New Jersey Jury Awards $8.45 Million in Wrongful Termination Case

A wrongful termination lawsuit in a New Jersey state court resulted in a jury verdict awarding the plaintiff $8.45 million in September 2016. This amount consisted of compensatory damages for emotional distress of $2.45 million, as well as $6 million in punitive damages. The plaintiff alleged that her employer, a government agency in Hudson County, New Jersey, terminated her after she sought treatment for depression, despite the fact that two mental health professionals had stated that she was fit to return to work. The New Jersey Civil Service Commission (CSC) ruled that the county had wrongfully terminated her and awarded her back pay. Matter of Malta-Roman, Hudson Cty. Dept. of Family Svcs., Docket No. 2013-2883, decision (N.J. Civil Svc. Comm., May 7, 2015). The plaintiff also filed a civil lawsuit, which resulted in the jury verdict. Malta-Roman v. Hudson Cty., No. L-001361-14, complaint (N.J. Super. Ct., Hudson Co., Mar. 24, 2014).

This case highlights two tracks that employment law claims can take. The plaintiff brought a claim before the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law (OAL) and the CSC. Filing an administrative claim is a prerequisite for many employment law claims. A person claiming employment discrimination, for example, must first file a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a comparable state or local agency. The agency may decide to pursue the matter on the claimant’s behalf. If it does not, it may issue a “right to sue” letter, which allows the claimant to file a civil lawsuit. Since the plaintiff in Malta-Roman was a county employee, she had to use certain administrative procedures before going to court.

The plaintiff took three months of medical leave in 2012 in order to obtain treatment for depression. Toward the end of her leave, in June 2012, a psychologist employed by the county evaluated her and determined that she could return to work. Her treating physician, however, determined that she needed an additional two weeks of leave. The plaintiff had reportedly become distressed after several coworkers allegedly told her supervisors about her mental health treatment. A second fitness evaluation, conducted by the same county psychologist toward the end of the two-week period, found that she was not fit for work, while her physician cleared her. A lengthy fight to return to work ensued.

In January 2013, the plaintiff received a notice of disciplinary action, citing her for insubordination, conduct unbecoming a public employee, neglect of duty, other good cause, and abandonment of position. These charges were sustained after a hearing that March. The plaintiff appealed to the OAL, which eventually ruled that the defendant failed to prove that the plaintiff was unfit to perform her job duties. It ordered the plaintiff’s reinstatement and back pay from July 2012 to the date of the order in March 2015. The CSC affirmed this ruling in the following month.

The plaintiff filed suit in Hudson County Superior Court while the OAL case was pending. She sought compensatory damages for retaliation and other alleged unlawful actions by the defendant. The court granted summary judgment for the plaintiff, based on the favorable rulings from the OAL and CSC. See Winters v. N. Hudson Reg. Fire & Rescue, 50 A.3d 649 (N.J. 2012). The case proceeded to trial solely on the question of damages. On September 20, 2016, the jury issued the $8.45 million verdict.

If you need to speak with a disability discrimination attorney about a matter in New Jersey or New York, contact the Resnick Law Group today online, at 973-781-1204, or at (646) 867-7997.

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