The State of New Jersey has taken a legal beating due to its prison system’s conduct, and has been ordered to pay nearly $12 million to a corrections officer it forced into retirement after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. A Mercer County jury found a failure to accommodate a disability, discrimination based on a disability, and discrimination based on a perception of a disability under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD).
The plaintiff, Shelley M. Pritchett had been an officer for five years with the Juvenile Justice Commission before filing suit in 2013. She was represented by Drake Bearden Jr. and Kevin M. Costello of Costello & Mains. Pritchett was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2011, and she was placed on temporary disability benefits. Pritchett’s lawyers said she asked for a brief leave from her job to undergo medical treatment, but her bosses denied the request numerous times.
According to the New Jersey Law Journal, Bearden presented expert testimony from a neurologist who said that the disease is incurable but can go dormant, allowing its sufferers to function normally in society and to work in physically challenging jobs. At the time of the trial, she was in good health and willing to return to the job if she was allowed, he said.
Although Federal law provides 12 weeks of job protection for a serious health condition under the Family and Medical Leave Act, NJLAD requires employers to provide additional leave beyond 12 weeks for disabled employees, so long as the accommodation is reasonable and does not create an undue hardship for the employer. In this case, the state made a mistake when it issued Pritchett an ultimatum to resign or face disciplinary actions. The jury heard the punitive damages arguments and awarded an additional $10 million in punitive damages.
The case was Pritchett v. State of New Jersey, MER-L-2189-13.