In a groundbreaking decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court recently strengthened the force of the law pertaining to workplace discrimination.
The NJ Supreme Court determined that employers who make derogatory or denigrating remarks can be held civilly liable even when no one is directly harmed from such comments.
In the unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court explained that the state’s interest in protecting against workplace discrimination and hostile behavior directed toward employees demanded an expansive reading of the Law Against Discrimination (LAD).
Justice Helen Hoens wrote, “We do not suggest that [New Jersey’s antidiscrimination law] has created a civility code for the workplace where only language fit for polite society will be tolerated.” However, she went on to add that judges must be mindful of workplace conditions that could foster discrimination and need to be vigilant on the issue.
The case involved a United Parcel Service (UPS) manager who was assigned to facilities in central NJ. He claimed to have been demoted after complaining about denigrating remarks that were made by another male employee about female employees.
He sued under the LAD, which seeks to ban workplace discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, religion, and other characteristics of protected groups. The law also bans retaliation against employees—whether members of protected groups or not—who report such behavior.
Over the course of years, the man heard workers saying lewd and suggestive remarks about female employees as well as disparaging comments. Based on UPS policy the man documented the alleged incidents in written reports with commentary articulating why the behavior was unacceptable.
During his time at UPS, he was stricken ill and needed to temporarily leave work. Eventually, after coming back to the company, he accepted a lower-ranking position. The employee he had cited earlier for discrimination was promoted in the interim and was now his boss.
According to the man who brought suit, this same employee continued to make extremely offensive comments about women. The man reported the incident to his superiors. In court, both those superiors and the alleged perpetrator denied hearing about and uttering such statements.
After several disputes, the man was demoted yet again. Subsequently, he sued on the grounds that the company violated the LAD. At trial he won and a jury awarded him $1 million for economic damages and emotional distress.
On appeal, the court needed to decide whether the LAD had actually been violated since the offending remarks were only made among other male employees and no female employee had heard them or been directly hurt by them.
Ultimately, the case made its way to the NJ Supreme Court who ruled that the comments violated the LAD since one uttering these offensive remarks can be liable even if no direct harm results from them.
Justice Hoens explained, “The broad purposes of the LAD would not be advanced if we were to apply so narrow a focus … These were not the occasional words of a low-level employee having a bad day, but were the words of a supervisor, uttered in meetings with managerial employees, both repeatedly and routinely.”
At the end of the day, this ruling greatly assists those who bring suit for employment discrimination while serving as a wake up call to employers and employees about how they treat their fellow workers.