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Can You Be Forced to Sign Away Your Right to Seek Punitive Damages in Your New Jersey Sexual Harassment Case?

A workplace discrimination and harassment lawsuit, like any type of civil case, offers the successful plaintiff the opportunity to recover certain types of damages. These damages may include compensatory damages that compensate the injured worker for the harm suffered.. (This may include lost back wages, lost future earnings and emotional distress.) Your case may present facts that allow for the pursuit of punitive damages. Even if your employer forced you to sign an arbitration agreement as part of your employment, you generally cannot be forced to give away your right to seek punitive damages. So, whether you’re in court or in an arbitration hearing, you have an array of damages you can seek. A knowledgeable New Jersey discrimination attorney can help you make certain that you are seeking all of the damages to which you are entitled, whether in arbitration or litigation.

One case that highlights a harassed worker’s right to seek punitive damages was the recent case of M.R. (Appellate Division Case No. A-5388-16T3). M.R.’s allegations were, unfortunately, not uncommon. She was an employee in the human resources department of a North Bergen-based company. In September 2015, G.O. became the new supervisor of the human resources department. Allegedly, soon thereafter, the supervisor began making sexual advances and she turned him down. According to the employee, after she objected to the harassment, the supervisor retaliated against her, culminating in the supervisor’s firing her in December 2015.

M.R. sued her employer and her supervisor, alleging that she was the victim of sexual harassment and a sexually hostile work environment, in addition to being the victim of retaliation.

The employee faced a substantial hurdle in her case: the existence of an arbitration agreement. The agreement stated that the employee waived her right to resolve disputes through litigation in a jury trial. It also said that the employee agreed to waive the ability to recover “punitive and exemplary damages.”

While the trial court sided with the employer, the Appellate Division reversed part of that decision. New Jersey law does allow employers and employees to agree to resolve disputes via arbitration, and the law even permits the two sides to include claims that arise under the Law Against Discrimination within the range of disputes subject to arbitration. But the law does not allow for parties to create a contract that runs contrary to public policy. As an example, several years ago the courts ruled that an agreement that not only required arbitration but also required the employee to file a Law Against Discrimination complaint within six months was not enforceable because it undermined the public policy that was the foundation of the LAD.

The provision in M.R.’s arbitration agreement that barred her from pursuing an award of punitive or exemplary damages was similarly unenforceable because it violated public policy. New Jersey policy is clear that the LAD exists to pursue the “eradication of the cancer of discrimination.” Punitive damages are essential to that purpose of eradication in “expressing society’s disapproval of intolerable conduct and deterring such conduct where no other remedy would suffice.”

In other words, allowing victimized employees to seek punitive damages, where appropriate, in their discrimination and harassment cases is an essential feature within the LAD, and any agreement that creates a blanket bar against an employee seeking those damages is not permitted in New Jersey.

So, while M.R. had to present her case in arbitration instead of court, she absolutely was allowed to assert her entitlement both to compensatory damages and punitive damages.

To make sure you have the quality representation you need, whether you’re in court or in an arbitration hearing, call upon the skilled New Jersey employment attorneys at Phillips & Associates. Our attorneys have spent many years working to help discriminated and harassed workers get the results they deserve. Reach us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation and to find out how we can help you.

More blog posts:

New Jersey Appellate Division Upholds $525K Verdict for a Customer Service Representative Who Was Sexually Harassed by Her Supervisor, New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog, Aug. 7, 2018

Know Before You Sign: Your Arbitration Agreement May Keep Your New Jersey Harassment Case from Making it to a Jury, New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog, April 18, 2018

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