On March 20, 2018, an Ocean County, New Jersey jury awarded Joseph Lach $725,016.00, including $500,000.00 in punitive damages for a violation of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination. Lach claimed that he was fired for filing a workers’ compensation claim for a shoulder injury sustained while lifting a couch while working as a full-time maintenance worker for the Briar Hill Apartment Complex. As a result of the accident, he sustained a torn rotator cuff that required surgery and requested leave for four to six weeks. The lawsuit alleged that three weeks into the leave, Briar Hill terminated him in a letter with no warning and no explanation.
Briar Hill contended that Lach’s absence would have been an undue hardship to the apartment complex, and disputed his financial damages. The seven member jury unanimously found that Briar Hill violated the NJ LAD.
This case is important because it reinforces the fact that an employer cannot terminate and/or discriminate against an employee for claiming or attempting to claim workers’ compensation benefits. The remedies available include filing a common law action against the employer for damages including punitive damages, the right to file an administrative action against the employer seeking administrative penalties, including a penalty not exceeding $1,000.00, restoration of wages and restoration of employment; and interestingly, the right to file against the employer in a court of criminal jurisdiction charging the employer with a disorderly persons offense.
Furthermore, the administrative and quasi-criminal remedies set forth at N.J.S.A. 34:15-39.1 and 39.2 are not exclusive of a civil case. Instead, they are in addition to the civil case as discussed in Lally v. Copygraphics, 85 N.J. 668 (1981).
In these types of claims, it also is important to remember that if an employer is able to successfully rebut a plaintiff’s proofs by showing that there was a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action, then such a claim will fail.