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Bucking 20 years of federal precedent, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled recently that the statute of limitations for wrongful-termination cases begins to run on the last day of employment, not the date the employee receives notice that he or she is to be fired. In twin rulings, Alderiso v. The Medical Center of Ocean County Inc., A-100-99, and Holmin v. TRW Inc., A-12-00, the court set a bright line for employment lawyers. “[W]e conclude that the date of discharge means the last day for which an employee is paid her regular wage or salary … ,” Justice Peter Verniero wrote in Alderiso. The court authored no opinion in Holmin, adopting the Appellate Division’s opinion, 330 N.J. Super. 30 (2000). The outcomes run counter to two U.S. Supreme Court rulings. In Delaware State College v. Ricks, 449 U.S. 250 (1980), and Chardon v. Fernandez, 454 U.S. 6 (1981), the Supreme Court said the statute of limitations for wrongful-termination cases begins on the day the employee is given notice he or she is to be fired. “For more than 20 years, the standard in employment law was very well established in that the statute begins to run on the day the employee is given notice,” notes employers’ lawyer Steven Suflas, head of the State Bar Association’s Labor and Employment Law Section and a partner at Haddonfield, N.J.’s Archer & Greiner. “Now, our supreme court has said that rule will not apply here.” In Alderiso, the plaintiff, a nurse, was told on Jan. 14, 1997, that she was going to be fired for poor performance. Deborah Alderiso filed suit under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act on Jan. 16, 1998, a year after her first day of unemployment, claiming she was the victim of unfair retaliation because she had disagreed with her superiors over the course of care for five patients. Her case was dismissed after the lower courts ruled that the statute of limitations expired a year after she was given notice. Verniero wrote that “[a]lthough we are guided by the [U.S.] Supreme Court’s analysis of the federal statutes at issue in [ Ricks and Chardon], we must apply our State jurisprudence in the present circumstance.” Verniero added: “In interpreting CEPA in accordance with its plain language, we are satisfied that the date of discharge represents the appropriate accrual date, not the date on which an employee receives notice of termination.” The court held that the statute of limitations expired a year after Alderiso’s first day of unemployment. In future cases, the statute expires on the last day of employment, Verniero wrote. The issue in Holmin was similar to that in Alderiso. The plaintiff, Ralph Holmin, an executive with Mitsubishi Bank, was lured away to work for the customer service division of TRW Inc. TRW management assured Holmin that his employment would be continuous and he would have a secure future with TRW. The company, however, did not tell him that the customer services division was in dire financial straits, that it was being put up for sale and that his position would be eliminated shortly after he joined the company. In a letter dated Feb. 28, 1992, Holmin was told his position was being eliminated and that his last day of work would be March 13, 1992. Holmin filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit based on fraud on March 11, 1998. That type of cause of action has a six-year statute of limitations. TRW unsuccessfully argued before the Appellate Division that the statute of limitations should have expired on Feb. 28, 1998, six years after Holmin was told he was going to be fired. Wrote Appellate Division Judge Arthur Lesemann: “We see no reason to adopt the arbitrary rule of Ricks and Chardon,” since “neither those cases nor any of the decisions that follow them contain any persuasive discussion of a sound policy basis for selecting that rule.” The ruling by Verniero was the first since the Senate Judiciary Committee called for his impeachment for allegedly lying, during his 1999 confirmation hearing, about his knowledge of a federal investigation into racial profiling by the state police.

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