When a Middlesex County judge dismissed her age discrimination case against Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Alice Michael was understandably upset. When the judge went on to rule that she had to pay the hospital over $120,000 in attorney fees because her case was “frivolous,” she was horrified. Ms. Michael is currently employed at the hospital as a low level computer operator making around $44,000 per year. The court’s decision would have bankrupted her. Fortunately, the Appellate Division intervened and reversed the decision, sending the case back to the trial court, where it was heard by a different judge. This time the court got it right, finding that Ms. Michael did not bring her claim in bad faith. The hospital, however, would not relent. It appealed the decision further. It was not until Ms. Michael’s husband passed away that the hospital withdrew its appeal, with nothing to show for the time and money it had spent trying to get Ms. Michael to pay.
At Ms. Michael’s request, I reviewed the case of Alice Michael v. Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and Michael Zegar, MID-L-10599-02, after the hospital withdrew its appeal. I was shocked to hear that a large, respected public institution like RWJ Hospital would be so aggressive and, quite frankly, vindictive, towards one of its employees. Although Ms. Michael’s claim was ultimately unsuccessful, there was no evidence that she brought it in bad faith. In my opinion, the hospital and its attorneys spent a lot of time and money trying to make an example out of Ms. Michael. They were trying to dissuade other employees who may feel they have been discriminated against from complaining. I am glad that the court saw through their plan and denied them the fees they were seeking. This case turned out to be a positive one for employees in New Jersey. It shows that employees will never be forced to pay their employer’s legal fees, unless the case is completely off-the-wall.