NJ Supreme Court Case Makes it More Difficult to Reduce Jury Emotional Distress Damage Award

In a recent employment discrimination case, Cuevas v. Wentworth Group, the NJ Supreme Court upheld the jury’s award of emotional distress damages to the Plaintiffs, Ramon and Jeffrey Cuevas, two brothers who suffered derogatory and humiliating racial remarks and discrimination at work. The brothers are Hispanic. Wentworth fired the brothers shortly after Jeffrey complained about the harassment.

At the trial court level, the jury awarded over $1 million in lost wages, $800,000 in emotional distress damages and $52,500 in punitive damages to Ramon. It awarded Jeffrey $150,000 in lost wages, $600,000 in emotional distress damages and $32,500 in punitive damages. Both the trial court and the Appellate Division denied defendants’ request for a remittitur (reduction) of the emotional distress damages.

On certification, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the jury’s emotional distress damages award to the Cuevas brothers. The Court held that a judge should not rely on personal knowledge of other verdicts or comparative-verdict methodology when deciding a remittitur motion to reduce a damage award because each case is unique. Moreover, the Court held that a judge should only consider the record itself, in order to maintain the deferential standard of review of a jury’s award of damages.

In its opinion, the Court reiterated that the applicable legal standard is whether the jury’s award was so “grossly excessive” that it “shocks the judicial conscience.” It held that a court should reduce the amount of damages awarded by a jury only in a rare case in which it is glaring and obvious from the record that it was “grossly excessive.”

This case is notable because the Court affirmed an extremely high emotional distress damages award without obtaining any expert testimony from a treating psychotherapist or an expert witness regarding the emotional distress suffered by the Plaintiffs. It held that courts should be reluctant to interfere with a jury’s decision about pain and suffering damages.