Earlier this year, in late September, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a ruling that was an enormous victory for employees, and their attorneys, throughout the State of New Jersey. The case, Cuevas v. Wentworth Group, 226 N.J. 480 (N.J. 2016), involved a motion to reduce the emotional distress damages awarded by the jury because they were excessive. The trial court, Appellate Division and Supreme Court all denied the defendant’s motion, recognizing the integral role that emotional distress damages play in correcting the grievous harm caused by employment discrimination. Additionally, the Court set forth, unequivocally, the primacy of juries, and not judges in determining the proper amount of such awards.
Ramon and Jeffrey Cuevas are two brothers of Hispanic descent who worked for Wentworth, a property management company. Ramon was the only employee, at his level, of Hispanic descent. They were hired in 2005 and soon began being subjected to discriminatory comments and remarks regarding their Hispanic heritage by high-ranking Wentworth executives. Some examples were an executive at a lunch meeting stating that if he did not pick up the check, “Ramon can join his father in the back and you guys can wash dishes.” On another occasion, Ramon came to the office explaining that he had a flat tire. Someone suggested that if a “Puerto Rican” was seen holding a crowbar kneeling by a car, he might be mistaken as “trying to steal the car or the hubcaps.” There were other racist and derogatory comments made throughout the Cuevas’ employment with Wentworth. Having endured this discriminatory treatment for almost two years, Jeffrey complained to in-house counsel in late 2007. Four days later, Wentworth terminated him. Ramon was terminated a couple of months later after complaining about Jeffrey’s termination.
The Cuevas filed a lawsuit against their former employer for discrimination and retaliation under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”). In the suit, they alleged emotional distress as a result of Wentworth’s discriminatory treatment. The jury found for the plaintiffs, and despite not hearing any corroborative evidence of the brothers’ emotional distress, and certainly not the testimony of an expert, the jury awarded Ramon $800,000 and Jeffrey $600,000 in emotional distress damages.
The jury’s emotional distress award was both surprising and significant because historically, New Jersey courts awarded lesser damages, especially so when there was no expert attesting to the emotional distress suffered by the Plaintiff. These type of claims have been referred to as “garden-variety” emotional distress damage claims. While there is no statute or law that required the testimony of an expert to sustain an award of emotional distress damages, many practitioners believed the testimony of an expert was important to sustain a significant emotional distress award. Here, however, the Cuevas brothers did not offer any expert testimony, and in fact, had not sought the treatment of a mental-health professional at all. Yet, the jury awarded both brothers high six-figure emotional distress damages, based solely on their own testimony.
The Defendants filed a motion for remittitur requesting that the court require the Cuevas’ to accept a reduced award. The Defendants argued that if the Cuevas brothers refused to accept a lesser award, the jury verdict should be vacated. The trial court denied the motion, as did the Appellate Division. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider the Defendant’s contention that, absent expert testimony or independent corroborative evidence, only nominal emotional distress damages could be awarded.
In its decision, authored by Justice Albin, the Supreme Court disagreed with the Defendant. The Supreme Court stressed the special harm caused by discrimination in the workplace and recognized the role that emotional distress damages play in both compensating the victim and deterring future discrimination. The Court stated explicitly that in a Law Against Discrimination case, a plaintiff is not required to provide “expert testimony or independent corroborative evidence . . . to support [an] award of emotional distress damages.”
Additionally, and equally significant, the Court also overruled its decision in He v. Miller, 207 N.J. 230 (2011), which had reduced the rightful role of the jury in deciding the amounts of damages and transferred it to the judiciary. New Jersey law allows a judge to reduce a jury award if the award meets the extremely high standards of “shocking to the judicial conscience” or a “gross miscarriage of justice.” In He, the Court allowed a judge to use his/her personal experiences as a litigator and judge in analyzing the fairness of a jury award. The Court in He, also permitted a comparative analysis of verdicts in like-cases to be used in determining if a jury award is excessive. In Cuevas, the Court restored the jury to its rightful place of prominence and ruled that a jury’s award is presumed to be correct, unless the award is so patently excessive that it objectively shocks the conscience. The judge’s personal, subjective knowledge of other verdicts, however, is not relevant.
On both fronts, the Supreme Court’s decision in Cuevas is a great and significant victory for New Jersey’s employees. It will help compensate injured employees for the pain and disgrace they have suffered as victims of workplace discrimination and, hopefully, help prevent future discrimination from occurring.
By: Ty Hyderally, Esq. and Isaac Graff
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