$2.5 Million Employment Discrimination- Race and Retaliation Verdict Affirmed

In most employment discrimination cases there are two common measures of damages sustained by an employee, economic damages, such as lost salary, wages, bonuses and benefits following the termination of employment, and compensatory damages, which compensate an employee for emotional distress damages. Economic damages are far easier to quantify. As a recent New Jersey Supreme Court case illustrates, when there are facts which support employees suffering substantial emotional distress in an employment discrimination case, courts will permit a jury to award significant emotional distress damages.

In Cuevas v. Wentworth Group, (no.-30-14, 075077) (N. J. Super A. D. September 19, 2016), in a race discrimination and retaliation case, a unanimous Supreme Court of New Jersey affirmed a jury award of $2.5 million to two Hispanics brothers, including $800,000 in emotional distress damages to one employee and $600,000 to the other employee. The employees were employed as a regional vice president and portfolio manager at a property management company. The employees presented evidence that they were routinely subject to racially disparaging and humiliating remarks by the employer’s executives, including the executive vice president of operations. The employees alleged that, they routinely faced biting remarks that invoked racially demeaning stereotypes. Many of the degrading remarks occurred at senior executive meetings attended by an in-house lawyer, other executives, and regional vice presidents. The employees filed a lawsuit under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) alleging race discrimination, retaliation and a racially hostile work environment.

The evidence at the trial included the employees being referred to as Chihuahuas, Latin lovers, and the “Rico Suave brothers.” At a meeting when music was played, an employee interjected, “Do you think we could get a little Mariachi or salsa music in the background”- “something a little more to Ramon’s (one of the brothers) taste?” At a conference to discuss entertainment, an employee said that Ramon should look through his Rolodex because he might know “a salsa band, a Mariachi band that can perform.” Although Ramon attempted to deflect the hurtful comments, he was embarrassed, particularly when they were made in the presence of employees that he supervised. On one occasion, an executive stated that if he did not pick up the check, “Ramon can join his father [in the back] and you guys can wash dishes.” On another occasion when one of the employees came to the office explaining that he had to fix a flat tire, an employee suggested that if a “Puerto Rican” were observed with a crowbar kneeling by a car, he might be mistaken as “trying to steal the car or the hubcaps.” Two former property managers for the employer also testified that n executive made comments that they would be safe in bad neighborhoods when accompanied by Ramon because “he’s one of them” and because he was “Spanish.” The employer’s director of human resources also referred to the brothers as “Latin lovers.”

Just prior to being terminated one of the brothers told the employer’s in-house lawyer, “I really would like it if those comments at these executive meetings could stop” and he described the repetitive offensive remarks as “silly,” “childish,” and “degrading.” The lawyer replied that he should “calm down” and that the remarks were “good natured ribbing,” not “that big a deal,” and should not be taken “so seriously.” Four days later, one of the brothers was fired after he had just been given a performance-based raise of $10,000 four weeks earlier and shortly thereafter, the other brother was terminated. While the employer contended that employees were terminated for poor work performance, the employer could not produce any documents to substantiate a claim that the employer had received client complaints

In Cuevas, the New Jersey Supreme Court rejected the employer’s argument that in an employment discrimination case, only nominal damages may be awarded to compensate an employee for emotional distress when there is no independent corroborative proof or a showing of resulting physical or psychological symptoms. Instead, the Court held that a plaintiff employee may recover damages for emotional distress and mental anguish arising out of embarrassment, humiliation, and other intangible injuries without medical proof, as courts must give due regard to the opportunity of the jury to pass upon the credibility of the witnesses. Thus, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that due to the special harm that can be caused by willful discrimination in the workplace, compensatory damages for emotional distress, including humiliation and indignity, are remedies that require a far less stringent standard of proof than that required for a tort-based emotional distress cause of action.

The Court noted that the employees were entitled to recover all natural consequences of the employer’s wrongful conduct, including emotional distress and mental anguish damages arising out of embarrassment, humiliation, and other intangible injuries as the mental anguish and humiliation were sustained over a long period, and was not fleeting or insubstantial. While the Court noted that the jury awards for emotional distress damages of $800,000 and $600,000 to the employees “are probably on the high end, they were not so wide of the mark that they shock the judicial conscience.”

For more information about race discrimination and retaliation see, http://www.job-discrimination.com/race-discrimination.html, http://www.job-discrimination.com/retaliation.html

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Filed under Employment DIscrimination, Hostile Work Environment, Race Discrimination, Retaliation, Wrongful Termination

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