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NEW JERSEY SUPREME COURT UPHOLDS LARGE EMOTIONAL DISTRESS AWARDS WHERE THE PLAINTIFFS NEITHER TREATED WITH A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL NOR PRESENTED EXPERT TESTIMONY IN SUPPORT OF THEIR EMOTIONAL DISTRESS CLAIMS

On September 19, 2016, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld large emotional distress verdicts in a national origin discrimination case where the plaintiffs, Ramon and Jeffrey Cuevas, neither treated with a mental health professional, nor presented expert testimony at trial in support of their respective claims of emotional distress damages.  Ramon Cuevas v. Wentworth Group, 2016 N.J. LEXIS 891 (decided September 19, 2016). The Cuevas brothers filed a lawsuit under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination against their former employer, the Wentworth Group, alleging they were routinely subject to racially disparaging and humiliating remarks by Wentworth executives; the Cuevas brothers also alleged they were the victims of retaliatory firings. The case was tried before a jury who awarded them $2.5 million in damages, including $800,000 to Ramon and $600,000 to Jeffrey for emotional distress damages. The defendants’ filed a post-trial motion with the court requesting a reduction of the emotional distress damages award because they felt they were unconscionably too high.  Defendants’ application to the court for reduction of a jury award is called remittitur. The trial court denied defendants’ motion finding that the award was not “shocking to the conscience.”   The Appellate Division affirmed the jury verdict and the trial judge’s denial of defendants’ remitter application.  The issue on appeal before the New Jersey Supreme Court was whether the trial court properly denied defendants’ application for remittitur.

In agreeing with the Appellate Division panel below, and relying on its prior 2004 decision in Tarr v. Ciasulli, 181 N.J. 70 (2004), the New Jersey Supreme Court in Cuevas rejected defendants’ argument that, in a LAD case, only nominal damages may compensate for emotional distress when there is no “independent corroborative proof or a showing of resulting physical or psychological symptoms.” In affirming the trial court’s decision to leave intact the jury’s emotional distress verdict, the Court emphasized that, “the Legislature intended victims of discrimination to obtain compensation for mental anguish, embarrassment, and the like, without limitation to severe emotional or physical ailments.” (emphasis in original) quoting Tarr, supra., at 81. In doing so, the Court in Cuevas noted that a number of courts have upheld high emotional-distress LAD awards in the absence of expert testimony from mental-health experts. See, e.g., Rendine v. Pantzer, 141 N.J. 292, 311-13 (1995) (affirming trial court’s denial of remittitur and upholding jury’s emotional-damages awards of $105,000 and $125,000 for two plaintiffs in LAD gender-discrimination wrongful-termination case); Quinlan v. 36 Curtiss-Wright Corp., 409 N.J. Super. 193, 217 (App. Div. 2009) (upholding emotional-distress damages of $187,128 in LAD gender discrimination failure-to-promote case), rev’d on other grounds, 204 N.J. 239 (2010); Lockley v. Turner, 344 N.J. Super. 1, 12-14 (App. Div. 2001) (upholding $750,000 emotional-damages award), aff’d in part and modified in part on other grounds, 177 N.J. 413 (2003).

The Court further made clear that trial judges should be reticent to invade the province of the jury in determining what is a fair and reasonable damages verdict for a victim of proven discrimination.  This is because a jury’s verdict is cloaked with a “presumption of correctness” quoting Baxter v. Fairmont Food Co., 74 N.J.  588, 598 (1977).  The Court went on to opine that, “The unique nature of each case and the suffering of each plaintiff is the reason why juries are told that, in fixing a monetary amount for emotional-distress damages, there is ‘no better yardstick for your guidance than your own impartial judgment and experience.’” Model Jury Charges (Civil) § 2.36, 34 “Past and Future Emotional Distress in an Employment Law Case” (2014).

If you have suffered emotional distress because of unlawful discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, call the attorneys at Mashel Law (732) 536-6161 or fill out the contact form on this page for immediate help. At Mashel Law, located in Marlboro, New Jersey, we are dedicated to protecting the rights of employees.