Public Accommodations Should Not Be Unaccommodating

In Holmes v. Jersey City Police Department, the Jersey City Police Department arrested Shakeem Malik Holmes, a transgender male, for suspected shoplifting.  While in custody, Holmes claimed that the arresting officers made demeaning, insulting and threatening comments about his transgender status over the course of two hours.  Specifically, Holmes alleged the officers referred to him as an “it”, called his transgendered status “bull[—-]”, stated “so that’s a [expletive] girl?” and one officer threatened to punch a fist down the Holmes’ throat “like a [expletive] man.”   Holmes filed a lawsuit against the Jersey City Police Department asserting claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”).  The trial court dismissed Holmes’ lawsuit in 2015.  However, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s decision and reinstated Holmes’ claims.
In determining that the trial court erred in dismissing the complaint, the Appellate Division considered Holmes’ special status as an arrestee temporarily incarcerated in the police station as creating a “uniquely vulnerable situation” and noted that “police officers wield tremendous power” and officers were alleged to have physically threated Holmes.  The panel concluded that a reasonable jury could find the police department’s alleged conduct to be severe and pervasive enough to create a hostile environment in violation of the NJLAD and that specifically targeted hostile comments made to an individual in the context of public accommodations, which might not suffice to create a hostile work environment, may nonetheless violate the NJLAD.  Public employers are advised to be aware of this critical distinction, which is particularly relevant to school districts as teachers often act in loco parentis and a power differential and disparity exists between teachers and their students.

If your school district has any questions or concerns contact the Cooper Levenson Education Law Department.