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New Jersey Verdicts

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Corrections officer argued state didn't accommodate her illness

Amount:

$11,824,911

Type:

Verdict-Plaintiff

State:

New Jersey

Venue:

Mercer County

Court:

Mercer County Superior Court

Injury Type(s):

mental/psychological-emotional distress

Case Type:

Employment - Failure to Accommodate; Discrimination - Perceived Disability; Employment - Family Medical Leave Act, Disability Discrimination; Government - State and Local Government

Case Name:

Shelley Pritchett v. State of New Jersey, No. MER-L-2189-13

Date:

June 15, 2017

Parties

Plaintiff(s):

Shelley Pritchett (Female, 37 Years)

Plaintiff Attorney(s):

Drake P. Bearden Jr.; Costello & Mains, LLC; Mount Laurel, NJ, for Shelley Pritchett

Plaintiff Expert(s):

Mark Lazar; M.D.; Neurology; East Brunswick, NJ called by: Drake P. Bearden Jr. ■ Royal Bunin; M.B.A.; Economics; Wynnewood, PA called by: Drake P. Bearden Jr.

Defendant(s):

State of New Jersey

Defense Attorney(s):

Christopher L. Kelly; attorney general's office; Trenton, NJ, for State of New Jersey ■ Timothy R. Oberleiton; attorney general's office; Trenton, NJ, for State of New Jersey

Facts:

In September 2011, plaintiff Shelley Pritchett, 37, a corrections officer, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. After learning of her disease, she informed the human resources department at the Juvenile Justice Commission, in Glen Gardner, where she was employed. At the time, Pritchett, who had worked for the state facility for five years, had already been out of work, receiving workers' compensation benefits for a work-related injury. She had been cleared to return to work just as she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. After the diagnosis, she asked for additional time off, seeking to return in March 2012. In October 2011, the Juvenile Justice Commission told Pritchett that her eligibility for leave under The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) had already run out, on Aug. 31. She was informed in a letter from a human resources manager that she would be granted no more leave after Nov. 1, and she was presented with three options: retire, resign, or be subjected to disciplinary proceedings that would result in her termination. Pritchett responded that she could not return by November, but did not intend to abandon her position. In the ensuing weeks, Pritchett continued to correspond with human resources and her union representative, who discussed her case with a senior Juvenile Justice Commission official. The union representative told the official that others had been given extensions, but the official said that was no longer the case. According to Pritchett, when the union representative brought up her matter with another commission official, the official repeated that if she did not put in for retirement, she would face disciplinary charges. On Nov. 4, 2011, Pritchett retired from the facility. Pritchett sued the Juvenile Justice Commission, alleging that it violated the Law Against Discrimination by discriminating against her based on a perceived disability and for failing to accommodate her condition of multiple sclerosis. Her counsel maintained that the commission's failure to evaluate Pritchett's request for an accommodation was unreasonable. Pritchett's expert in neurology testified that her multiple sclerosis was inactive and she did not have any symptoms that would prevent her from performing her job. According to the expert, the disease is incurable but can go dormant, allowing suffers to function normally in society and to work in physically demanding jobs. The Juvenile Justice Commission maintained that Pritchett could not perform her job duties due to her multiple sclerosis.

Injury:

At the time of trial, Pritchett worked as a mentor for troubled youth. Her salary at retirement was $62,444, with an annual pension of $24,978. She sought to recover $343,789 in past lost wages, $472,539 in future lost wages, and $433,483 in future pension loss. Pritchett also sought damages for past and future pain and suffering. She talked about how she was proud to be a corrections officer and wanted to continue her career, since she believed she was physically able to do so, but the commission took it away from her. She discussed how she experienced embarrassment, humiliation, and frustration. In seeking punitive damages, Pritchett's counsel argued that the commission's conduct was egregious.

Result:

The jury found that Pritchett was qualified to perform the essential functions of her job, with or without an accommodation. According to jurors, she sustained an adverse employment action by the Juvenile Justice Commission by denying her medical leave and forcing her to retire. Jurors determined that the commission engaged in intentional discrimination by denying Pritchett medical leave and/or forcing her to retire because of her disability, and that the commission failed to provide her with a reasonable accommodation. The jury found that Pritchett's requested accommodation would not have imposed an undue financial hardship or administrative burden on the Juvenile Justice Commission's operations. Pritchett was determined to receive $11,824,911.

Shelley Pritchett: $10,000,000 Personal Injury: Punitive Exemplary Damages; $343,789 Personal Injury: Past Lost Earnings Capability; $472,639 Personal Injury: Future Lost Earnings Capability; $433,483 Personal Injury: future pension loss; $575,000 Personal Injury: emotional distress

Trial Information:

Judge:

Douglas H. Hurd

Trial Length:

2  weeks

Editor's Comment:

This report is based on information that was provided by plaintiff's counsel. Defense counsel did not respond to the reporter's phone calls.