NJ SUPERIOR COURT UPHOLDS RIGHTS OF AUTISTIC COMMUNITY UNDER NEW JERSEY LAW AGAINST DISCRIMINATION

special education lawyer new jerseyJanuary 7, 2019

Summary:

In OASIS Therapeutic Life Centers v. Peter G. Wade and Susan Wade, (December 10, 2018), the New Jersey Superior Court held that Defendant neighbors clearly violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJ LAD) when they engaged in blatant discrimination and harassment against OASIS TLC (Ongoing Autistic Success in Society, Therapeutic Learning Centers). In so ruling, the Court reversed a lower court’s dismissal of OASIS’ claims for relief and damages.

What Was the Case About?

OASIS is a non-profit based in Middletown, NJ, founded in 2007 by the parent of a child with autism. According to its website, www.oasistlc.org, in 2011 OASIS purchased and established a large farm to use as the base for a transitional program for young adults ages 18-27. At the Transitional Residential Adult Independent Learning (TRAIL) Center, autistic individuals could work, learn and socialize on the farmstead — gaining essential life skills, experience and relationships as they transitioned into adulthood. Then, according to the Court’s decision, in 2015 OASIS endeavored to purchase a second large piece of land in Monmouth County, NJ, where adults who graduated from the TRAIL Center could also live and work.

Enter the Defendants, who first publicly objected to OASIS’ use of the property when it sought a grant from the Monmouth Conservation Foundation Board. According to the facts in the case, one board member publicly expressed a concern about a connection between the Sandy Hook shooting and “a possible link between autism and that tragic event.” Thereafter, the Defendants mounted a campaign to prevent OASIS from purchasing and using the land. Initially, Defendants made public statements against OASIS and wrote letters to the land owner protesting the OASIS purchase and making a “sham,” offer to purchase the property themselves so OASIS could not use it. At one point, the Court explains, “the pressure was enough to cause the owner to terminate his relationship with OASIS.”

After OASIS eventually, later obtained the property, blatant discrimination continued, all of which Defendant readily admitted to. Defendant’s actions ranged from “frightening” graffiti, to trespassing on the OASIS property, to attempting to convince tax assessors that OASIS should pay taxes by giving false information about its use of the property. Ultimately, OASIS had to seek legal counsel and assistance from the courts.

The Chancery Court granted Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss and denied OASIS’ claims under the NJ LAD for “failure to state a claim.” (This blog does not address details of OASIS’ other tort claims.) The Superior Court reversed, issuing a strongly worded ruling that OASIS has clear and definite rights under the LAD and can proceed with further claims against defendants.

What Should I Remember About This Case?

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJ LAD) is the state’s version of Title VII, the parallel federal law which also provides broad protection from discrimination. The NJ LAD prohibits discrimination against a broader scope of individuals and authorizes individual liability for violation, including punitive and compensatory damages.

This ruling offers an updated and published precedent that organizations serving disabled individuals can bring claims under the NJ LAD on behalf of those they serve. Equally important, the Court rejected and reversed the lower court’s holding that the dispute was one between individuals, such that the First Amendment or other immunity protected Defendants’ speech.

The Court stated: “We agree with OASIS that, ‘[w]hile [d]efendants are free to get up on their proverbial soapbox and make public their negative views about people afflicted with autism, such expression loses its First Amendment protection when it is used as a vehicle for discriminatory conduct that violates the LAD and State’s interest in eliminating discrimination.”