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N.J. Supreme Court to Whistleblowing State Trooper: Keep $500K of Jury’s Damages Award

The NJ Supreme Court has reinstated a partial jury verdict awarding a State Police sergeant half a million dollars over claims the statewide police force discriminated against him.

The Justices’ action ends over 10 years of litigation for veteran trooper Brian Royster, who filed claims of civil rights violations and whistleblower retaliation against the NJ State PoliceBrian Royster v. New Jersey State Police, decided January 17, 2017.

In 2012, a Newark jury awarded Royster over one million dollars to compensate him for a denial of promotions and receiving discriminatory assignments because he spoke up about racial prejudice in State Police and Attorney General investigations.

Royster claimed that after he reported discriminatory practices to his supervisors, they retaliated by denying him deserved promotions, and further by transferring him six times in as many years.

Royster’s claims included aggravation and exacerbation of his ulcerative colitis disease, due to stress from State Police creation of a hostile work environment.  Moreover, he complained that the State Police failed to reasonably accommodate his disability by posting him to a job with insufficient access to a bathroom.

Royster’s suit was filed under the NJ Conscientious Employee Protection Act, which protects employees from workplace retaliation, and the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”), which requires employers to engage in interactive discussions with disabled employees and offer reasonable accommodations that do not present employers with an undue hardship.

The NJ Appellate Division, the State’s intermediate court of review, threw out Royster’s jury award, finding that the State Police enjoy statutory immunity from the federal ADA claim.

The Supreme Court agreed to consider whether the State Police were entitled to immunity under the ADA, and whether it had given up that defense by failing to raise it at trial.

Rather than dealing with the federal immunity issue, the Supreme Court decided that Royster was entitled to $500,000 of the jury’s verdict, based on the State Police violation of Royster’s rights under the NJ Law Against Discrimination, which also includes a mandatory reasonable accommodation of an employee’s disability.  The Court made that determination in the fundamental interests of justice.

The Royster case well illustrates the challenges of employment litigation for workers.  It takes a long time and it can cost the lawyers and their clients a lot of money.  It often ties up injured plaintiffs in a lengthy (sometimes 10 years or more) and stressful legal crusade to vindicate rights and obtain financial justice.  Generally, it is only worth the trouble and struggle if the claims are very clear and the sought-for damages are likely to be awarded and very high.  Small or no damage claims are just not worth pursuing, for the lawyers or their clients.

This case also shows how multiple and interlocking claims can be positioned together to make a successful case for a deserving litigant.  Here, the main claim was a whistleblower cause of action, based upon a documented set of civil rights complaints by Detective Sergeant Royster to his superiors.  However, as he remained on the job, Royster later fell victim to retaliation, including work assignments that were deliberately or recklessly calculated to aggravate his disabling ulcerative colitis.  The disability discrimination cause of action was independent of Royster’s whistleblower claim, yet each complemented the other.  Plaintiff’s legal counsel were able to present a strong, credible, conjoined theory of the case, and the jury ultimately accepted it.

If you have a crisis or concern about an employment law matter or believe your employer has mistreated you — and you want to see if you have an unlawful discrimination or retaliation claim worth pursuing — call the employment law attorneys at Hanan M. Isaacs, P.C., at 609-683-7400, or contact us online. We will schedule you for a near-term and reduced fee initial consultation at our Central Jersey law offices in Kingston.  We are compassionate counsel and tough advocates.  We will listen to your facts, explain the law, and help you find a pathway to economic and social justice.  We will vindicate your rights if they have been violated. Call today.  You will be glad you did.

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