By: Lía Fiol-Matta, Esq. and Ty Hyderally, Esq.
A race discrimination and retaliation complaint filed in Essex County, NJ, scheduled for trial next month, November 2020, will be watched closely as it involves a high-profile defendant. The New Jersey Transit Corporation, branded as NJ Transit (“NJT”), is a state-owned public transportation system serving New Jersey and portions of New York and Pennsylvania. In early 2017, Plaintiff Pia Wilson, a high-ranking NJT supervisor (“Wilson”), commenced legal action against Defendants, NJT and several NJT employees, alleging she was subjected to retaliation and constructively discharged as a result of settling a prior, multi-plaintiff lawsuit containing discrimination claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 et seq. (“LAD”), against NJT and a supervisor of the agency. Wilson vs. New Jersey Transit, ESX-L-000094-17.
In the prior lawsuit, filed in January 2014, NJT and the state Attorney General’s Office agreed to a settlement of $3.65 million after Wilson and six other African-American workers alleged, among other accusations, that they were paid less and were victims of discriminatory treatment by their superiors compared to their white counterparts. The suit also accused a former supervisor who was not a defendant in the case of using the “N-word” in the workplace and putting a makeshift noose around a worker’s neck, stating: “This is how things were handled in the South.”
The 2014 settlement took place only a few years after NJT settled a similar discrimination lawsuit that was filed by minority police officers in the amount of $5.8 million. The officers alleged they endured racial insults and slurs from their chief going back 10 years. They complained the chief referred to African Americans using derogatory terms ranging from the “N-word” to “porch monkeys”, refused to shake their hands at ceremonies and wrote them up for pretextual reasons.
In the current case scheduled for trial in November, Wilson alleged that after the 2014 settlement, instead of the racial discrimination situation improving, it got worse. She claimed she was punished for bringing the case and that her retaliation complaints went ignored by the agency for months. She endured “degrading and sarcastic comments” by her peers. According to the complaint, Wilson was transferred from NJT headquarters to a “rodent-infested warehouse” and NJT changed her hours without justification. In addition, Wilson complained that the agency increased her workload by not hiring replacements for employees under her who left, forcing her to work 12-hour shifts with no overtime pay just to complete her work. She also accused NJT of not granting her an interview for a promotion, passing her over for the position, while promoting one of the individual defendants in the original case, and ignoring her during meetings, among other actions.
In another development related to this matter, NJT filed a court action on September 17, 2020 seeking a gag order against Wilson’s attorney, saying a Twitter post the attorney had recently posted was “irresponsible and inflammatory” and threatened to taint the jury pool. The post read: “[a] race discrimination & retaliation trial scheduled for November in Essex County will show why PTC is delayed: corrupt & dysfunctional management refused to give the PTC job to the most qualified person-leaving it vacant for months! @northjersey.” The attorney’s post retweeted an article titled “NJ Transit won’t kill Gov. Phil Murphy, but it will kill New Jersey.”
(https://www.northjersey.com/story/opinion/2020/09/08/nj-transit-wont-kill-phil-murphy-but-will-kill-new-jersey-opinion/5734098002). NJT sought a gag order requiring the attorney to delete the tweet and prohibit her, Wilson, or any of Wilson’s other attorneys, from making statements concerning NJT’s “character, credibility and/or reputation”. Karol Corbin Walker, a member of the law firm representing NJT, then reversed herself, and withdrew the request on Sept. 23, 2020.
We will continue following this case and look forward to the jury’s verdict. If you are concerned about racial discrimination or any other kind of unequal treatment in the workplace, you may contact our office.
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.