NEW JERSEY SUPREME COURT UPHOLDS $1.4 MILLION EMOTIONAL DISTRESS AWARD IN DISCRIMINATION CASE

Last month, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld a $1.4 million jury award in emotional distress damages in a discrimination/retaliation case brought by two brothers, Ramon and Jeffrey Cuevas.  The Cuevas brothers brought suit against their former employer, Wentworth Group, alleging that they were subject to harassment due to their Hispanic heritage and then fired for complaining about it in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”).  Plaintiffs contend that company executives would often make disparaging remarks about them because of their race.  For example, at a company meeting at a restaurant, Ramon claims that his supervisor stated that if he did not pay for the bill, he could join his father in the back kitchen to wash dishes.  At another meeting at a restaurant, the same supervisor allegedly asked if they can get salsa music or a Mariachi band to play to “better fit” Ramon’s taste and stated that Ramon probably knew of a Mariachi band that could perform.  Jeffrey similarly claimed that company executives joked about having to “order twice as much Mexican food and hire a salsa band” to satisfy plaintiffs.   A human resources director also referred to the brothers as “Latin lovers,” which they found to be particularly demeaning since the comment came from a human resources executive.

The Cuevas’ alleged that the abuse was humiliating, continuous and wore them down.  Jeffrey claimed that he told in-house counsel that he wanted the harassment to stop, but the company lawyer allegedly dismissed him and simply told him to “calm down.”  Four days later, he was terminated.  Ramon said he contacted the president and CEO to complain about his brother’s treatment, and within a month, he was terminated too.

At trial, the brothers testified that they felt helpless and depressed, but did not seek medical treatment.  The jury returned a verdict for $1.4 million in emotional distress damages in addition to back pay, front pay and punitive damages.  Wentworth filed a post-trial motion and asked that the court to reduce the amount of emotional distress damages because they felt it was “unconscionably high.”  The trial court denied the motion, and Wentworth appealed.  The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s decision, and Wentworth appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.  Wentworth argued that only nominal damages should be awarded in discrimination cases under the NJLAD when there is no independent proof or showing of physical and psychological symptoms.  The Supreme Court rejected Wentworth’s argument and affirmed the decision of the trial court.  The Court reasoned, in part, that the “Legislature intended victims of discrimination to obtain compensation for mental anguish, embarrassment and the like, without limitation to severe emotional or physical ailments.”   It further stated that the court’s conscience was not shocked in this case and ruled that the brothers’ testimony on the matter was sufficient even though they did not present expert testimony to justify their claims of emotional distress.

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