New Jersey State Ordered to Pay $10 Million for Forcing Correctional Officer with Multiple Sclerosis to Resign

Hamilton, New Jersey – A state appeals court has upheld a lower court’s order for the state of New Jersey to pay $10 million in punitive damages to a former Juvenile Justice Commission correctional officer. The officer, Shelley Pritchett, was forced to resign in 2011 due to her multiple sclerosis. The three-judge panel agreed with the Mercer County jury’s decision in a 2017 trial, stating that the supervisors who pushed Pritchett into early retirement acted reprehensibly. Pritchett had sued the state for discrimination, accusing her bosses of violating the state Law Against Discrimination by failing to accommodate her disability and discriminating against her based on the perception of disability.

Appellate Division Judge Heidi Willis Currier, who wrote the opinion, highlighted that the supervisors disregarded the advice of human resources personnel who had planned to approve Pritchett’s request for an unpaid leave of absence. The jurors in the trial determined that Pritchett was qualified for her job and that the supervisors intentionally discriminated against her by forcing her resignation. The $10 million in punitive damages, according to Currier, is substantial but necessary to ensure that high-level supervisors comply with anti-discrimination laws.

This ruling comes after a six-year legal battle, with the New Jersey Supreme Court affirming in 2021 that public employers can be held liable for punitive damages. However, judges must review such awards with heightened scrutiny. Currier justified the damages, emphasizing that they are meant to deter future unlawful conduct and hold public officials accountable.

The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the ruling, and Pritchett’s attorney, Deborah Lynn Mains, has not yet responded to a request for comment.

If the appellate ruling stands, the $10 million award would be one of the higher payouts the state has faced in recent years. While some cases have resulted in settlements of nearly $70 million, most lawsuits against the state have resulted in payouts of less than $1 million.

In addition to the punitive damages, the jury also awarded compensatory damages, back pay, future pension benefits, attorneys’ fees, and pre-judgment interest, totaling over $12 million. However, Currier reduced the total by $575,000, citing insufficient evidence of emotional distress presented by Pritchett.

The case serves as a reminder of the importance of upholding anti-discrimination laws and holding employers accountable when they violate the rights of employees with disabilities. It also highlights the impact of legal battles on both the individuals involved and the state’s finances.