Onuaha v. Roche Molecular Systems, A-1436-11T3 (N.J. App. Div., July 3, 2012)

A three judge panel took less than a month from oral argument to uphold a $1,092,424.25 trial verdict in a Law Against Discrimination retaliation claim. This opinion is full of useful law, and is one of those cases Plaintiff practitioners will want to file away for future reference.

The facts are not especially egregious. In fact, for a million dollar case, the facts are fairly mundane. It is the very ordinary nature of the facts in this million dollar verdict that makes the result extraordinary because cases like this are regularly thrown out in Federal Court. Nevertheless, the Appellate Division rejected numerous complaints of trial and legal error, producing a very noteworthy opinion.

Plaintiff Anthony Onuoha was an African-American who emigrated to the U.S. in 1991 and became a citizen in 2005. He earned a doctorate degree in chemistry in 1996. He was hired by Roche Molecular Systems as a principal scientist. He was the only African-American in his group. Within the first year of his employment he discovered that other employees in his group had higher salaries, including those hired after him. He requested a raise, which was denied. After his complaint, his evaluation was downgraded from his first evaluation.

In February 2006, Onuoha complained repeatedly of discrimination and prejudice, although he never specifically mentioned “race” discrimination. There is no evidence at all that any racially hostile actions or comments were ever made by his supervisors. However, Mr. Onuoha alleges that after his complaints were made, his relationship with his supervisors deteriorated, resulting in continuing poor performance reviews and eventually with his termination in September 2009. The Defendants’ stated reason for termination was that there was a lay-off and Mr. Onuoha had the lowest ratings.

The Plaintiff brought suit under the LAD for discrimination and retaliation, and for CEPA and common law retaliation (“Pierce” claim). The Court did not explain the basis for the CEPA and Pierce claims, except to note that they were dismissed on summary judgment before trial. The jury awarded $762,000 (not broken down between economic and non-economic damages). The Court added interest of $24,771.18 and $305,653.07 in attorney’s fees, including a 10% contingency enhancement. The Appellate Division upheld the final judgment in all respects.

The first important legal issue explored here is the lack of temporal proximity. There was 3.5 years between the complaints of discrimination and the alleged retaliatory termination. Yet the Court ruled that temporal proximity “will usually be insufficient to prove a causal link”. The Trial Court read the Model Jury Instructions. The Defendants wanted the Court to advise the jury that cases have held that the passage of time of years between complaint and adverse actions have been enough to negate an inference of retaliation. The Appellate disagreed and upheld.

Second, despite the lack of a specific complaint of race discrimination, the absence of any racially motivated comment or action, and despite any evidence of discrimination against other co-workers (and the fact that the Plaintiff had originally attributed part of the pretext to whistleblowing retaliation), the Court still found enough evidence to support the jury verdict.

The Court also addressed the Defendants’ argument that attorney’s fees should have been reduced because two of the Plaintiff’s causes of action were dismissed on summary judgment. The Court held that the Plaintiff was still completely successful, and that all of the proofs adduced during the trial were relevant to the discrimination claim. It is unknown, however, whether the trial judge took this into considered in awarding only a 10% multiplier.

Plaintiff’s counsel obviously did an excellent job in presenting Mr. Onuoha’s case to the Court and the jury. This is the kind of case that Plaintiff’s attorneys will want to keep handy for future reference during summary judgment arguments and at mediation, because of the comparatively ordinary facts that produced a million dollar judgment.

Plaintiff’s counsel: Steven D. Cahn and Harold Parra
Cahn & Parra, L.L.C

Defendants’ counsel: Patrick M. Stanton, David A. Copus, and Jennifer Rygiel-Boyd
Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.

Appellate Division Judges: Yannotti, Espinosa, and Kennedy