NJ Supreme Court Clarifies Standard for Religious Discrimination Claims

The New Jersey Supreme Court spoke definitively today in the case of Cutler v. Dorn, A-51 September Term 2007 (N.J. July 31, 2008), about the legal standard for hostile work environment claims based on religious discrimination. The unanimous Court held that religious harassment and sexual harassment claims are essentially identical in the proofs required to win at trial. The decision brings an end to the confusion caused by an older Appellate Division case, Heitzman v. Monmouth County, which appeared to hold that religious discrimination claims were to be judged by a tougher standard than sexual harassment claims.

The plaintiff in this case, Jason Cutler, was a police officer in Haddonfield Township. He is Jewish. Over the course of his employment, Officer Cutler’s coworkers and supervisors made various remarks and comments to him about Jews, including asking him “where [his] big Jew . . . nose was,” stating that “Jews are good with numbers,” asking him “why didn’t [he] go into [his] family business . .. why [is he] here,” and “Jews make all the money.” There was an incident where someone placed an Israeli flag, and then a German flag, on his locker. The straw that broke the camel’s back occurred when Officer Cutler’s coworker made a comment about “getting rid of those dirty Jews.”

The Court agreed with Officer Cutler that a person of Jewish faith and ancestry could “reasonably feel that his sense of belonging was shaken” on repeatedly hearing those remarks, and that it was “no stretch to imagine that, for the hearer/recipient of those ongoing insults to his ancestry and core beliefs, which were uttered by his coworkers and, worse, his supervisors, the workplace was altered for the worse.” The Court continued, saying “the reference to ‘dirty Jews,’ and the further iteration of that comment to ‘let’s get rid of all those dirty Jews,’ harkened Cutler back to thoughts of one of the lowest times in mankind’s history, the Holocaust.”

The Court held that these facts satisfied Officer Cutler’s burden to prove that a reasonable Jewish person would consider the workplace acts and comments made to, or in the presence of, Officer Cutler “to be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create a hostile working environment.” The Court then reinstated the jury verdict in Officer Cutler’s favor.

This is a fantastic decision for New Jersey employees of all faiths. No one, be they Muslim, Christian, Hindu, or Jew, should be subjected to these types of idiotic and bigoted remarks at work. My heartfelt congratulations go to Officer Cutler, his attorney Clifford Van Syoc, and the amici curaie from NELA, the Anti-Defamation League, and The Sikh Coalition. Thank you to all for pursuing this case to our highest court and winning justice for us all.