Court affirms $10M jury award to N.J. correctional officer in discrimination claim

By: - January 31, 2024 6:40 am

An appeals panel has ruled the $10 million in punitive damages a Mercer County jury awarded to a correctional officer who sued the state for discrimination was reasonable. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A state appeals court has upheld the $10 million in punitive damages a lower court ordered the state of New Jersey to pay for forcing a Juvenile Justice Commission correctional officer to resign against her will in 2011 because she had multiple sclerosis.

A three-judge panel agreed Tuesday that a Mercer County jury’s award in a 2017 trial was reasonable because the supervisors who drove Shelley Pritchett into unwanted early retirement at the age of 37 acted “reprehensibly.” Pritchett had sued the state for discrimination in 2013, alleging that her bosses violated the state Law Against Discrimination by failing to accommodate her disability and discriminating based on the perception of disability.

Appellate Division Judge Heidi Willis Currier, who wrote the opinion, noted that the supervisors “blithely” ignored the advice of human resources personnel, who had planned to approve Pritchett’s request for an unpaid leave of absence.

At trial, jurors found that Pritchett was qualified to perform the basic duties of her job and that the supervisors intentionally discriminated against her by ordering her to retire, resign, or face disciplinary charges and termination. The $10 million in punitive damages is “substantial” but warranted to ensure high-level supervisors follow the anti-discrimination law, Currier decreed.

Her ruling came after the case had bounced up and down the court system over the past six years, with the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2021 affirming that public employers can be made to pay punitive damages but that judges must review such awards with heightened scrutiny.

“After having reviewed the award with great care in light of defendant’s status as a public entity, we find the award appropriate to deter future unlawful conduct,” Currier wrote. “We are mindful the source of the damages award is public funds, but nevertheless have considered the remedial nature of the LAD statute and the expectation ‘that public officials will be motivated to avoid misconduct that exposes the State to financial sanction in the form of punitive damages if only because of the stigma attached to the judgment.’”

A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office declined to comment. Attorney Deborah Lynn Mains, who represents Pritchett, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

If the appellate ruling stands, the $10 million award would be among the higher payouts the state has faced in recent years. Several outlier cases have resulted in payouts of almost $70 million in 2022 and 2021, but most lawsuits people have successfully brought against the state resolved in payouts of less than $1 million.

In Pritchett’s case, the jury also awarded compensatory damages for emotional distress, back pay, and future pension benefits; attorneys’ fees; and pre-judgment interest, for a total judgment topping $12 million, according to the ruling.

But Currier reduced that total by $575,000, saying the jury awarded that amount for emotional distress even though Pritchett presented “little evidence” of emotional distress.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.