Schorr & Associates’ Employment Case of The Week ending December 16, 2016

Michael Jackson v. Trump Entertainment Resorts, Inc., Docket no. 13-cv-1605 (U.S. Dist. NJ) (Trial Verdict  December 14, 2016)

Well, it’s not that Michael Jackson, and Trump Entertainment was voluntarily dismissed after filing for bankruptcy protection, so the Golden Nugget’s parent company was actually the defendant.  But the case name just grabs attention, doesn’t it?  In any event, this is the Case of the Week because on Wednesday, December 14, 2016, a New Jersey Federal jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff for disability discrimination.

According to the Summary Judgment decision issued by Judge Rodriguez in 2015, Mr. Jackson was a dealer and dual-rate floorperson for Trump for 1985 to 2011.  He wasn’t a perfect employee, and in fact had a lot of write-ups over the years for minor things like failing to use the employee elevator and having a soda in an unauthorized area. He also had some more serious write-ups, including misconduct toward a customer in 1992 and carelessness in 2009.  Nevertheless, he maintained consistently satisfactory performance reviews.

In 2009, Mr. Jackson was diagnosed with cancer of the neck and face.  When he returned from medical leave in 2010, he suffered from dry mouth and requested the reasonable accommodations of being able to carry a water bottle and to chew gum.  At first, the accommodation was informally granted, but then he started having problems and formally applied to HR for the accommodations in March 2011.  When the accommodations were denied, he filed a charge with the EEOC on March 18, 2011.  In the interim, in February 2011, Trump had announced that they were selling the casino to Landry’s to become a Golden Nugget Casino.

Landry’s terminated the employment of all Trump employees, but then hired back 85% of the employees, as required by the purchase agreement.  Trump did not recommend Jackson for re-hire, and as a result, Jackson was one of the 15% who were not re-hired, despite his longstanding seniority and satisfactory performance.  Jackson filed suit in 2013 under the ADA, ADEA, and NJLAD alleging discrimination based upon disability and age, and retaliation for filing the EEOC complaint.  In 2014, Trump Entertainment filed for bankruptcy, and Jackson agreed to administratively dismiss them and move ahead against Landry’s only.

In December 2015, the court granted summary judgment on the age discrimination claims finding no evidence that the actions were related to Mr. Jackson’s age.  The court denied summary judgment on the disability and retaliation claims, ruling that Jackson had submitted enough evidence of disability discrimination and retaliation, given the temporal proximity of the complaints and the termination.

The jury agreed.  The jury found liability against Landry’s and awarded $340,000 for pain and suffering.  There was no expert testimony on the emotional distress issues.  The jury denied punitive damages by a vote of 7-1.  I’m guessing that the fact that Landry’s was, in part, relying upon Trump’s bad recommendation made the difference there.  Judge Rodriguez will be deciding the quantum of economic damages in subsequent hearings.

So, we now have proof that a plaintiff can actually win in New Jersey Federal Court.  Ultimately, as always, facts win out, and Mr. Jackson quite obviously had the facts on his side on this one.