By Sue Epstein
January 06, 2010, 5:57PM
NEW BRUNSWICK — New Jersey laws barring sexual harassment and discrimination apply not only to employer-employee relationships, but also to business owners and their clients, a state appeals court ruled today.
The three-judge panel ruled unanimously that the female owner of a tire distributor in Middlesex County could sue United Rentals North America Inc. after one of the rental company’s branch managers pulled the firm’s business after she rejected his sexual advances.
“The quid pro quo sexual harassment alleged in the complaint, if legally permitted, would stand as a barrier to women’s ability to do business on an equal footing with men,” the judges said in a ruling which legal experts called rare application of the state Law Against Discrimination.
Paul Castronovo, a Morristown attorney who specializes in harassment and discrimination cases, said there are two other rulings in New Jersey, in 2003 and 2005, in which courts said discrimination laws cover business dealings between independent contractors, but neither involved sexual harassment.
Castronovo said it is “very rare” to have a discrimination case between two companies doing business together.
“This decision applied existing law to a slightly different factual context (than the other two cases),” he said.
The attorney for the plantiff said the decision will “open some doors” for business owners who believe they have been sexually harrassed or discriminated against.
Eileen Tortorello, the owner of J.T.’s Tire Service Inc., in South Plainfield, filed suit against United Rentals North America Inc. and its Piscataway branch manager, Harold Hinkes, in January 2008, alleging Hinkes stopped buying tires from the firm after she refused his sexual advances.
United Rentals sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, arguing sexual harassment is prohibited only in a workplace environment. In addition, the company, while acknowledging that the facts in the case are true, said they did not rise to the level of sex discrimination.
Further, the appellate decision said, United Rental argued “women business owners do not need protection against sexual harassment by those with whom they do business.”
Superior Court Judge Edward Ryan, sitting in New Brunswick, agreed with United Rentals and dismissed the complaint within weeks of its filing.
Tortorello appealed and the three-judge panel today overturned the lower court ruling.
“We find no merit in any of these arguments,” the judges said.
“While we respect the appellate division panel that heard this case, we strongly disagree with their ruling,” Fred Bratman, a spokesman for United Rentals, said in a satement. “We believe the trial court was correct and we are considering all available options, including an appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court.”
Elizabeth Zuckerman, the attorney who represented Tortorello, said she was thrilled with the decision.
“My client is very happy and I am very happy,” Zuckerman said. “I think this decision will open some doors for our clients.”
Zuckerman said she believes the appellate court’s decision widens protections against discrimination in an area that had not been fully explored until now.