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A Black Woman’s Discrimination Verdict and $1.9M Compensatory Damages Award in a New Jersey Trial Court Survives an Appeal by Her Employer

In the world of trial practice, there is something that lawyers sometimes call a “swearing match” or “swearing contest.” It refers to a case that hinges heavily, if not almost entirely, on the jury’s credibility determination between two witnesses whose testimony was nearly diametrically opposite. This is a scenario where the right New Jersey discrimination lawyer can help immensely. The right legal team can come up with, and deploy, crucial techniques that poke holes in the credibility of your opponent, while also helping you make your own testimony even more relatable, believable, and persuasive.

The Appellate Division recently rendered a ruling in one of those cases. The race discrimination plaintiff, R.M., was a Black woman and a supervisor at a skilled nursing facility in Bound Brook. In the fall of 2016, the facility’s interim administrator allegedly told her that “I don’t want a black person walking around here in a suit as a VP. I want you in scrubs, flats, and a lab coat.”

Not long after this contentious alleged incident, the facility fired R.M., ostensibly for failing to alleviate the backlog of grievances, accident reports, and incident reports that existed at the facility. K.K., a white woman, took over handling R.M.’s duties at the facility.

The law says that to win a Law Against Discrimination case in this state, you need to start by establishing a “prima facie” case. You do that by demonstrating that you were a member of a protected group, that you did your job at a level of proficiency that met or exceeded the employer’s reasonable expectations, that the employer terminated you, and that the employer hired someone else to do the same work.

If you can do that, the employer has to provide proof that it fired you due to legitimate reasons. If your employer clears that hurdle, the burden shifts back to you to show the employer’s stated reasons were pretextual and that it was actually motivated by discriminatory animus.

R.M.’s case was one of those so-called “swearing matches.” The outcome of the trial hinged largely on R.M.’s testimony versus the interim administrator’s testimony and which woman the jury found to be more credible.

Part of what can help in a “swearing match” case like this is having others who back up your assertions. R.M.’s legal team presented testimony from G.V., a Black employee who was the assistant director of nursing. The director testified that the administrator would avoid speaking to her, communicating through other white employees instead. Furthermore, R.M. had evidence that the interim administrator once said of her assistant, a Black man, “this is my slave.”

All of that amounted to a record of proof that “strongly suggests” that the stated reason for R.M.’s dismissal was pretextual and the real motivation was discriminatory.

‘Trickery’ or ‘Deceit’ Can Mean an Award of Punitive Damages

The jury found for R.M. They didn’t merely issue a judgment in her favor, though. The jury looked at all of R.M.’s evidence and decided that she had incurred nearly $1.9 million in compensatory harm. (Compensatory damages include everything from lost earnings to physical and emotional distress.)

What’s more, the case R.M. presented to the jury laid out misconduct so egregious that it created a valid claim for punitive damages on top of the compensatory damages. In New Jersey, you can recover punitive damages in your discrimination case if you can show that the discriminatory conduct was wantonly or recklessly egregious.

One way you can meet that burden is by showing that your employer engaged in “trickery” or “deceit.” If, for example, your employer trumped up a bogus “legitimate” justification for firing you – all to hide its own discriminatory action – then that can be a valid basis for an award of punitive damages.

In R.M.’s case, the Appellate Division specifically ruled that the administrator’s alleged racist “comments were malicious and egregious” and that firing R.M. based on a disingenuous claim of “poor performance” was potentially the sort of deceptiveness that permits an award of punitive damages.

There’s a lot that goes into a fully successful outcome in a discrimination case. You need to ensure that the testimony you give is as powerful as possible. You need to ensure that the other evidence you present bolsters your assertions as persuasively as possible. And you need to ensure that all of your proof meets the law’s requirements for unlocking all of the damages you deserve. For all of this and more, you need the right legal team on your side. Look to the knowledgeable and diligent New Jersey race discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates to be that kind of powerful advocate for you. Contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation.

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