A decade ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided Pinto v. Spectrum Chems. and Lab Prods., 985 A.2d 1239 (2010). In Pinto, the Supreme Court adopted a general rule—reversing its previous holding in Coleman v. Fiore Bros., 552 A.2d 141 (N.J. 1989)—that defendants may make “bundled” settlement offers, i.e., conditioning a merits settlement on a compromise or waiver of statutory prevailing party fees. But the Pinto court carved out an exception to the rule, holding that defendants could not pursue this tactic in lawsuits where the plaintiff is represented by a “public interest law firm.” Pinto, 985 A.2d 1250-51.

So for example, under Pinto, if a plaintiff-employee is discharged from a large corporation, and sues under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD) or its Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), and is represented by private counsel, the corporate defendant may condition an offer of settlement of the merits (e.g., back pay, front pay, etc.) on a specific compromise amount for attorney fees, or even on no attorney fees at all. But, if that same exact case were brought by a plaintiff represented by a “public interest law firm”—as William Pinto and Alvaro Vasquez were represented in Pinto by Legal Services of New Jersey (LSNJ)—the defendant would be precluded by New Jersey law from making such an offer.

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