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October 12, 2016

The New Jersey Supreme Court, in an unpublished opinion, upheld a $2.5 million award to two brothers, including a combined $1.4 million in emotional distress damages, in an alleged race-based Law Against Discrimination (LAD) case. The holding is significant, as it confirms New Jersey’s long-standing rule that courts must exercise remittitur, the power to reduce a jury’s award, with great restraint, and that a jury’s award is given deference, particularly because the jurors were attentive throughout trial, understood their charge, and carefully apportioned damages. Further, the decision rejected two methods previously used by the trial courts in deciding remittitur motions: the comparative analysis method, and the “feel for the case” standard, affirmed in He v. Miller, 207 N.J. 230 (2011). In rejecting He, the Supreme Court recognized that due to the “special harm” caused by willful discrimination in the workplace, Plaintiffs were entitled to recover emotional distress and mental anguish damages resulting from the discrimination. Employers should certainly take notice of this holding, which affords significant deference to the jury’s damage award.

In the underlying matter, Plaintiffs alleged violations of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination , a hostile work environment, retaliatory firings, and a failure to promote, all based upon plaintiffs Hispanic heritage. In its defense, the employer contended that plaintiffs were terminated for poor work performance. The case was tried before a jury, which returned a verdict against defendants on all claims other than Plaintiff Ramon’s failure-to-promote claim. The trial court rejected defendant’s post-trial remittitur motions to vacate the jury’s verdict and the damages award. In particular, the court denied defendant’s motion for a remittitur of the emotional distress damages. In the trial court’s view, the award fell far short of one that would be shocking to the conscience, and the award could not be considered a miscarriage of justice. The state’s highest court also held that it is inappropriate for a trial judge to apply her own “feel for the case” under He v. Miller, 207 N.J. 230 (2011), and further that the comparison of similar verdicts is a futile exercise that should be abandoned on a remittitur motion. Instead, a remittitur motion must be based solely upon the record below. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s judgment. Finding no error, the Supreme Court affirmed.

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