NJ Court Awards Significant Punitive Damages In Failure To Accommodate Case

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NJ Court Awards Significant Punitive Damages In Failure To Accommodate Case

By Francine Foner, Esq., Ty Hyderally, Esq.

It may seem like the only thing courts are doing these days is issuing various restrictions and orders related to the COVID-19 Pandemic, but in fact they continue to consider cases and render decisions regarding other important issues impacting New Jersey employees. On April 24, 2020, the New Jersey Appellate Division issued a notable, albeit unpublished, decision which reinforces a jury’s broad discretion to award substantial punitive damages to employees in cases under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”). In Pritchett v. State, 2020 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 754, senior corrections officer for the Juvenile Justice Commission (“JJC”), Shelly Pritchett sued the State of New Jersey for violating the LAD when it failed to accommodate her request for a three-month leave of absence due to her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (“MS”). After a lengthy trial, the jury agreed with Pritchett and awarded her approximately $1.8 million in emotional distress and economic compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages.

Among other rulings, the JJC appealed the punitive damages award, claiming that: (1) plaintiff failed to submit sufficient evidence of egregious conduct, and (2) the amount awarded was excessive. The Appellate Division disagreed with the first argument, and remanded the second issue to the Trial Court for further consideration.

Regarding the evidence of the defendant’s egregious conduct, the Appellate Division concluded that the plaintiff had presented “clear and convincing” evidence from which the jury could have found especially egregious conduct. In reaching this conclusion, the Court rejected the JJC’s contention that the jury was required to find the actions of a particular individual to be especially egregious. Rather, the jury had to decide “whether defendant’s conduct overall was especially egregious and, if it was, whether upper management actively participated in or was willfully indifferent to that conduct.”

The Appellate Division also opined that a finding of egregious conduct warranting punitive damages could be based upon evidence presented that the JJC had “(1) schemed to remove plaintiff from her job based solely on the nature of, or its assumptions about, her disease, and (2) granted the first leave request to further that scheme, hoping to bolster its case for removal while knowing that the permitted leave time was too short for plaintiff to obtain sufficient treatment to resolve her symptoms.”

Also relevant to the punitive damages awarded was the jury’s consideration of “the absence of a credible or consistent reason given by the witnesses” as to why the leave request was denied, and the fact that Pritchett was not given a reason for the denial, even though she repeatedly requested it. Pointing to the testimony of various decision-makers who were unable to provide any legitimate reason for their denial of Pritchett’s leave request, the Court opined that, “[a]ll of this could reasonably support the jury’s conclusion that the JJC decided, as soon as it learned that plaintiff had or likely had MS, that it would remove her because of her diagnosis, making its other asserted reasons disingenuous, after-the-fact justifications.” Further, the Court held that the JJC’s failure to follow its own policy and failure to engage in the interactive process were deliberate acts which the jury could conclude, “showed an intentional and concerted effort to remove plaintiff solely due to her diagnosis.”

Thus, the Court opined that, in determining to award punitive damages, the jury was not obligated “to accept defendant’s witnesses at their word” but rather “could have credited other evidence and concluded that the JJC actors (1) engaged in an intentional scheme to eliminate plaintiff due solely to her medical condition, (2) maneuvered her into an untenable position to accomplish this, and (3) misrepresented, at trial, the real motivations for its actions and decisions.”

The Court also declined to find that the punitive damages award was excessive, remanding the issue to the Trial Court, and directing it to take into consideration “‘the degree of reprehensibility of the [wrongful conduct,] the disparity between the harm or potential harm [suffered by the plaintiff] and the plaintiff’s punitive damages award[,] and the difference between this remedy and the civil penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases,’” or whether the award reflects prejudice, passion, or mistake warranting a new trial on the amount of punitive damages.” Citing Baker v. Nat’l State Bank, 161 N.J. 220, 231 (1999), quoting BMW v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 575 (NJ, 1996).

However, the Court emphasized that there is no cap on punitive damages in LAD cases. Further, the Court underscored that there is no requirement that punitive damages in LAD cases be limited to the Legislature’s judgment that five times compensatory damages is a “normative measure,” and noted that in some LAD cases, a higher ratio would be appropriate.

The Appellate Division’s decision will assist New Jersey employees in their recovery of substantial punitive damages for a failure to accommodate a disability under similar circumstances, as well as their right to the reasonable accommodation of an appropriate medical leave.

This blog is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice, and may not reasonably be relied upon as such. If you face a legal issue, you should consult a qualified attorney for independent legal advice with regard to your particular set of facts. This blog may constitute attorney advertising. This blog is not intended to communicate with anyone in a state or other jurisdiction where such a blog may fail to comply with all laws and ethical rules of that state of jurisdiction.

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