New Jersey Office Obtains Complete Dismissal in Widely Publicized High School Locker Room Hazing Litigation

May 2021

New Jersey Partners Keith Murphy and Elizabeth Lorell recently obtained the complete dismissal of a lawsuit brought against the Sayreville Board of Education (“SBOE”), its Superintendent and former Board of Education President arising from a nationally publicized 2014 hazing incident in the Sayreville High School football locker room. The widely covered hazing and alleged sexual assault scandal polarized the community, making Sayreville the national face of high school athletic hazing and bullying.

The litigation arose from numerous incidents which occurred in the Sayreville War Memorial High School ("SHS") locker room in September 2014, involving plaintiff and several other juvenile members of the SHS football team regarding the alleged sexual assault of another juvenile. The Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office ("MCPO") investigated the incident and charged the plaintiff, then a juvenile, with offenses, which if committed by an adult, would have constituted conspiracy to commit aggravated criminal sexual contact, aggravated assault, hazing, riot, and criminal restraint. Following the filing of the juvenile complaint and based on the allegations contained in the arrest warrant, SHS suspended plaintiff for violating the SBOE’s code of conduct.

Following the adjudication of the juvenile delinquency action, the plaintiff waived his school disciplinary hearing challenging the propriety of his suspension and elected to bring suit. The plaintiff alleged that he was wrongfully suspended from the school district and targeted on the basis of his race.  The plaintiff further claimed that he had a fundamental right to privacy in his educational and juvenile delinquency records and alleged that the SBOE conspired with the County Prosecutor’s office to wrongfully disclose his records in violation of the New Jersey and Federal constitutions and N.J.S.A. 2A:4a-60. A prominent high school football player at the time of the incident, the plaintiff alleged that his suspension deprived him of numerous Division I college football scholarship opportunities and that the widespread attention garnered by the incident irreparably damaged his reputation within the community.

The plaintiff asserted more than 23 counts against the SBOE, including violations of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, deprivation of substantive and procedural due process and equal protection under the New Jersey and Federal Constitution as well as a host of common law claims. The trial court’s dismissal of all counts against the SBOE with prejudice was recently affirmed by the New Jersey Appellate Division in a comprehensive 70 page opinion, bringing an end to this contentious six-year legal battle against the SBOE. The Appellate Division agreed that the plaintiff failed to establish the deprivation of a protected substantive right. Rather, at its core, the plaintiff’s claimed deprivation was his inability to participate in the SHS football program. As participation in extracurricular activities was found to be a privilege rather than a fundamental right, the plaintiff could not demonstrate entitlement to protection under the NJCRA. The Court further concluded that the plaintiff could not establish that his school suspension violated his due process rights or that the law was applied differently to him on the basis of race. The Court also affirmed the trial court’s decision as it pertained to the application of waiver, qualified immunity and exhaustion of remedies.

Murphy previously obtained the complete dismissal of a companion lawsuit brought by another of the juveniles who allegedly engaged in the locker room hazing with no appeal of the trial court’s decision taken in that matter.