June 18, 2021

NJ Supreme Court Sends Employee’s Claims To Jury Without Corroborating Evidence

What Happened?

The New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in Rios v. Meda Pharmaceutical, Inc. reverses dismissal of NJLAD complaint by the trial court and Appellate Division, and allows the Plaintiff employee to take his case to a jury.

Rios, a Hispanic employee, complained of national origin and racial discrimination by his supervisor.  Shortly after he was hired, in July 2015, Rios’ supervisor uttered two racial slurs.  The Supervisor denied the allegations. Rios said he reported the incident to HR.  There was no documentation in the file, and the HR manager was deceased and not deposed.

Eleven months later, Rios was fired in June 2016, after being placed on a PIP and having negative written assessments.  Rios sued Meda Pharmaceutical under the NJLAD alleging hostile work environment and other claims.

The trial court and Appellate Division dismissed the case on summary judgment and found that the Rios could not sustain his case.

The Supreme Court reversed.  The Supreme Court held that two racial slurs allegedly said by a supervisor were severe and pervasive enough for a hostile work environment claim even though there was no corroborating evidence.

Why you need to know about this?

The Supreme Court allowed a hostile work environment claim to go to a jury based on the employee’s allegations alone.  There was no corroborating evidence of the racial slurs nor the employee’s complaints.  This is significant because it will be more likely that former employees will get their case to a jury based on the employee’s testimony alone.

What should you do now?

Employers should take proactive steps to protect against liability.  First and foremost, employers should train managers on the conduct and communication policies and implement regular training to reduce the likelihood of improper conduct by supervisors.  The fact that it was a supervisor in Rios who uttered the racial slur was significant to the Supreme Court’s analysis.

Employers should also document all complaints and maintain written records of remedial steps.  There was no record of the complaint or any remedial action taken by the employer in Rios and that was persuasive to the Supreme Court in permitting the case to go a jury.  Make sure all complaints made to HR are documented in the file.

Finally, strong policies are necessary.  This decision makes clear that racial slurs have no place in the workplace and company policies should strongly prohibit such conduct.

Please feel free to contact Megan Knowlton Balne of Hyland Levin Shapiro’s employment practice group to answer any questions you may have.  Megan can be reached by email at balne@hylandlevin.com or by phone at 856.355.2936.