Case of the Week ending September 16, 2016  – Malta-Roman v. Hudson County (earlier decision here)

A Hudson County jury this week awarded $2.5 million in compensatory damages and an additional $6 million in punitive damages to a Plaintiff who had been terminated after taking two disability leaves for depression.

Plaintiff, Appellant Kimberle Malta-Roman (“Appellant”), took medical leave from March 23, 2012 through June 26, 2012. Appellant met with her physician on June 21, 2012 and was cleared to return to work. Defendant, Respondent Hudson County Department of Family Services (“Respondent”), required Appellant to see another medical professional to perform a fitness for duty examination. Both physicians cleared Appellant to return to work on June 26, 2012. After one day back at work, Appellant’s physician determined that Appellant would need two additional weeks of leave due to stress caused by the job. Additional leave was approved through July 17, 2012 and Appellant was found fit to return to work on July 17, 2012 by her personal physician. Respondent required another fitness for duty exam, and Respondent’s physician would not approve her for leave.

Due to the Respondent’s physician’s findings, Appellant was not allowed to return to work. Appellant filed a disability discrimination and retaliation complaint against the County with the EEOC. The EEOC chose not to pursue this claim, however, a “right-to-sue” letter was issued. After receiving the EEOC decision, the Respondent gave Appellant notice that they were seeking to terminate her employment for insubordination, conduct unbecoming a county employee, neglect of duty, other sufficient causes and abandonment of her job.

Appellant appealed the charges and an administrative hearing was held at the county level. The county found that there was no basis for charges of insubordination, abandonment of position, conduct unbecoming, or neglect of duty. The county found there was a conflict of medical opinions regarding Appellant’s ability to return to work. Appellant was asked to choose a doctor from a list of three doctors pre-screened by the county. The chosen doctor issued a report on April 1, 2013 stating that Appellant was not fit to return to work. Appellant then filed an appeal with the Civil Service Commission of New Jersey, which she also won.  This lawsuit followed.

In accordance with the Supreme Court decision in Winters v. North Hudson Regional Fire Co., the Plaintiff succeeded in getting an affirmative summary judgment order, and the trial proceeded on damages only.  In the meantime, during the three years that Ms. Malta-Roman was fighting the termination, she had no health insurance, and during that time a pre-cancerous tumor became a cancerous tumor which resulted in major surgery and permanent side effects.  The jury awarded $2 million for physical pain and suffering, $225k for past emotional distress, $225k for future emotional distress, and $6 million in punitive damages.

This case demonstrates the damages that can be caused by an employer who refuses to rely upon the medical opinion of the employee’s physician and instead pursues retaliation against the employee.  This case is extraordinary in that the employer’s decision caused catastrophic physical injury to the Plaintiff.  It is also significant in that this is the only case we know of to date where a Plaintiff has relied upon Winters in order to acquire an affirmative summary judgment.

Plaintiff’s attorney: Colin M. Page, Esq.

Trial Judge: Joseph A. Turula, J.S.C.