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New Jersey Case Involving HR Manager Highlights Issues With Claims By High Level Officials

Published by on October 1, 2010

In Quinlan v. Curtiss-Wright Corp., a New Jersey appellate court reviewed a $10.6 million jury verdict in a sex discrimination and retaliation case brought by a human resources manager against her former employer.  The opinion can be read here.  The case involved, among other things, the use of confidential documents alleged taken by the plaintiff before […]

In Quinlan v. Curtiss-Wright Corp., a New Jersey appellate court reviewed a $10.6 million jury verdict in a sex discrimination and retaliation case brought by a human resources manager against her former employer.  The opinion can be read here.  The case involved, among other things, the use of confidential documents alleged taken by the plaintiff before her termination to support her discrimination claim.  More after the break.

Joyce Quinlan began working for Curtiss-Wright in 1980, eventually obtaining the position of Executive Director of Human Resources.  Following a reorganization of the human resources department, Kenneth Lewis, who was hired just a few years prior to the reorganization, became Quinlan’s supervisor.  Quinlan believed that she should have been promoted over Lewis, who had significantly less experience than she did, and she consulted the advice of counsel regarding a possible sex discrimination claim. 

In the meantime, Quinlan began copying files from the human resources department, including documents containing confidential information, that she felt supported her claims of discrimination and provided the documents to her attorney.  After the initiation of the lawsuit and in the course of discovery, Curtiss-Wright became aware that Quinlan had been copying confidential materials.  The company subsequently terminated Quinlan for theft of company property.  Quinlan then amended her complaint to add a retaliation claim. 

After one mistrial, a jury returned a verdict in favor of Quinlan for $10.6 million.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial judge had erred in instructing the jury on the retaliation claim.  The jury instructions stated that while Quinlan’s conduct in copying the documents was not protected activity, the use of those documents by her attorneys in the process of prosecuting the lawsuit was protected activity for which she could not have been properly terminated.  The court declined to recognize a distinction between taking confidential documents from an employer and making use of them later on in litigation.  The court reasoned that such a distinction could produce “the undesirable result of encouraging employees to go through their employers’ files and copy confidential material, secure in the knowledge that employers could do nothing so long as that material was later used in litigation.”  The court held that the jury instructions were erroneous and that the defendant was entitled to a new trial on the retaliation claim.

The defendant also argued that Quinlan had failed to establish a prima facie case of retaliation with respect to her claim that she was terminated for filing her discrimination suit, citing a lack of sufficient evidence of a causal connection.  In support of its contention, the defendant pointed to evidence that Quinlan was not terminated until seven months after she filed suit.  Quinlan, on the other hand, had presented testimony that the company CEO had gone “ballistic” when he became aware of the lawsuit.  The court stated that the plaintiff’s evidence, though hardly overwhelming, was sufficient to have properly reached the jury. 

The court agreed with the defendant, however, that the question of punitive damages should not have gone to the jury.  The court stated that punitive damages may only be awarded under New Jersey’s anti-discrimination law when there is “both actual participation in the wrongful behavior on the part of upper management, and when the wrong-doer’s behavior is especially egregious.”  The court interpreted the second prong as requiring proof of actual malice.  Here, the court found that the record did not support a finding of malice on the part of the defendant, stating that the plaintiff remained in her position and received a bonus and a raise even after she filed suit.  Thus, the court held that the question of the defendant’s liability for punitive damages should not have been submitted to the jury.

Note:  The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed to review the appellate court’s decision on November 10, 2009, before the case was set for retrial. A decision is still pending.

Contributed by Claudia Guzman

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