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Appellate Division Affirms Award for Retaliatory Discharge in Violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination Despite Finding there was No Discrimination on the Basis of Race

The New Jersey Appellate Division recently affirmed a trial court’s judgment awarding plaintiff, Mr. Anthony Onuoha, a total of $1,092,424.25 in damages, attorneys’ fees and costs on his claim for discrimination on the basis of race and retaliatory discharge in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”).

In this case, Onuoha v. Roche Molecular Systems, Inc., Mr. Onuoha began his employment with Roche Molecular Systems (“Roche”) in February 2004 as a scientist, validating Roche diagnostic test kits used to screen blood for infectious diseases. Mr. Onuoha is an African-American male and was originally hired at Roche through a staffing agency as a temporary employee. In June 2004, Mr. Onuoha applied for an open position at Roche as a senior scientist. Mr. Onuoha accepted the position at the $75k annual salary and began working with the production validation team. He was the only African American working within that group.

In February 2005, Mr. Onuoha received a raise of 4.75% due to a rating of “3” on his annual performance review, which signified he had fully performed his employment objectives. Soon thereafter, Mr. Onuoha discovered that employees within the production validation team hired after him were being paid higher salaries and that new hires at his level were usually paid $88,500. Based on this information, Mr. Onuoha complained about his salary and requested a raise. His request was subsequently denied.

In February 2006, Mr. Onuoha received a rating of “2” on his annual performance review for 2005 which signified he only partially achieved his employment objectives. He objected to this rating but his supervisor refused to change it. On February 20, 2006, Mr. Onuoha submitted a complaint to the Roche Vice President about his 2005 performance review and his low salary. Mr. Onuoha submitted another complaint to the VP about his salary, negative treatment by both his supervisors, and about his belief that his supervisors actions were discriminatory.

Mr. Onuoha had one meeting with both his supervisors and the VP where the supervisors defended their rating of “2” on Mr. Onuoha 2005 performance review and that Mr. Onuoha never claimed that the discrimination he complained of was racially based. The issue was then referred to Roche Human Resources and it was determined that the 2005 performance review was fair and Mr. Onuoha would not receive any increase in salary. In 2007, while working under a different supervisor, Mr. Onuoha again received a performance rating of “2” for his 2006 annual performance review and was denied a requested two (2) week vacation, being told there was “too much work.”

In 2009, the Roche VP notified Mr. Omaha’s former supervisor that nine (9) employees in the validation service group would have to be laid off. After 8 employees were laid off, Mr. Onuoha former supervisor used only the 2008 performance review to determine which employee from Mr. Onuoha group would be terminated. Mr. Onuoha had the lowest rating in the group for the 2008 performance review and was terminated in May 2009.

The trial court found Roche illegally terminated Mr. Onuoha in retaliation for his complaints about race discrimination by his two supervisors. However, the lower court did not find discrimination on the basis of race. On appeal, Roche argued that the claim of retaliatory discharge under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination failed as a matter of law because there was no causal connection between Mr. Onuoha’s complaint of discrimination and his termination. The Appellate Division disagreed, stating that to establish a causal link between the protected activity and the adverse employment action, an inference of retaliatory motive could be drawn from circumstantial evidence. The court further stated Mr. Onuoha had provided such circumstantial evidence where he presented evidence that after he complained to his supervisors, he was treated unfavorably by them and was unable to work in an amicable manner. He also showed that his supervisor had chose to use only the 2008 evaluation in her evaluation to determine which employee within his production validation team would be laid off when she knew Mr. Onuoha’s 2005 through 2007 performance was either above or at the same level of the other employees in the group. Also, Mr. Onuoha had more seniority than the other employees in the group who were not laid off.

The Appellate Court determined that a reasonable jury could infer, through the presented circumstantial evidence, that retaliation was more likely than not the motivating factor in Roche’s decision to fire Mr. Onuoha. Further, the lower court’s determination that there was no discrimination based on race does not negate a violation of the NJLAD because a claim for retaliation under the NJLAD may be established if a person is subject to reprisal for complaining about unlawful discrimination, even if the underlying discrimination claim ultimately is not proved.

Additionally, as to Roche’s argument on appeal that the grant of attorneys fees and costs was unreasonable, the Appellate Division disagreed stating that although Mr. Onuoha dismissed his claims against his two supervisors, as well as his claims brought under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act and Pierce claim, the NJLAD claim was essentially based on the same core facts. Thus, it would not be unreasonable to compensate for all attorney hours, even though some may have been dedicated to litigating the unsuccessful claims.