On May 21, 2014, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that a private cause of action under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (Act), N.J.S.A. 10:6-2(c)1, may be pursued only against persons acting under “color of law.” Perez v. Zagami, LLC (A-36-12) (071358). See also Cottrell v. Zagami, LLC (A-5-13) (072235) (the companion case with the same holding).
The case involved a contested liquor renewal proceeding in which two Glassboro residents, Luis Perez and Maryann Cottrell, sought to bring claims under the CRA against Zagami, the corporate name for the owner of a local restaurant and tavern.
The Appellate Division observed that the CRA has two distinct clauses: one clause protects against a “deprivation” of an individual’s constitutional or statutory rights and the other clause protects against an “interference” with those same rights. The Appellate Division reasoned that because “by a person acting under color of law” language appears only in the “interference” clause of the Act and is not separated by a comma from the rest of the clause, the state action requirement was limited to “interference” claims only. As a result, the appellate panel allowed Perez and Cottrell to bring claims against Zagami for a deprivation of their civil rights under the CRA.
The Supreme Court reversed. Based on the relevant legislative history of the CRA, the Supreme Court held that, notwithstanding the lack of a comma preceding the phrase in subsection (c), “by a person acting under color of law,” the phrase was understood by lawmakers responsible for its drafting to refer to deprivation as well as an interference claims by private parties under the Act. In other words, “acting under color of law” modifies the one and only reference to persons who may be sued under subsection (c), regardless of whether it is a deprivation claim or an interference claim.
This ruling is important because it significantly limits the potential class of defendants who can be sued under the Act to government actors only.
1 The CRA contains two separate subsections (a) and (b), which authorize causes of action that may be brought by the Attorney General against any individual, whether or not acting under color of law, for “deprivation” or “interference” with another person’s civil rights. These subsections were not at issue on appeal before the Supreme Court.