Court Affirms Hostile Work Environment Verdict Against Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office

The Superior Court in New Jersey’s Appellate Division has rejected an employer’s attempt to overturn a Somerset County jury verdict finding it liable for creating a hostile work environment based upon an employee’s disability.  In the case Joseph Iko v. County of Middlesex, the Appellate Division took specific note of the overwhelming testimony of the employee’s co-workers induced at trial corroborating the employee’s claims that he was the subject to frequent verbal taunts while at work concerning his diabetes and other related medical problems.  Based upon the trial evidence, the court found that the jury rightfully applied the facts of the ongoing harassment in finding that the employee was subjected to an unlawful hostile work environment and affirmed the verdict.  In doing so, the court rejected the employer’s argument that the employee had to provide expert testimony regarding the exact qualities of his or her disability in order to proceed with his claim of a hostile work environment.

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In this case, the plaintiff Mr. Iko was employed by the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office from 1992 until his retirement in 2017. Mr. Iko was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes early in life and had to manage his symptoms throughout his entire adult life. At times the illness caused Mr. Iko to experience related medical issues that required him to take time off from work for surgical procedures. On one occasion, Mr. Iko had to undergo a pancreas transplant procedure, which was complicated by an aortic tear. Mr. Iko also experienced issues with his eyesight.

In addition to struggling with numerous medical issues, Mr. Iko faced severe and pervasive discrimination from his supervisors and coworkers on the basis of these disabilities. Several of Mr. Iko’s supervisors and coworkers referred to him as “Eye Lab”, “Half-Dead”, “Mr. Magoo”, “Stevie Wonder” and “Walking Dead”, among other such names. These nicknames were offensive to Mr. Iko, who repeatedly asked the harassers to stop. Mr. Iko’s supervisors also directed expletives and derogatory statements toward him related to his failing pancreas and eyesight. Mr. Iko attempted to lodge a formal complaint of harassment with the Sheriff, but his Captain told him that the Sheriff would not speak with him. Unable to address the ongoing discrimination and harassment internally, Mr. Iko felt he had no choice but to file a lawsuit against Middlesex County for disability discrimination.

New Jersey employees are protected against workplace discrimination and harassment related to disabilities or perceived disabilities by the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The Law Against Discrimination prohibits discrimination on the basis of protected characteristics or traits, including race, sex, and disability and requires employers to maintain harassment free workplaces. If an employee faces discrimination and harassment similar to what Mr. Iko faced, and their employer fails to properly respond to the situation, their employer may be liable to them for damages under the LAD.

While Mr. Iko’s case was in trial court, Judge Robert Ballard ruled on two motions in limine, or requests to exclude specific testimony from trial. The first was a request to bar admission of testimony or evidence related to an incident that resulted in disciplinary action against Mr. Iko. The trial court ruled that testimony related to this incident should not be admissible because it did not serve to “prove or disprove any fact of consequence to the determination of” whether the alleged conduct amounted to harassment. The Appellate Division affirmed this decision. This ruling affirmed the idea that workplace harassment should be considered separately from other irrelevant matters occurring within a Plaintiff’s employment.

The second motion in limine was made by the defendant. No less than eight (8) complaints of sexual harassment and gender discrimination had been filed against the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office during the period between the mid-1990s and 2012. The defendant requested that this information be excluded from evidence in Mr. Iko’s case, arguing that it was irrelevant to Mr. Iko’s claim of disability discrimination. The trial court granted the motion in part, holding that Mr. Iko couldn’t introduce the testimony himself. However, Judge Ballard held that in the event that the defense claimed that their workplace harassment policies were adequate during the time in which Mr. Iko experienced discrimination, Mr. Iko could introduce the testimony as a rebuttal to this argument.

The Appellate Division affirmed Judge Ballard’s ruling on this motion as well. The Appellate Division determined that “harassment of other employees is relevant and admissible to the efficacy of an employer’s remedial program when asserted as a defense.” Cases of additional harassment can also be helpful in determining whether or not an employer exercised due care in preventing incidents of harassment and discrimination in their workplace. The presence of additional cases of harassment can be damaging to an employer’s defense against vicarious liability, as it suggests that employers neglected to exercise due care in protecting employees from such unlawful behavior.

In addition to the motions in limine, Middlesex County also appealed Judge Ballard’s denial of their motion to dismiss, made following the close of Mr. Iko’s case. The defendant argued that Mr. Iko did not prove “that he suffered from visible symptoms of diabetes upon which he based his claim of harassment”. The defendant claimed that Mr. Iko was required to provide expert testimony to confirm that the medical issues that affected his pancreas and eyesight were related to his diabetes.

The Appellate Division disagreed and affirmed Judge Ballard’s ruling. They court stated, “In a hostile work environment case, the focus is on the harasser’s conduct, not the plaintiff’s disability.” The focus in such a case should be the harasser’s conduct with the inquiry being whether a reasonable person would consider it to be “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment”. The court rejected Middlesex County’s argument that Mr. Iko had to provide expert testimony to causally relate his pancreas and eye conditions to his diabetes. The court found that the causal relationship was sufficiently established through testimony from other employees asserting that Mr. Iko’s coworkers generally understood that he suffered from diabetes and that his other conditions were related to this illness.

This case reaffirms the principle that the central focus in disability discrimination harassment cases should be on the harassment itself, not the quality or severity of the employee’s disability. This framework seeks to reduce the pattern of victim blaming and continued harassment that victims of discrimination can experience during lawsuit investigations and trials. A court’s first priority in cases of discrimination should be protecting victims of harassment.

Our disability discrimination lawyers are conveniently located in Holmdel, Monmouth County, New Jersey.