Does The New Jersey Civil Rights Act Authorize A Private Cause of Action Against A Person Who Is Not Acting Under “Color Of Law”?

What started as a local town hall debate over a liquor license renewal ended as a state-wide lesson in grammar from the New Jersey Supreme Court.

New Jersey’s highest court ruled last month that the phrase “person acting under color of law” found in N.J.S.A. 10:6-2(c) is not modified or limited by the phrase’s surrounding grammar.  Therefore, the phrase applies to both deprivation and interference claims brought by private party plaintiffs.  Perez v. Zagami, LLC, Supreme Court of New Jersey (DDS No. 46-1-3947) (Decided May 21, 2014).

Zagami, LLC applied to the Borough of Glassboro for a liquor license renewal.  Luis Perez, a Borough resident, opposed the renewal and testified at the renewal hearing.  Zagami later used Perez’s testimonial statements as the basis for a defamation suit against Perez.  The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey ultimately dismissed the defamation case, ruling that Perez’s statements were made during a quasi-judicial proceeding and were entitled to absolute immunity.

Perez then sued Zagami for malicious use of process.  The Trial Court granted Zagami’s motion to dismiss and denied Perez’s attempts to amend his complaint to include a Civil Rights Act (CRA) claim.  The Trial Court concluded that the CRA only authorizes private suits against persons acting under “color of law.”

The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey disagreed with the lower Trial Court and found that Zagami’s defamation suit was largely transparent.  The Appellate Division allowed Perez to amend his complaint and include a CRA cause of action against Zagami for a “deprivation” of his civil rights.  Citing N.J.S.A. 10:6-2(c), which authorizes a private right of action for deprivations of or interference with protected civil rights by a person acting under color of law, the Appellate Division concluded that the “color of law” language applied only to the clause governing “interference” claims.

The Supreme Court of New Jersey disagreed with both lower courts by holding in Perez that the lack of a comma preceding the phrase “by a person acting under color of law” does not modify the phrase.  Instead, the phrase applies to both deprivation and interference claims brought by private party plaintiffs.  The Court explained that such an interpretation of the phrase was in alignment with both legislative intent and the federal cause of action governed by § 1983.

© 2014 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC