Seyfarth Synopsis: The New Jersey employers
were dealt an "emotional" blow when the New Jersey
Supreme Court, in
Cuevas v. Wentworth Group, affirmed a trial court's
denial of an employer's request for remittitur of the
plaintiffs' emotional distress damages, and held that it is
permissible for plaintiffs to recover exorbitant emotional distress
damages under the Law Against Discrimination ("LAD")
without putting forth an expert witness to corroborate their
"garden variety" damages.
In Cuevas, the plaintiffs were brothers, Ramon and
Jeffrey Cuevas, who worked as employees of defendant Wentworth
Property Management Corporation ("Wentworth"). Plaintiffs
alleged "that they were routinely subject to racially
disparaging and humiliating remarks by Wentworth executives,"
and that their employment was terminated after they complained
about the alleged discriminatory treatment. The plaintiffs
thereafter filed an action against Wentworth, alleging various
violations of the LAD.
After a jury trial, during which neither plaintiff offered any
evidence of seeking medical treatment following their terminations,
nor any expert testimony to validate their damages, plaintiffs were
awarded $2.5 million, including $800,00 in emotional-distress
damages to Ramon and $600,000 in emotional-distress damages to
Jeffrey. The trial court denied Wentworth's motion for a
remittitur of the emotional-distress damages on grounds that they
were excessive as compared to similar case verdicts, and the
Appellate Division affirmed. Wentworth appealed the Appellate
The Supreme Court affirmed the decision to deny Wentworth's
motion for a remittitur. For one, the court was persuaded that
"there is no neat formula" to assess emotional distress
damages under the LAD, and that the "model jury instruction on
emotional-distress damages in discrimination cases recognizes the
inexact nature of calculating such damages." The Court noted
further that the reduction of a jury award must be exercised with
"great restraint" because "in our constitutional
system of civil justice, the jury — not a judge — is
charged with the responsibility of deciding the civil claim and the
quantum of damages to be awarded a plaintiff."
Here, plaintiffs testified about the anxiety they experienced as
a result of the alleged harassment over several months, as well as
the impact on their families. While the Court acknowledged that the
award was on the higher end, it nonetheless held that it was not
"so wide of the mark, so pervaded by a sense of wrongness, so
manifestly unjust to sustain, that they shock the judicial
Finally, the Court also rejected the contention that a judge
should apply their personal experience or comparative verdicts in
deciding whether to grant a remittitur. While Court held that the
Appellate Division must pay "some deference" to a trial
judge's feel for the case, "courts should focus their
attention on the record of the case at issue in determining whether
a damages award is so grossly excessive that it falls outside of
the wide range of acceptable outcomes."
The Supreme Court's decision in Cuevas opens
employer's to greater exposure for "garden variety"
emotional distress damages in LAD cases. In those cases where an
employee seeks neither medical treatment nor expert testimony,
employers should nonetheless consider obtaining additional
discovery concerning alleged emotional distress damages and,
perhaps, retaining its own expert given what "garden
variety" can rise to in light of this decision.
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