In Baran v. ASRC Federal, No. 17-7425 (RMB/JS), 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 113432 (D.N.J. July 9, 2019), United States District Judge Renée Marie Bumb vacated a $3.5 million judgment against the defendant, ASRC Federal Mission Solutions, after determining that the defamation claim which resulted in the verdict was, in fact, time-barred. Plaintiff had contended that a prior state court ruling – issued before removal of the action to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey – had applied New Jersey’s “discovery rule” to the claim of defamation, thus tolling the statute of limitations. Judge Bumb noted, however, that Plaintiff had clearly misstated the law to the state court, and that “a verdict caused by a legal calamity of Plaintiff’s own creation cannot stand.”
Plaintiff’s claim arose from her former employment with ARSC Federal Mission Solutions (“MSE”), a defense contractor. Plaintiff had been terminated for allegedly threatening to shoot three of her supervisors at MSE, on January 7, 2013. Two days after this threat was allegedly made, the plaintiff was arrested and charged with making a terroristic threat, despite her denying the conduct at issue. Five days later, she was terminated from employment with MSE. A Facility Security Officer updated her Joint Personnel Adjudication System (JPAS) file to reflect the circumstances surrounding her termination. Eventually, however, the criminal charges were dropped, and her criminal record expunged. The JPAS report, however, did not reflect this final result of the charge, and Plaintiff alleges that this report caused her to be unable to obtain a comparable job.
On January 6, 2015, the plaintiff filed a pro se complaint against defendant in the New Jersey Superior Court. After a series of dismissals and procedural problems with her action, and after finally retaining counsel, an amended complaint was filed, asserting “defamation, libel and slander;” hostile work environment; and retaliatory discharge. The defamation claim had previously been dismissed by the state trial court, and plaintiff sought leave to reinstate it. The defamation claims were based upon the JPAS report, and Plaintiff had claimed that she did not learn of the existence of that report until August of 2014. As such, she contended that her claims should be tolled under New Jersey’s equitable “discovery rule,” and the state court agreed.As such, the one-year statute of limitation normally applicable to a New Jersey defamation claim was not applied to dismiss the action.
Judge Bumb determined that there was no legal precedent permitting application of the discovery rule to a defamation claim. Indeed, she noted that the Third Circuit had explicitly disallowed a tolling of the statute of limitations made with regard to such claims, citing the precise language of the applicable statute of limitations itself. Judge Bumb also rejected the Plaintiff’s invitation to abide by the state trial court’s ruling as the “law of the case,” noting that she had the authority to revisit prior decisions of its own, or of any court, in the presence of extraordinary circumstances. As such, Judge Bumb ordered a dismissal with prejudice of the defamation claims, and refused to permit application of the discovery rule in connection with the defamation claim, upholding established law in New Jersey.