Earlier this month, New Jersey’s Appellate Division reduced a punitive damages award in an age discrimination case in which the jury had awarded $10 million, to slightly less than $2.5 million. Punitive damages are awarded to punish a defendant when its actions are especially egregious.
The Evidence of Age Discrimination
Nicholas Saffos worked for Avaya, Inc. and its predecessors, AT&T and Lucent Technologies, for more than 20 years. In 2002, Avaya hired M. Foster Werner, Jr., as the head of Mr. Saffos’ department. Mr. Saffos quickly noticed that Mr. Werner was firing employees who were over 40 years old, and replacing them with younger workers. He also noticed that Mr. Werner was favoring the younger employees in his department.
In 2003, Mr. Werner suddenly began criticizing Mr. Saffos’ job performance and examining his work, even though he had received positive performance reviews in the past. In August 2003, Mr. Werner placed Mr. Saffos on a Performance Improvement Plan (“PIP”). Avaya fired him 30 days later. At the time, Mr. Saffos was 49 years old. Avaya hired a 33-year-old to replace him. Mr. Saffoshas other evidence of age discrimination, including the fact that the average age of an employee in the department decreased by 10 years during the first two years that Mr. Werner was in charge.
The Jury Award
After a trial, a jury found in Mr. Saffos’ favor and awarded him $250,000 for emotional distress, $325,500 for past lost wages (“back pay”), $167,500 for future lost wages (“front pay”), and $10 million on punitive damages. However, the trial judge reduced the punitive damages to a little over $3.7 million, which was five times the other damages the jury had awarded because he believed the jury’s award was unreasonably high. Both sides appealed.
The Appellate Court Reduced the Punitive Damages Award
On appeal, in Saffos v. Avaya Inc., the Appellate Division reduced the punitive damages even further. It stated that although courts are not required to limit punitive damages to 5 times the actual damages, the trial judge acted properly when he used that as a guideline to find the punitive damages award was disproportionate to the harm Mr. Saffos experienced and disproportionate to the damages he recovered.
However, it ruled that emotional distress damages often include a punitive element, and the $250,000 the jury awarded to Mr. Saffos for emotional distress already included a punitive element since Mr. Saffos did not suffer any physical harm as a result of the emotional distress, and he did not need any psychiatric treatment. As a result, it concluded that the emotional distress damages should not have be included when calculating the punitive damages as 5 times the jury’s award. The Appellate Division therefore reduced the punitive damages award to just under $2.5 million, which is 5 times the economic damages the jury awarded.