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Tarr v. Ciasulli

August 09, 2004

CAROL TARR, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
BOB CIASULLI AND BOB CIASULLI'S MACK AUTO MALL, INC., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS, AND BOB CIASULLI AUTO GROUP, INC., MONMOUTH HONDA JEEP EAGLE, PATRICK GRIMALDI, JOHN DESANTIS, STEVEN FUENTAS, JOSEPH ANGELINI AND JOHN DOE ONE THROUGH TEN, DEFENDANTS.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 360 N.J. Super. 265 (2003).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

In this appeal involving claims of hostile work environment and sexual harassment under New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49, the Court considers whether the trial court properly dismissed plaintiff's claims for emotional distress damages and her claim against the owner of the Auto Group individually, and determines whether a party must receive some affirmative relief in the form of damages, injunctive relief, or declaratory relief to be considered a prevailing party under the LAD for purposes of entitlement to counsel fees.

Plaintiff, Carol Tarr, began working for Mack Auto Mall in late July 1994 as a finance and insurance manager. She worked there until July 1995, when she left, allegedly because of sexual harassment in the workplace. At trial, Tarr described the extensive and pervasive sexual harassment that she endured from a group of particularly offensive male employees during the course of her employment. She asserted that although Grimaldi, the general manager, heard much of the abusive conduct, he made no effort to stop it. In fact, Tarr testified that Grimaldi himself had made inappropriate comments to her on more than one occasion. She stated that the constant abuse made her feel extremely uncomfortable, prompting her to quit in July 1995. She returned a short time later because she needed the job and because her immediate supervisor, who also had been the subject of sexual harassment, assured her that the situation would improve. When it did not, Tarr left again, in April 1996. Tarr's testimony at trial was corroborated by various witnesses, including her immediate supervisor and two other co-workers.

Defendant, Bob Ciasulli, was the sole owner of the Auto Group dealerships. Tarr presented limited evidence of his direct involvement with the management of Mack Auto Mall. Specifically, Tarr testified that Ciasulli held monthly meetings attended by all sales personnel. In addition, Tarr's immediate supervisor testified that she telephoned Ciasulli directly when her immediate supervisor was not able to resolve an issue. Finally, a former manager at the auto mall testified that Ciasulli once directed him to fire a salesperson following allegations of sexual harassment.

At the close of Tarr's case, the trial court dismissed her emotional distress claims. The court ruled that the elements of emotional distress are the same in both discrimination cases and in tort cases, and that the evidence that Tarr was temporarily upset was insufficient to establish her claim. In addition, at the close of all the evidence, the trial court dismissed the complaint against Ciasulli, individually, and Auto Group. The case was submitted to the jury solely against Tarr's employer, Mack Auto Mall. In answer to special interrogatories, the jury found that Tarr had been the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, but that she had suffered no economic loss. The trial court concluded that Tarr was entitled to attorney fees as a prevailing party because the jury found in her favor on the sexual harassment and hostile workplace claims.

Tarr appealed the dismissals of her emotional distress damages claim and of her complaint against Auto Group. All three defendants cross-appealed from the order awarding counsel fees. In a reported decision, the Appellate Division reversed the order dismissing the emotional distress damages and the complaint against Ciasulli individually. The panel remanded for a determination of Ciasulli's individual liability, ordered a new trial on damages, both compensatory and punitive, and affirmed the orders dismissing the complaints against Auto Group and awarding counsel fees to plaintiff.

The Supreme Court granted certification, and granted amicus curiae status to the National Employment Lawyers Association of New Jersey.

HELD: In a hostile work environment and sexual harassment case brought under the Law Against Discrimination, a victim of discrimination may obtain redress for mental anguish and embarrassment, without limitation to severe emotional or physical ailments, and plaintiff in this case presented sufficient evidence of emotional distress damages to submit that issue to the jury; the trial court properly dismissed plaintiff's complaint against the owner of the Auto Group inasmuch as plaintiff failed to establish that he had aided and abetted the employees in their sexual harassment of her; to be considered a prevailing party under the Law Against Discrimination for purposes of entitlement to counsel fees, a party must receive some affirmative relief in the form of damages, injunctive relief, or declaratory relief.

1. To prevail on a common law cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must establish intentional and outrageous conduct by the defendant, proximate cause, and distress that is severe. Our courts have long recognized emotional distress damages as a component of various intentional torts and breach of contract claims. (pp. 7-8)

2. The Legislature amended the LAD to authorize recovery of emotional distress damages for discrimination claims. Emotional distress claims and damages need not be supported by expert testimony. Rather, claims for emotional distress of varying degrees have been recognized where a wrong is willful. A cause of action asserting discrimination is willful rather than negligent. (pp. 8-12)

3. The purpose of the LAD is to eradicate discrimination in the workplace. Underlying the LAD's expansive language advocating the elimination of discrimination is also the directive that victims of discrimination be compensated for economic and non-economic injuries attributable to an employer's discriminatory conduct. (pp. 12- 13)

4. The Legislature intended victims of discrimination to obtain redress for mental anguish, embarrassment, and the like, without limitation to severe emotional or physical ailments. Given the breadth of individual and societal harms that flow from discrimination and harassment, to limit the LAD's application to only those cases in which the victim suffered serious psychological harm would be contrary to its remedial purpose. It is the harasser's conduct, not the plaintiff's injury, that must be severe or pervasive. (pp. 13-15)

5. Compensatory damages for emotional distress, including humiliation and indignity resulting from willful discriminatory conduct, are remedies that require a far less stringent standard of proof than that required for a tortbased emotional distress cause of action. Thus, in discrimination cases, which by definition involve willful conduct, the victim may recover all natural consequences of that wrongful conduct, including emotional distress and mental anguish damages arising out of embarrassment, humiliation, and other intangible injuries. Thus, that portion of the Appellate Division's judgment remanding for a new trial on damages is affirmed. (p. 15)

6. In order to hold an employee liable as an aider or abettor under the LAD, a plaintiff must show that the party whom the defendant aids performs a wrongful act that causes an injury; the defendant must be generally aware of his role as part of an overall illegal or tortious activity at the time that he provides the assistance; and the defendant must knowingly and substantially assist the principal violation. Applying those factors, the Court concludes that Tarr failed to present evidence that Ciasulli aided and abetted the employees in their sexual harassment of her. At best, the record discloses that Ciasulli, as the supervisor in the network of auto dealerships, negligently supervised his employees, which is insufficient to find substantial assistance to wrongdoers to impose individual liability under the LAD. Thus, the Court affirms the trial court's dismissal of the complaint against Ciasulli. (pp. 15-19)

7. A plaintiff who is awarded some affirmative relief by way of an enforceable judgment against defendant or other comparable relief through a settlement or consent decree is a prevailing party under the LAD. Moreover, a plaintiff who is awarded nominal damages is a prevailing party under the LAD. In the case of nominal damages, however, whether to award minimal attorney's fees or no fees at all is left to the discretion of the trial court. (pp. 20-22) A-24-03 Carol Tarr v. Bob Ciasulli, et als. 3.

Judgment of the Appellate Division remanding to the trial court for a new trial on damages is AFFIRMED. Judgment of the Appellate Division imposing individual liability on Ciasulli is REVERSED. Judgment of the Appellate Division affirming the award of counsel fees to plaintiff is REVERSED and REMANDED for RECONSIDERATION of the award of attorney's fees.

JUSTICE LaVECCHIA has filed a separate opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which JUSTICE VERNIERO joins. Justice LaVecchia would not lessen the proof requirements for compensatory damages in the absence of textual support in the LAD for a lesser standard of proof than that which the Court established in Taylor v. Metzger for the common law tort of infliction of emotional distress committed in a harassment setting. While recognizing that the Court expanded the test for intentional infliction of emotional distress where that cause of action was based on discriminatory conduct and joined with causes of action for discrimination under the LAD, Justice LaVecchia believed that the Court had not altered the basic requirement that only "severe" distress will sustain an award of compensatory damages. Justice LaVecchia, however, joins in the Court's reversal of the Appellate Division's judgment that imposed individual liability on Ciasulli, and further concurs in the Court's conclusion that to recover attorney's fees as a prevailing party under the LAD, our courts should employ the same standard as that used for such claims under 42 U.S.C.A. 1988.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES ZAZZALI and ALBIN join in JUSTICE WALLACE's opinion. JUSTICE LaVECCHIA filed a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which JUSTICE VERNIERO joins. JUSTICE LONG did not participate.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Wallace

Argued March 2, 2004

This case involves claims of hostile work environment and sexual harassment under New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49. Plaintiff filed a complaint against Bob Ciasulli (Ciasulli) and various of his wholly-owned corporations and their employees. Prior to trial, all defendants were dismissed except for Ciasulli, Bob Ciasulli Auto Group (Auto Group), and Bob Ciasulli's Mack Auto Mall, Inc. (Mack Auto Mall). At trial, the court dismissed plaintiff's claim for emotional distress damages and the claim against Ciasulli individually. The jury found Mack Auto Mall liable for sexual harassment in the workplace, but did not find that plaintiff suffered any damages. Despite her failure to prove damages, the court awarded attorney fees to plaintiff as a prevailing party. The Appellate Division reversed in part, and affirmed in part. Tarr v. Bob Ciasulli's Mack Auto Mall, Inc., 360 N.J. Super. 265 (2003).

We granted certification, 178 N.J. 29 (2003), and granted amicus curiae status to the National Employment Lawyers Association of New Jersey (amicus). We now affirm in part, and reverse in part. We hold that plaintiff presented sufficient evidence of emotional distress damages to submit that issue to the jury, that the trial court properly dismissed the complaint against Ciasulli, and that to be considered a prevailing party under the LAD for purposes of entitlement to counsel fees, a party must receive some affirmative relief in the form of damages, injunctive relief, or declaratory relief.

I.

Plaintiff began working for Mack Auto Mall in late July 1994 as a finance and insurance manager. Plaintiff's immediate supervisor, Kelly Bragg, reported to Patrick Grimaldi, the general manager of Mack Auto Mall. Plaintiff and Bragg shared office space located near the sales floor. Plaintiff worked at Mack Auto Mall until July 1995, when she left, allegedly because of sexual harassment in the workplace. Nevertheless, plaintiff returned to the job in August 1995 and remained until April 1996 when she again resigned because of the asserted sexual harassment.

At trial, plaintiff described the extensive and pervasive sexual harassment that she endured from a group of particularly offensive male employees. At various times, those employees would refer to women in demeaning gutter slang that we need not repeat here. Plaintiff testified that one employee would leave pornographic material on his desk, draw sexually explicit pictures on deal envelopes, open his legs and describe his sexual organ in detail, and discuss his sexual escapades with various women, some of whom were very young. Another employee regularly commented to her about his wishes to have a sexual encounter with her, and propositioned her to have sex in a "broom closet." Plaintiff also had to deal with another employee who regularly made offensive sexual comments to her in the presence of strangers, intimating that his presence would sexually stimulate her.

Plaintiff stated that Grimaldi heard much of the abusive conduct, but made no effort to stop it. On one occasion he made a sexual comment when plaintiff dropped something in front of him. Also, Grimaldi once told plaintiff that she should loosen her blouse to help sell a warranty to a customer.

Plaintiff testified that the constant abuse made her feel extremely uncomfortable and led her to quit in July 1995. However, she returned a short time later because she needed the job and because Bragg, who was also subjected to sexual harassment, assured her that the situation would improve. Plaintiff's testimony of sexual harassment was corroborated by various witnesses, including Bragg and two other co-workers.

Plaintiff stated that she was constantly embarrassed by the disgusting comments and conduct of the male employees. She explained that she often wanted to crawl under her desk. Her frustration with the abusive work environment reached a point where she regularly cried on her way home from work. Plaintiff eventually quit in April 1996.

Plaintiff presented limited evidence of Ciasulli's direct involvement with the management of Mack Auto Mall. She testified that Ciasulli held monthly meetings attended by all sales personnel. Bragg testified that she considered Ciasulli her supervisor, and that she called him directly when her immediate supervisor could not resolve a problem. A former manager at Mack Auto Mall also testified that Ciasulli once told him to fire a salesperson following allegations of sexual harassment because the victim had threatened to file a complaint with the Attorney General's office.

At the close of plaintiff's case, the trial court dismissed plaintiff's emotional distress claim. The court ruled that the elements of emotional distress are the same in both discrimination cases and in tort cases, and that the evidence that plaintiff was temporarily upset was insufficient to establish her claim.

Ciasulli also testified. He stated that he was the sole owner of the Auto Group dealerships and that there was a direct employee hotline through which employees could call his office. He added that if a corporate officer could not resolve a problem, an employee could come to him for a final resolution. He remarked that other female employees had filed sexual harassment claims, noting that their embellished complaints were suitable for a Hollywood script.

At the close of all the evidence, the trial court dismissed the complaint against Ciasulli, individually, and Auto Group. The case was submitted to the jury solely against plaintiff's employer, Mack Auto Mall. In answer to special interrogatories, the jury found that plaintiff was the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, but that she suffered no economic loss. The court concluded that plaintiff was entitled to attorney fees as a prevailing party because the jury found in plaintiff's favor on the sexual harassment and hostile workplace claims.

Plaintiff appealed the dismissals of her emotional distress damages claim and of her complaint against Auto Group. All three defendants cross-appealed from the order awarding counsel fees. The Appellate Division reversed the order dismissing the emotional distress damages and the complaint against Ciasulli individually. Tarr, supra, 360 N.J. Super. at 280-81. The Appellate panel remanded for a determination of Ciasulli's individual liability, ordered a new trial on damages, both compensatory and punitive, and affirmed the orders dismissing the complaint against Auto Group and awarding counsel fees to plaintiff. Ibid.

II.

The resolution of the emotional distress damages claim requires us to consider whether the LAD permits a lower evidentiary threshold for recovery of such damages than is necessary to sustain a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

A.

We begin by reviewing the elements of a common law cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress. To prevail on such a claim "[t]he plaintiff must establish intentional and outrageous conduct by the defendant, proximate cause, and distress that is severe." Buckley v. Trenton Saving Fund Soc'y, 111 N.J. 355, 366 (1988). Generally, for the conduct to be actionable, "the emotional distress... must be 'so severe that no reasonable [person] could be expected to endure it.'" Id. at 366-67 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 46 comment j at 77 (1965)). Because the severity of the emotional distress raises questions both of law and fact, the court "decides whether as a matter of law such emotional distress can be found, and the jury decides whether it has in fact been proved." Id. at 367.

Beyond a cause of action for emotional distress, our courts have long recognized emotional distress damages as a component of various intentional torts and breach of contract claims.

See, e.g., Zahorian v. Russell Fitt Real Estate Agency, 62 N.J. 399, 416 (1973) (awarding compensatory damages for pain and suffering inflicted upon plaintiff in denial of apartment rental because of her sex and marital status); Morris v. MacNab, 25 N.J. 271, 280 (1957) (permitting recovery for wife's "shame, humiliation and mental anguish" caused by the defendant's fraudulent inducement into bigamous marriage); Harris v. Delaware, Lackawanna & W. R.R., 82 N.J.L. 456, 458 (E. & A. 1912) (holding conductor liable in trespass for "humiliation and indignity" caused by wrongful conversion of railroad ticket); Kuzma v. Millinery Workers Union Local No. 24, 27 N.J. Super. 579, 592 (App. Div. 1953) (permitting recovery for mental anguish and emotional distress supported by tort of malicious interference with employment); Spiegel v. Evergreen Cemetery Co., 117 N.J.L. 90, 96-97 (Sup. Ct. 1936) (approving damages for mental anguish caused by cemetery's breach of contract resulting in unnecessary exhumations); Gray v. Serruto Builders, Inc., 110 N.J. Super. 297, 315-18 (Ch. Div. 1970) (ruling that Director of Civil Rights Division has authority to award damages for emotional distress caused by racial discrimination in renting).

B.

The Legislature amended the LAD to authorize recovery of emotional distress damages for discrimination claims. L. 1990, c. 12, ยง 1. The LAD now mandates ...


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