Earlier this month, in Pritchett v. State, the New Jersey Supreme Court confirmed that the state of New Jersey and municipalities remain subject to punitive damages under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”).
Shelley Pritchett worked for the State of New Jersey as a Senior Corrections Officer at the Juvenile Justice Center (“JJC”). In 2011, Officer Pritchett suffered back, knee and neck injuries when she broke up a fight between two inmates. She went on a workers’ compensation leave as a result. Her doctor subsequently diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis. As a result, she sought to extend her medical leave by approximately 4 ½ months. However, the JJC denied her request, and instead offered to extend her leave by only about a month and told her that if she was not medically cleared to return to work by then she would have to resign.
Officer Pritchett was unable to return to work within the additional time JJC had granted. However, she told the JJC she did not want to resign. In response, JJC told her that if she did not resign by the end of the week, it would initiate disciplinary proceedings to fire her, and she would lose her pension. In response, Officer Pritchett applied for a disability retirement.
Officer Pritchett sued the State of New Jersey, claiming it violated the LAD by failing to accommodate her disability and discriminating against her based on its perception that she had a disability. The case went to a trial. The jury found in favor of Officer Pritchett, and awarded her $1,824,911 in compensatory damages, plus $10 million in punitive damages.
At the end of the trial, the State made numerous arguments why it believed the court should throw out the punitive damages award. The trial judge rejected each of those arguments and affirmed the punitive damages award.
The State appealed. The Appellate Division affirmed the finding that the State was liable for discriminating against Officer Pritchett, but remanded the case for the trial court to further review the amount of the punitive damages award to determine whether the amount of punitive damages had “some reasonable relation to the injury inflicted and the cause of the injury.”
The State asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to review the Appellate Division’s ruling, which the Supreme Court agreed to do. In its August 12, 2021 opinion, the New Jersey Supreme Court declined to overturn its longstanding precedent that punitive damages are available against public entities under the LAD.
Like in any case under the LAD, punitive damages are available against a public entity only if the conduct was especially egregious, and there was actual participation or willful indifference by upper management.
In its opinion, the Supreme Court emphasized the fact that a “court’s responsibility to review awards of punitive damages for reasonableness is heightened when such damages are awarded against a public entity” because public money is at stake. Accordingly, in such cases, the trial judge “must scrutinize with great care the amount of the award to determine whether it is proportionate to the harm suffered by the plaintiff.”
Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that the case should be remanded to the trial court, so it can engage in the required heightened scrutiny of the amount of the punitive damages award. The Court made it clear that, in doing so, the trial court should focus three factors:
- How reprehensible the underlying wrongful conduct was;
- The degree of difference between the harm or potential harm Officer Pritchett suffered, and the amount of the punitive damages award; and
- The difference between the amount of the punitive damages award, and the civil penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases.
The Court also made it clear that the first of those three factors is the most important.