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Pritchett v. State

New Jersey Supreme Court

August 12, 2021

This appeal concerned the standards to be applied by a trial court when reviewing a jury award of punitive damages against a public-sector defendant. Plaintiff worked for one of New Jersey’s juvenile correctional facilities when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Her second request for unpaid leave was denied, and her supervisor refused to explain the denial or put the denial in writing. Plaintiff then learned she would be subject to disciplinary proceedings, resulting in her termination without a pension, if she did not resign. Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging the State violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”). A jury awarded compensatory damages in excess of $1.8 million and punitive damages of $10 million, and the State challenged the punitive damages award. The trial court determined that the amount of the punitive damage was high but that no miscarriage of justice occurred. The Appellate Division affirmed in large part but remanded for reconsideration of the punitive damages award. The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed and but modified the Appellate Divisions instructions on remand. The State argued that the Appellate Division’s remand instructions were flawed because they failed to include direction to the trial court to apply heightened scrutiny when reviewing awards of LAD punitive damages against public entities. The Supreme Court agreed. The Court held that, when the trial court reviewed the punitive damages award, the court failed to apply the heightened scrutiny called for in Lockley v. Department of Corrections and underscored in the companion case of Green v. Jersey City Board of Education. The Green case discussed “the care to be taken by the trial court when punitive damages are awarded against public entities.”

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