Sexual harassment plaintiffs will get a new trial after the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled the trial court erroneously omitted testimony from a co-worker who testified during deposition that a supervisor instructed her to speak negatively about plaintiffs and in favor of the accused harasser.
In Griffin v. City of East Orange, the New Jersey Supreme Court determined the testimony of the co-worker, which was not allowed at trial because it was reportedly irrelevant, was in fact directly pertinent to plaintiffs’ claims for compensatory and punitive damages arising from a hostile work environment. Further, these statements, which involved hearsay, overcame hearsay exceptions because it constituted statements by a party’s agent or servant offered against the party (an exception via N.J.R.E. 803(b)(4) ).
The three accusers had alleged a supervisor created a hostile work environment through sexual harassment, quid pro quo sexual harassment and retaliation. She is seeking both compensatory and punitive damages.
According to court records, the three women filed internal reports in 2009 alleging they were sexually harassed by a supervisor who allegedly kissed the women against their will and demanded further sexual favors. In response to these complaints, the city hired an outside an attorney to conduct an independent investigation.
This attorney interviewed the three employees, the alleged harasser and other city workers. Among those others interviewed was a woman who was an aid to the mayor and also a friend of one of the plaintiffs. This worker reportedly had no personal knowledge of the alleged incidents, told the investigating attorney that two of the plaintiffs – including her friend – had “always been a mess,” that her friend had a relationship with the accused and that the filing was only an effort to make money. She further told the investigator that the alleged harasser was “professional” and “phenomenal.”
The investigating lawyer concluded none of the women had suffered sexual harassment or been subjected to a hostile work environment based on gender.
Plaintiffs then filed a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and gender discrimination, naming the city and others as defendants. The city defended itself saying it took reasonable care to adopt anti-harassment policies and to correct any allegedly harassing behavior.
During her deposition, the mayor’s aid conceded to plaintiff’s attorneys that the mayor, her boss, instructed her to build up the alleged harasser and undermine the credibility of the plaintiffs.
Defense argued this wasn’t relevant and the trial court agreed. But later during the trial, defense relied heavily on the internal investigation that was conducted. That’s probably a big reason why the city obtained a favorable verdict.
An appellate court reviewing the decision ruled that even if the testimony was relevant, it would have been unduly prejudicial to defendant.
But in a sweeping 5-0 decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court flatly disagreed.
If plaintiffs had been allowed to call the former mayor’s aid as a witness, jurors could have accepted or rejected her testimony, but it was not inadmissible just because it had a negative impact on the defense.
With that, the state supreme court remanded the case back to the lower court for another trial.
As the plaintiff’s sexual harassment lawyer said, this decision puts employers on notice that the legal system won’t tolerate a corruption of justice by employers.
Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 949.375.4734.
N.J. Supreme Court: Allow Worker’s Testimony in East Orange Sex Harassment Case, June 24, 2016, By Brent Johnson, NJ.com
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