Sexual Harassment and Retaliation Claims are Dangerous in New Jersey

The Appellate Division recently affirmed a sexual harassment and retaliation jury award in favor of plaintiff, Marilyn Velez, who transferred into a customer service position at RockTenn Co., a corrugated box company in Newark, NJ, in November of 2010.  Velez claimed that her new boss, Raymond Perry, asked her out on dates, stared at her, made comments about liking Latina women, suggested a threesome with him and his girlfriend, and made inappropriate comments about her body and appearance. Velez alleged she complained to human resources about Perry’s actions at least 10 times with no action being taken by the company.  All this conduct occurred over a short period of time.  On April 1, 2011, Velez was terminated for an alleged drop in business.

In April 2014, an Essex County jury found in favor of Marilyn Velez and awarded her damages in the amount of $575,000 for sexual harassment and retaliation, disbelieving the company’s defenses.  The jury awarded $75,000 for her  hostile work environment claim, $200,000 for her  retaliation claim against RockTenn, and $250,000 for her  retaliation claim against Perry, her former boss.  This award does not include Velez’s  attorney’s fees .

The jury did not accept the company’s termination reason despite the following: “In early 2011, RockTenn’s sales began to decline, with March 2011 being the company’s worst month on record. Despite the purported decline in business, records showed that plaintiff worked overtime several times during this period. Nonetheless, Regional Vice President Robert O’Connell instructed managers to cut labor and material costs. Initially, Perry considered firing another CSR with performance issues, but ultimately decided to fire plaintiff, the newest member of the department, and made that recommendation to upper management.”  The individual manager was found exclusively  liable for damages.

Also, the Appellate Division found that Perry’s harassment of other employees,  not  Velez, was properly admitted by the trial court to prove the company’s anti-harassment policy was Ineffective. As stated, “evidence of sexual harassment of other employees, not witnessed by the plaintiff, may be relevant to a claim that an employer had an ineffective sexual harassment policy and can be admitted for that purpose.” Fitzgerald v. Stanley Roberts, Inc., 186 N.J. 286, 320 (2006).

Employers need to take sexual harassment complaints  seriously and must seek counsel when terminated  as well as other employees who complain of same.

David Cassidy, Esq.