N.J. corrections officer denied time off after MS diagnosis deserves $10M, judges rule
The CO underwent medical treatment and testing after she was injured on the job while breaking up a fight at a JJC facility; that injury led to her MS diagnosis
By Kevin Shea
FORKED RIVER, N.J. — An appeals court on Tuesday upheld the $10 million in damages a Mercer County jury awarded to a former corrections officer whose state bosses did not grant her leave to deal with a Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis.
Shelley Pritchett, who worked for the Juvenile Justice Commission, won the award following a jury trial in mid 2017, and state lawyers have been fighting it ever since in the state’s three court levels.
On Tuesday, a three-judge Appellate Division panel upheld the award in strong, cautionary language.
The JJC’s behavior was “especially egregious,” Pritchett’s supervisors “blithely” dismissed her request and ignored the advice of their own human resources staffers, the decision notes.
“There is ample evidence to find defendant’s conduct was reprehensible and warranted a substantial punitive damages award,” the decision says.
And: “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 ... This award serves the purpose of encouraging high-level officials to conform their behavior.”
The decision was published, meaning it’s precedential case law moving forward.
A state spokesman declined to comment on the decision.
Pritchett underwent medical treatment and testing after she was injured on the job in mid 2011 while breaking up a fight at a JJC facility. (The agency runs state facilities for juvenile and youthful offenders.)
That fall though, her doctor found she was in the early stages of Multiple Sclerosis, known commonly as MS.
Pritchett was healthy enough to return to work from the work injury, but she sought additional, unpaid leave to seek and coordinate treatment for MS.
Her supervisors repeatedly refused, balked and did not explain their reasoning, the decision says.
She abruptly retired on a disability pension, a decision she felt was unfairly forced onto her, then sued the state in 2013, alleging a violation of the Law Against Discrimination, or LAD.
The case went to trial in 2017 and the jury found in her favor and awarded a total judgment of $12,015,384 - $10 million which was punitive.
Several appeals followed, mainly focused on the jury award.
The state’s lawyers – they eventually hired an outside firm – successfully got the case before the state Supreme Court, as well.
The high court found that when trial judges are reviewing punitive damages against a public entity, they must not only consider applicable case law, but a “heightened scrutiny.”
That decision sent the case back to the trial level, at Mercer County, where a judge again found the $10 million award just. (The appeal decision did not name the judge. Records show the case was handled by Douglas H. Hurd.)
State lawyers - contracted from Sills Cummis & Gross, and led by Peter Verniero, a former state Attorney General and Supreme Court justice - appealed the trial judge again, which led to Tuesday’s decision.
In it, state lawyers also asked the appellate judges to develop a “de novo” or fresh look at such awards against a public entity, and consider their reasonableness.
“We decline to do so,” the appeals decision says.
The decision notes that although the ratio of the compensatory damages in the case, which was $1.8 million, to the $10 million in punitive damages, is substantial, “We cannot conclude the award is unreasonable or disproportionate to the inflicted injury.”
And the appeals judges wrote they were “mindful” that they’re dealing with taxpayer money, they quoted a prior case law decision in their conclusion: “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.”