Battaglia v. UPS: New Jersey Supreme Court Maintains Good Faith Belief Standard in NJLAD Retaliation Cases

The New Jersey Supreme Court today issued its opinion in Battaglia v. UPS

Mindful of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination’s (NJLAD) broad construction and remedial purpose, the Court declined UPS’s invitation to go beyond the requirement, imposed by the Court in Carmona v. Resorts International Hotel Inc., 189 N.J. 354 (2007), that NJLAD retaliation plaintiffs establish their good faith belief that complained-of conduct violates the NJLAD and impose an additional requirement that the complained-of conduct in fact violate the NJLAD.

In October 2005 UPS demoted the plaintiff, Michael Battaglia. The parties disputed the reasons for the demotion. Battaglia claimed that UPS had retaliated against him for complaining about sexist remarks made by his supervisor and about the improper use of company credit cards. UPS claimed to have demoted Battaglia for violating company confidentiality policies, treating other employees in an abusive manner, and insubordination.

Battaglia filed suit asserting, among other claims, claims that the demotion violated both the NJLAD and the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA). The matter was tried to a jury, which found in Battaglia’s favor on both claims and awarded Battaglia $500,000 in economic damages and $500,000 in emotional distress damages. Upon UPS’s motion, the trial court, noting that no evidence was presented that Battaglia’s emotional distress was severe and that Battaglia failed to present expert testimony and holding that the jury’s award, equivalent to five years of Battaglia’s income, was excessive, reduced the emotional distress damage award to $205,000.

The parties cross-appealed. In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division (1) affirmed the jury’s verdict on the CEPA claim, (2) reversed the jury’s verdict on the NJLAD claim and rendered judgment on the claim in favor of UPS, on the ground that the sexist comments neither were overheard by any female employee nor sufficient to create a hostile work environment, and (3) vacated the emotional distress award, on the ground that, in the absence of expert evidence of permanent emotional distress, Battaglia was not entitled to an award for future emotional distress, and remanded for further proceedings as to the emotional distress award.

The parties cross-petitioned for certification to the Supreme Court, which granted both petitions. The Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division’s reversal of the jury’s verdict on the NJLAD claim and reinstated the jury’s liability and economic damages verdict, holding that it did

not share the Appellate Division’s understanding that the LAD only protects those who voice complaints about directly demonstrable acts of discrimination. On the contrary, as this case makes plain, the broad purposes of the LAD would not be advanced were we to apply so narrow a focus. These were not the occasional words of a low-level employee having a bad day, but were the words of a supervisor, uttered in meetings attended by managerial employees, both repeatedly and routinely. Nor were they directed to a single female employee with whom DeCraine had a dispute or disagreement, but were directed to and about numerous women, including Hartley, the woman charged with investigating and addressing the complaints made in the anonymous letter.

Second, when an employee voices a complaint about behavior or activities in the workplace that he or she thinks arediscriminatory, we do not demand that he or she accurately understand the nuances of the LAD or that he or she be able to prove that there was an identifiable discriminatory impact upon someone of the requisite protected class. On the contrary, as long as the complaint is made in a good faith belief that the conduct complained of violates the LAD, it suffices for purposes of pursuing a cause of action.

at 35-36. The Court affirmed the Appellate Division’s vacation of the emotional distress award and the grounds therefor. It also reversed and rendered judgment in favor of UPS on the CEPA claim, holding that Battaglia had failed to establish a reasonable belief on his part that the complained-of conduct from which this claim arose was fraudulent.

In my opinion, the good faith standard imposed by Carmona and reaffirmed by the Court today in Battaglia is the proper standard to apply to analyses of NJLAD retaliation claims. On the one hand, it does not require an employee concerned with the specter of discrimination in his or her workplace to be an attorney, or to retain one, before endeavoring to eradicate such discrimination by reporting it to the proper authorities within the company. On the other hand, it preserves the application of the NJLAD to meritorious retaliation claims and protects the statute from abuse by opportunistic employees who legitimately should be subjected to the adverse employment actions that they face.

I’ve practiced employment litigation my entire career and represented employees and employers alike in discrimination and retaliation matters arising under both state law, like the NJLAD and CEPA, and federal law. If you are an employee that believes yourself to be the victim of discrimination or retaliation, or an employer facing an employment-based lawsuit, please contact me at Posternock Apell, PC. We will fight to protect your interests.