovereign immunity defense after the jury’s verdict. The trial court held that the NJSP was “estopped from asserting lack of jurisdiction after waiting over 7 years [and] completion of the trial.” On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed. The panel reasoned that, because the State’s sovereignty extended to the NJSP, the defense of sovereign immunity could be raised at any time.

Court’s Decision

A divided New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the Appellate Division’s decision regarding the ADA claim. The NJSP’s “litigation conduct did not amount to a waiver of immunity,” nor is the NJSP “estopped from asserting the defense of sovereign immunity against plaintiff’s ADA claim,” the majority held.

While the Court acknowledged that the United States Supreme Court has recognized that waiver can be premised on litigation conduct, as when a state chooses to voluntarily remove a case to federal court, it noted that the state’s courts have not done the same. “Unlike their federal counterparts, New Jersey courts have never declared that the State may waive its immunity from suit in state court through its litigation conduct,” Justice Solomon wrote.

The Court further concluded that “because our Legislature has provided no clear and unequivocal expression of consent to be sued under the ADA, defendant enjoys sovereign immunity from plaintiff’s ADA claim.” Accordingly, NJSP’s litigation conduct did not amount to a waiver of immunity “because defendant did not invoke the court’s jurisdiction or do anything other than appear and defend against plaintiff’s ADA claim.”

The Court also refused to apply equitable estoppel to the defense of sovereign immunity against plaintiff’s ADA claim, noting that neither the United States Supreme Court nor the New Jersey Supreme Court has ever done so before. “Even if equitable estoppel could be applicable to the defense of sovereign immunity, we would reject its application here” because there was no “misrepresentation of material fact by one party” or “unawareness of the true facts by the party seeking an estoppel,” Justice Solomon added.

Ultimately, the Court stated the Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) statute contains a clear waiver of sovereign immunity and, thus, the NJSP were precluded from asserting immunity as a defense to Royster’s LAD claim. To “remain consistent with the spirit of LAD,” the court reinstated the LAD failure to accommodate claim, and remanded the case to the trial court with the instructions to mold the jury’s award to reflect an award of $500,000, pursuant to Royster’s LAD claim.

For more information about the Court’s decision in Brian Royster v. New Jersey State Police or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.

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