Schorr & Associates’ Employment Case of The Week ending September 23, 2016

Cuevas v. Wentworth Company, A-30-14 (N.J. Supreme Court, September 19, 2016)

This week’s Case of the Week, Cuevas v. Wentworth Company, is the most important case released this year and one of the most important cases of the decade.  This case completely changes the method in which judges and appellate panels will analyze motions for remittitur and places faith back into the jury’s judgment regarding the proper quantum of damages to award for emotional distress in employment discrimination and retaliation cases.

Plaintiffs Ramon and Jeffrey Cuevas were brothers who were both upper managers for the Wentworth Company.  They alleged to have suffered a hostile working environment due to a variety of continuous disparaging comments about their Hispanic descent.  They complained to the in-house counsel, after which they were both terminated within the next month.

They sued under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  The jury awarded overall damages in the amount of $2.5 million, including emotional distress damages of $800,000 to Ramon and $600,000 to Jeffrey.  The defendants filed for remittitur – a motion seeking to have the jury award reduced.  The trial judge denied the motion.  In doing so, the court distinguished the comparable cases and verdicts selected by the defendants.  In the court’s view, the award fell far short of one that would be shocking to the conscience.  The trial judge also stated that she would refrain from applying her own feel for the case under He v. Miller, 207 N.J. 230 (2011).  The Appellate Division affirmed for the same reasons.  The Supreme Court granted Certification.

The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed.  In doing so, the Supreme Court overruled its own 2011 decision in He and totally changed the bases under which judges and appellate panels should analyze remittitur motions.  The most important points in this very well-written opinion by Justice Albin:

1.    A jury’s verdict is cloaked with a presumption of correctness.  That presumption is not overcome unless a defendant can establish, clearly and convincingly, that the award is a miscarriage of justice.  The appellate courts must give deference to a trial judge’s feel of the case.

2.    In He, the Supreme Court approved of the trial judge relying on his own experience as a personal injury litigator in determining whether a jury verdict shocks the conscience.  The Supreme Court concluded that reliance on the judge’s personal experiences is not a sound or workable approach. He is now overruled.

3.    In addition, judges must abandon the practice of comparing supposedly similar verdicts to assess whether a particular damages award is excessive.  The Court noted that every case is fundamentally different and judges cannot compare what each jury hears from the witness stand.

The Court affirmed the jury verdict, finding that the $1.4 million award of emotional distress to the two plaintiffs was “probably on the high end”, but they were “not so wide of the mark”, so “pervaded by a sense of wrongness” that they shock the judicial conscience.  The jury’s verdict was affirmed in its entirety.

As a result of this decision, it will be very difficult for trial courts to justify remitittur in cases where the awarded emotional distress damages are $1 million or less.  The standard is now that the jury is presumed correct and jury verdicts on emotional distress should not be disturbed except where it is clearly and convincingly excessive and shocking to the judicial conscience.  This case has tons of great language and should be read by all.

Supreme Court: Unanimous (Albin on the opinion).

Appellate Division:  Judges Sapp-Peterson, Maven and Hoffman.