Court Upholds Discrimination Verdict Against County of Monmouth

Gregory S. Schaer, a Monmouth County based New Jersey Employment Attorney located in Manalapan, represented the employee in a lawsuit against their employer alleging claims of gender discrimination.

In Coleman v. Kaye , 87 F.3d 1491 (3d Cir. 1996), a female investigator with the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office sued her employer for gender discrimination. The jury returned a verdict in plaintiff’s favor awarding her $15,000 in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages. The County appealed claiming that the County of Monmouth was not liable for employment discrimination committed by the county prosecutor. Following the jury verdict, the District Court vacated the jury award and found that the County of Monmouth was liable for the actions of the county prosecutor.

On appeal to the United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the court reinstated the jury verdict and, in a case of first impression, held that County Prosecutors in New Jersey serve dual roles and can be liable when acting on behalf of the County in making personnel decisions.

The court held that the discriminatory acts of the County Prosecutor and his subordinates could be imputed to the County of Monmouth since the Prosecutor was the final policymaking authority acting on behalf of Monmouth County in the Prosecutor’s Office. The court held that the compensatory and punitive damages awarded against the County of Monmouth should not have been vacated and reinstated those awards.

The County also attempted to vacate the award of compensatory and punitive damages on the basis that the employee had not demonstrated a sufficient injury to justify the damages that were awarded. The County argued that an award for compensatory damages for personal humiliation, mental anguish and pain and suffering is not permitted.

The court rejected the County’s argument finding that compensatory damages may include not only out of pocket loss and monetary harms but also injuries as impairment of reputation, personal humiliation, and mental anguish and suffering associated with the result of being passed over for promotion.

The court also rejected the County’s argument that the Prosecutor cannot be personally liable for intentional discrimination because he merely rubber stamped the suggestion of his subordinates and had no awareness of the employee’s complaints of discrimination. The court found that a reasonable jury could conclude that the Prosecutor was aware of the employee’s qualifications, her allegations of sex discrimination and had exercised his final policy making authority in employment matters in a legally impermissible manner.

The court held that the Prosecutor could be individually liable under federal civil rights law 42 U.S.C. 1983 if he had actual knowledge of the discriminatory conduct and acquiesced in it. The court held that personal involvement can be shown through allegations of actual knowledge and acquiescence and that since the employee presented her concerns to her employer in writing about the discriminatory treatment she was enduring and the employer chose to take no action, the pattern of discriminatory conduct that the employee alleges took place at her employment added significance.

The court noted that the employee presented evidence at trial that called into question the manner in which she had been evaluated in comparison to her male counterparts who had also applied for promotions. The court further noted that the employee also introduced evidence at trial that the procedures utilized by her employer to evaluate candidates for a promotion were altered in a manner that seriously injured her efforts to obtain a promotion.

The court held that since the employee presented her concerns to her employer by Memo on two occasions and received no response, a reasonable jury could reject the employer’s claims that they had no knowledge and were not involved in the discrimination that occurred.

Finally, the court rejected the County’s argument to vacate the award of punitive damages. The court found that the jury had determined that the Prosecutor had intentionally discriminated against the employee on two occasions and that the jury’s findings that two acts of intentional discrimination, after having been put on notice of discrimination against the same individual, satisfied the required “reckless or callous indifference” to the employee’s federally protected rights justifying the award for punitive damages.

To speak with an experienced New Jersey Employment Law Attorney, contact the Law Offices of Gregory S. Schaer, LLC, conveniently located in Monmouth County, New Jersey.