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A New Jersey HR Director Obtains $500K in Punitive Damages and $1.3M in Attorney’s Fees in Her Sex Discrimination Case

When it comes to matters of discrimination and/or harassment, we all know there are gradations. There are employers who violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination because they made an honest mistake when it comes to the law, such as misconstruing when the law demands that they accommodate a worker’s disability. Other times, though, employers engage in harassment and/or discrimination in ways that are much more nefarious. They discriminate with malice or with reckless indifference to the illegality of their conduct. Sometimes, they also try to wear you down through litigation that is vexatious, frivolous, or advanced in bad faith. When these things occur, it pays to have a skilled New Jersey employment discrimination lawyer on your side to help you get everything you deserve, including awards of punitive damages and attorney’s fees.

A recent South Jersey race and sex discrimination case is an example of an employee who succeeded on both those compensation fronts.

M.H., a Black woman, was the human resources director at a South Jersey housing firm. Her employer, as part of its year-end meetings, presented purportedly lighthearted and humorous slideshows. The HR director, however, recognized many of the pictures’ captions in the 2015 slideshow as inappropriate. According to the lawsuit, the employer attached captions like “I want mine big like these,” “What a nice set,” and “Mary’s are bigger” to photos of female employees who had held balloons to their chests as part of a team-building exercise earlier in the year.

The slides also allegedly included a man with a prominent bulge in the fly area of his pants and the caption “Oh my — he’s really excited about the conference,” and another picture of a man pointing at a second man’s crotch area.

Recognizing the captions as potentially fostering a sexually hostile work environment, the HR director expressed her concerns prior to the 2016 meeting, asking to screen the pictures and captions prior to the event, according to the lawsuit. The employer refused. M.H. allegedly was told that “she was going to take the ‘fun’ out of everything because she would ‘edit’ the presentation.” The 2016 presentation included, among other captions with sexual connotations, a picture of a female vendor with a letter “D” belt buckle and the caption “Shouldn’t that belt have DD?”

After the employer fired the HR director, she sued for race and sex discrimination. The jury who heard her cases awarded her $925,000 in damages. $500,000 of that sum was punitive damages.

The director’s resounding success in her Law Against Discrimination case is a clear reminder that compensatory damages, while almost always the central component of any recovery in a discrimination case, isn’t necessarily the totality of what the law permits you to recover. Sometimes, pursuing punitive damages is a vital part.

When a Punitive Damages Award May Be Part of Your Compensation

To obtain an award of punitive damages in your LAD case, you have to demonstrate to the court that the harm you suffered was the result of actions or inaction by your employer that was either malicious or else was done “in wanton and willful disregard” of your rights. Malicious, in this context, means intentional misconduct done with bad intentions. “Willful or wanton disregard” means action or inaction done with the knowledge that one’s misconduct possessed a high likelihood of causing harm, and done with “reckless indifference” to the consequences of that action or inaction.

Receiving a substantial award of attorney’s fees is also critical in many cases. If the defense in your case has engaged in questionable conduct, then you may be entitled to what’s called an enhancement to your attorney’s fees award. Earlier this month, the judge in the HR director’s case said that the employer’s attorney engaged in improper tactics, which included threatening the HR director and her counsel with lawsuits alleging frivolous litigation, and accusing the HR director and her counsel of criminal misconduct.

The trial judge determined that the defense engaged in “vexatiousness,” and as a result, awarded the HR director an enhancement of 40%, which meant that in addition to the $939,000 in fees the court had already awarded, the employee received an additional $375,000.

Each discrimination and/or harassment case presents unique challenges. Sometimes, the challenges involve meeting the burden of proof and demonstrating the extent of your harm. Other times, when the other side engaged in dubious conduct (either before or during the trial,) it’s also about obtaining additional awards like punitive damages or enhanced attorney’s fees. Whatever comes your way, make sure you’re prepared with representation from the knowledgeable New Jersey sex discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates. Contact us online or at (833) 529-3476 today to set up a free and confidential consultation to discuss how we can help you seek justice.

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