On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Burlington County, L-3195-94.
Before Judges Wefing, Cuff and Lisa.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wefing, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
These two appeals arise out of the same factual background and were argued together before us. We consolidate them for purposes of this opinion.
In A-1835-99, the State of New Jersey appeals from a judgment entered against it in favor of plaintiff Robert Lockley, Jr. and his attorneys in the total amount of $4.6 million. The judgment represents a jury verdict in favor of Lockley awarding him compensatory damages of $750,000 and punitive damages of $3,000,000 as well as the trial judge's post-verdict award of counsel fees of $855,350.19. After carefully reviewing the record and considering the arguments advanced on appeal, we affirm the award of compensatory damages and counsel fees but reverse the award of punitive damages and remand that aspect for further proceedings.
In A-1783-99, defendant Ronda Turner appeals from a post-judgment order entered by the trial judge. We dismiss that appeal as moot.
The State's arguments in A-1835-99 do not challenge the underlying determination of liability for compensatory damages. It asserts the amount awarded as compensatory damages was excessive, that there was error in submitting the question of punitive damages to the jury, and that the amounts awarded as punitive damages and as counsel fees were excessive. It is necessary, nonetheless, to set forth the underlying factual background in some detail for it is only in that manner that the arguments on the propriety of the awards can be properly analyzed.
Lockley is employed by the Department of Corrections of the State of New Jersey (Department) as a Senior Corrections Officer; his entire service has been spent at Mid-State Correctional Facility (Mid-State), located on the grounds of Fort Dix in Wrightstown, New Jersey. All of the inmates incarcerated at Mid-State are male, as are the vast majority of the corrections officers assigned there.
These lawsuits and subsequent appeals arise from the relationship which existed among Lockley and several of those few female corrections officers, specifically, Ronda Turner, Jacqueline Jones and their friend Linda Pyner-Bailey. There was, at trial, a sharp factual dispute between the parties about what occurred. It is clear from the jury's verdict that it accepted Lockley's version and rejected the State's. We thus set forth his version of what led to this suit.
Lockley and Turner worked on the same shift at Mid-State but in different capacities. Lockley was assigned as a guard in one of the prison's perimeter towers. Turner held the designation "SA," for "special assignment", indicating she could be assigned where needed. She was principally assigned to assist in the prison's central command station, known as Center Control.
Lockley testified that his first contacts with Turner were in 1988 and were brief. The two would meet when he would come in to pick up his paycheck. According to Lockley, Turner would flirt with him. There is no indication that Lockley found the remarks offensive at the outset. At least three and possibly four years passed before he switched to direct deposit, thus obviating these encounters.
In any event, Turner became more assertive in her approach to Lockley. Lockley said that beginning in 1990, Turner began to express directly an interest in having a sexual relationship with him. Lockley told her that he was happily married, with children, and was not interested in pursuing such a liaison. Turner, however, persisted in her efforts to attract Lockley. Turner was not the least hesitant to express her interest in Lockley both to him and to other corrections officers, with the result that a large number of the staff at Mid-State knew that Turner was actively pursuing him.
When she was unsuccessful, Turner, evidently feeling publicly humiliated by the rejection, eventually turned against Lockley. She began a campaign, in which she enlisted her friends, to insult Lockley publicly about his sexuality. We will not set forth in this opinion the actual language she and her friends employed; suffice it to say she expressed, in the most obscene and vulgar terms, persistent opinions about his alleged sexual preferences or lack thereof, alleged sexual abilities or lack thereof, and physical endowments.
She also, according to Lockley, subjected him to continuing petty indignities. One of her tasks in Center Control, for instance, was to operate the gates controlling entry to and exit from the prison. Lockley testified that Turner constantly made him wait before opening the gates for him and, on one occasion, almost closed the gate on him as he was passing through.
Lockley said that when he eventually complained to his superiors about Turner's conduct, he received no assistance or aid; indeed, he said, several could not understand why he simply did not accede to Turner's advances and sleep with her. He finally filed a formal complaint alleging sexual harassment.
Susie Belmont, who worked with the Department's equal opportunity/affirmative action office, was assigned the task of investigating Lockley's complaints; she concluded there was probable cause to believe Lockley had been subjected to sexual harassment. She prepared a probable cause letter which was presented to and signed by William H. Fauver, then Commissioner of the Department.
The letter which Belmont prepared and Fauver signed stated that the matter should immediately proceed to consideration of the appropriate discipline for Turner. This approach caused consternation among certain of the Department's personnel who believed that under State personnel procedures and union contracts Turner was entitled to a hearing on the merits of the charge before discipline could be imposed upon her.
There was some consideration of what steps were appropriate to take in the interim. Robert Barker, the Superintendent of Mid-State, recognized the importance of separating Turner and Lockley. Although Barker was not in favor of transferring Lockley, believing that to do so would make him a victim a second time, Lockley was offered the opportunity to transfer to another facility; he rejected it. Commissioner Fauver was of the view that Turner could not be transferred against her will to another facility in light of the Department's labor agreements with the union.
Eventually Turner was involuntarily placed on a different shift. Turner remained on that shift for several months. Later, a position opened up on the first shift and Turner applied for it. She wanted to return to the first shift because that schedule made it easier for her to care for her disabled son. Barker refused to award the post to Turner because doing so would reunite her with Lockley. Turner was entitled, however, in view of her seniority, to receive that assignment under the union contract, and she submitted a grievance. She ultimately prevailed on that grievance. When she returned, her friends at work held a small party at the prison to celebrate. No attempt was made to conceal that celebration from Lockley.
A disciplinary hearing was scheduled but was adjourned a number of times with the result that it did not take place until more than six months had elapsed after the probable cause letter was issued. Captain Powell Johnson, who was the administrative captain at Mid-State, was ultimately assigned the responsibility to represent management at this disciplinary hearing. Johnson testified that he was instructed by his superiors to do no more at this hearing in support of the charges against Turner than to present the probable cause letter. Others, however, testified that Johnson was instructed to prosecute the matter fully and present live witnesses. In any event, when the hearing finally did take place, Johnson did nothing to present the management case for discipline beyond introducing the probable cause letter, with the result that the hearing officer dismissed all charges against Turner; the State was precluded from reinstituting the same charges against her. Some of Turner's co-workers and friends brought a cake and flowers to the prison to celebrate the dismissal. Johnson was himself brought up on disciplinary charges for the manner in which he handled the hearing and received a ten-day suspension.
In 1994, Lockley filed a seven-count complaint alleging various causes of action. The matter was tried and submitted to the jury on the theory of sexual harassment and retaliation in violation of the Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -42.
At trial, Lockley contended that the dismissal of the charges against Turner was but one more indication of the Department's failure to take his complaints of sexual harassment seriously. The State contended, on the other hand, that it had attempted to fully discipline Turner for her actions but that its efforts had been subverted by Johnson's insubordination and by labor agreements.
We turn first to the State's challenge to the jurors' award of compensatory damages of $750,000. The State contends that the amount is grossly excessive and not supported by the record. It notes, for instance, that the trial judge struck Lockley's claim for damages based upon an allegation that Turner's confederate, Jones, worked to deprive him of overtime he would otherwise have received. Thus, no claim for economic loss was presented to the jury. In addition, it stresses that despite Lockley's claims of harassment and hostile work environment, he did not suffer any adverse employment consequences and, in fact, received higher performance ratings. The State also stresses that Lockley never sought any form of professional counseling or treatment for the stress he said he suffered at work, stress which he said led to his emotional withdrawal from his family. During the course of the trial he presented no expert testimony in support of his claim of emotional distress and, in consequence, the jury was not allowed to include any future emotional suffering and distress as a component of its award. The jury was instructed that if it awarded damages to Lockley for his emotional distress, it should only be for the distress he experienced from the time the harassment commenced through the time of trial. All of these factors, according to the State, support its contention that the award of $750,000 is grossly excessive.
We are not persuaded by the State's argument in this regard.
We note first the appropriate standard of our review of a judgment entered following a jury verdict and denial of a post-trial motion for new trial or remittitur. The Supreme Court has consistently held that verdicts should be overturned as excessive only in "clear cases." Caldwell v. Haynes, 136 N.J. 422, 431-32 (1994). When such a motion is presented to the trial judge, the judge "must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party in the verdict." Id. at 432. "[T]he jury's evaluation should be regarded as final" if its verdict has "reasonable support in the record." Baxter v. Fairmont Food Co., 74 N.J. 588, 599 (1977) (quoting Taweel v. Starn's Shoprite Supermarket, 58 N.J. 227, 236 (1971)). Thus, a jury's verdict should not be overthrown except upon the basis of a carefully reasoned and factually supported (and articulated) determination, after canvassing the record and weighing the evidence, that the continued viability of the judgment would constitute a manifest denial of justice. [Baxter, supra, 74 N.J. at 597-98.]
The trial judge who is presented with such a motion may not act as "a thirteenth and decisive juror" but rather must evaluate the evidence using a "high degree of conscientious effort and diligent scrutiny." Id. at 598 (quoting Dolson v. Anastasia, 55 N.J. 2, 6 (1969). "The object is to correct clear error or mistake by the jury. It is only upon the predicate of a determination that there has been a manifest miscarriage of justice, that corrective judicial action is warranted." Baxter, supra, 74 N.J. at 598.
This approach "applies with equal force to awards of emotional distress damages in LAD cases." Rendine v. Pantzer, 141 N.J. 292, 312 (1995).
Our review is similar. We may not reverse a trial judge's denial of a motion for a new trial "unless it clearly appears that there was a miscarriage of justice under the law." R. 2:10-1.
Accordingly, "[t]he standard for appellate review of a trial court's decision on a motion for a new trial is substantially the same as that controlling the trial court except that due deference should be made to its 'feel of the case,' including credibility." At the same time, a trial court's determination is "not entitled to any special deference where it rests upon a determination as to worth, plausibility, consistency or other tangible considerations apparent from the face of the record with respect to which he is no more peculiarly situated to decide than the appellate court." [Caldwell, supra, 136 N.J. at 432 (citations omitted).]
Here, the trial judge acted in compliance with the Supreme Court's admonition that in deciding a motion for a new trial, the judge should "spell out fully the reasons for [its] determinations so that reviewing tribunals may be advised of the extent to which factors entitled ...