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New Jersey Supreme Court Upholds $1.4M Emotional Damage Award in Race Discrimination Case

In an important win for employees throughout New Jersey, the state’s highest court ruled in favor of workers victimized by discrimination. The court upheld rulings by a trial court and the Appellate Division, allowing a jury’s award of emotional damages to stand in favor of two employees who suffered ethnic discrimination on the job. The ruling serves as a clear reminder that New Jersey law allows workers who suffer employment discrimination to recover for the degradation, humiliation, and mental anguish they suffer, even if that suffering doesn’t trigger “severe emotional or physical ailments.”

The case that led to this helpful new ruling was one involving two Latino brothers, Ramon and Jeffrey, who worked for a property management company. Ramon was a regional vice president. Jeffrey was a portfolio manager who obtained a promotion to executive director.

At work, the brothers suffered many racially biased remarks. The problems were especially severe for Ramon. In meetings, other high-level employees made jokes about mariachi and salsa music and bands. At a meeting at a restaurant, the others implied that Ramon must be related to the busboy at the eatery. Colleagues warned Ramon to be careful changing the tire on his car, lest someone think he was stealing the vehicle’s hubcaps.

The abuse continued. There were the chihuahua jokes, as well as jokes about Ramon having a switchblade knife. Jeffrey testified similarly at trial. He heard others call him and his brother “the two Chihuahuas” and the “Rico Suave brothers.” Even the head of HR called them “Latin lovers.”

By the end of November 2007, Jeffrey had experienced enough and told the company’s top in-house attorney he wanted the racist comments to stop. Four days later, the employer fired Jeffrey. A month later, the company terminated Ramon.

Armed with all this evidence, the brothers secured a jury verdict in their favor in their discrimination case. Ramon received more than $1 million in past and future lost earnings. Jeffrey received $150,000. On top of that, however, the jury awarded the brothers $1.4 million in emotional damages, with $800,000 going to Ramon and $600,000 going to Jeffrey.

The employer contested the award at every judicial level and lost every time. The trial judge rejected the employer’s argument that the award was the work of a “runaway jury.” To the contrary, the trial judge concluded that the amount of the award actually fell far below what would have been necessary to “shock the conscience” and require a reversal.

The Appellate Division also ruled in favor of the employees. That court’s opinion made it clear that, contrary to the employer’s argument, employees pursuing Law Against Discrimination claims are not limited to seeking nominal amounts of emotional damages if their discrimination didn’t cause physical or psychological maladies.  A discriminated-against worker’s degradation alone is enough.

The Supreme Court agreed. In creating New Jersey’s anti-discrimination law, the Legislature “intended victims of discrimination to obtain redress for mental anguish [and] embarrassment, even when their emotional and physical ailments cannot be characterized as severe.” The standard of proof of emotional harm is lower in discrimination matters than in some other situations, such as personal injury cases, because of “the special harm caused by willful discrimination in the workplace.”

New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination is clear about the severity of the problem of discrimination, especially in the workplace, and the state’s policy commitment to stopping it. If you’ve experienced discrimination on the job, you may be entitled to a significant recovery for the harm you suffered. The New Jersey employment attorneys at Phillips & Associates have decades of combined experience working tirelessly and diligently on behalf of workers harmed by discrimination. Contact us online or at (212) 248-7431 today to set up a free and confidential consultation with one of our skilled and experienced attorneys.

More blog posts:

NJ Supreme Court: Employers Cannot Force Employees to Accept Shortened Period for Pursuing Discrimination Claims, New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog, March 8, 2017

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