Schorr & Associates’ Employment Case of The Week ending June 16, 2017

Pritchett v. State of New Jersey, MER-L-2189-13 (Mercer County – Trial Verdict June 15, 2017)

A Mercer County jury has made another whopping jury verdict in an employment case against the New Jersey prison system, this one involving the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission (“JJC”). On Wednesday, June 14, the jury found liability against the JJC and awarded $1,233,000 in economic damages for front pay and back pay. The jury tacked on an additional $575,000 in emotional distress. On Thursday, June 15, the jury heard the punitive damages arguments and awarded an additional $10 million in punitive damages. All tolled, the jury awarded $11,808,000.

Shelly Pritchett was a Senior Corrections Officer who had worked for five years before being injured on the job. As a result of the injuries, Ms. Pritchett went out on a workers compensation. During her workers compensation leave, after several operations, a MRI determined that she had Multiple Sclerosis. This caused an additional extension of her leave. Her leave had begun on June 8, 2011. The JJC granted her Family and Medical leave for 12 weeks and then allowed an extension. But on October 11, 2011, the JJC advised that the FMLA had expired and that if Ms. Pritchett did not return by November 2, 2011, she would be terminated.

Ms. Pritchett’s physican would not clear her to return on November 2 because she still needed some treatment for her Multiple Sclerosis. The employer refused to grant any further extension, despite the fact that they had granted others similar extensions. When the union protested on Ms. Pritchett’s behalf, they were told, “We are going to stop it at some point so we are stopping it now.” Ms. Pritchett was given an ultimatum to resign or face disciplinary actions. Accordingly, she resigned. This lawsuit was filed in October 2013. There were four counts: (1) Failure to Accommodate/Failure to Engage in the Interactive Process under the NJLAD; (2) Disability Discrimination; (3) Disability based upon perceived disability; and (4) Request for equitable and injunction relief.

It took 3-1/2 years to get the matter to trial, which is a pretty typical time frame for an employment lawsuit against the State. Despite what seemed like clear-cut liability for disability discrimination, the JJC never offered more than $25,000 for settlement and flatly refused to reinstate Ms. Pritchett. Obviously, plaintiff’s counsel did a great job in presenting Ms. Pritchett’s case and convincing the jury that the actions of the JJC were both discriminatory and malicious.

This is just the latest in a series of enormous employment verdicts against New Jersey’s prison system. Last year, our firm won a $9.2 Million judgment against the NJDOC in Easley v. NJDOC. That had followed a number of multi-million dollar judgments against the NJDOC. The NJDOC, however, is not the only employer who finds themselves in legal trouble for discriminating against disabled employees who require leave. This is an all too common occurrence.

Although Federal law provides 12 weeks of job protection for a serious health condition under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination requires employer to provide additional leave beyond 12 weeks for disabled employees, so long as the accommodation is reasonable and does not create an undue hardship for the employer. The employer is required to engage in an interactive process with the employee and her physician in order to determine what accommodations or leave is necessary, so they can determine whether the extended leave will create an undue hardship for the employer.

Just this week, as this case was coming to an end, our firm filed a new lawsuit (Ionno v. NJDOC) for firing a corrections officer who was missing days due to an intermittent disability. Unfortunately, some employers never learn a lesson. At some point one would hope that our State Government would begin listening to the Courts and juries who continue to punish the State prison system for discriminating and retaliating against its workers. Unfortunately, that time has not yet come.