Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.

Laches is a viable defense under the Law Against Discrimination even where a plaintiff alleges a continuing violation, if the delay in bringing suit is unreasonable and has prejudiced the defendant, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

Though the justices affirmed the unavailability of the laches defense in the case before them, Mancini v. Township of Teaneck, A-18-03, the ruling is notable for its modification of the Appellate Division holding that categorically rejected the use of the laches defense in continuing-violation claims.

“The Appellate Division suggested that applying laches when a defendant has engaged in a pattern of objectionable behavior ‘would fly in the face of the fundamental predicates of this equitable defense,’” wrote Justice Peter Verniero. “That suggestion troubles us. A continuing violation claim always involves a pattern of objectionable behavior. Eliminating the availability of laches under those circumstances arguably would eliminate it for all continuing violation claims.”

The Court found the Appellate Division’s position inconsistent with its ruling in Shepherd v. Hunterdon Developmental Center, 174 N.J.1 (2002), which envisioned that laches might be an available defense in a continuing-violation case if a plaintiff, “with knowledge of a claim based on non-discrete acts, waits a considerable period before filing suit.”

Verniero said the Court was taking the opportunity to expand on Shepherd to guide trial courts and litigants. “The risk to a defendant of having to defend against stale claims under the continuing violation doctrine is greater than the risk attendant in more traditional lawsuits,” he wrote. “The availability of a laches defense encourages victims to pursue their claims diligently, which creates a fairer process for accused wrongdoers.”

Verniero said three factors are especially relevant when evaluating a laches defense: (1) whether an alleged act is unreasonably distant in time; (2) whether a plaintiff knew or should have known of a valid claim; and (3) whether the filing delay has caused a defendant undue prejudice.

“Consistent with the equitable nature of laches, no one factor controls the analysis, and some factors are interrelated,” he wrote. “When evaluating prejudice itself, courts should consider, among other things, the loss of evidence in support of a defendant’s position and the unavailability of critical witnesses.”

Defense Deemed Abandoned

In the instant case, however, the defendant township was found to have waived its laches defense because, although invoked in the answer to the complaint, there was no follow-through.

“Procedurally, to maintain a laches defense against a plaintiff’s delayed claim, a defendant must assert the defense in a diligent fashion,” Verniero wrote. “In other words, diligence is a two-way street. A mere one-time mention of laches in a defendant’s answer is insufficient to preserve it through the span of litigation.”

The Court thus upheld a $1.2 million sexual harassment award to Teaneck Police Officer Diane Mancini, whom a trial court found had been subjected to sexual harassment and, after she complained, retaliation by male officers and superiors in the late 1990s.

Teaneck’s lawyer, Barry Asen, told the Court during oral arguments in January that the trial court improperly allowed Mancini to present evidence of prior sexual harassment in the department that occurred in the 1980s and that the defendant – the township, the police department and relevant officers – could not adequately defend themselves.

“No defendant should have to defend themselves against stale claims,” said Asen, a partner at Newark’s Epstein, Becker & Green. “We were harmed in this case” because of the prior acts, he said.

The problem with Asen’s argument, Verniero said, was that he waited too long to bring it up. “In short, defendant['s] arguing laches for the first time in its petition for certification was insufficient to preserve the issue during this litigation’s lengthy history,” he wrote.

Asen did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Mancini’s lawyer, Cathy Fleming, says the ruling creates an equal standard that plaintiffs and defendants must meet in asserting or defending against potentially stale allegations.

Laches “is still an equitable defense,” says Fleming, a partner at New York’s Edwards & Angell. “But what the Court is saying is if the plaintiff can’t wait too long to raise the claims, then the defendant can’t wait to raise the defense of laches and put its facts on the record.”

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

Reprints & Licensing
Mentioned in a Law.com story?

License our industry-leading legal content to extend your thought leadership and build your brand.


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.