Ex-HR Director’s Suit Headed Back to Lower Court

November 30, 2009 (PLANSPONSOR.com) – Justices of the New Jersey Supreme Court have taken an appeal of a $10-million gender discrimination case turning on whether a human resources director was legally protected when she gave copied personnel files to her lawyer.

A New Jersey Law Journal news story said plaintiff Joyce Quinlan, former Human Resources head for Parsippany, New Jersey-based engineering firm Curtiss-Wright, contends her records copying as part of her discrimination claim was protected against retaliation. Quinlan was fired in June 2005 after being accused of theft of company property.

So far, a New Jersey state court jury in 2007 found the record copying is insulated from corporate retaliation, while a state appellate panel indicated it is not.

According to the news story, Quinlan filed her suit in November 2003 after the company promoted a male worker to a vice-president post who had been hired long after Quinlan was.

Because of her HR position, Quinlan was able to access 1,800 pages of personnel files, including salary documents, and delivered them to her lawyer, Neil Mullin. Mullin, in turn, delivered them to Curtiss-Wright attorney Rosemary Alito during pre-trial discovery. After that, according to the news account, Quinlan obtained a post-promotion evaluation of Kenneth Lewis, the male worker who received the promotion Quinlan had pursued that was so supportive of Quinlan’s discrimination claim that the trial judge called it a “potential smoking gun.”

After the 2007 trial, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Donald Goldman instructed the jury that it was allowable for Mullin to use the confidential HR documents and that Curtiss-Wright was not allowed to fire Quinlan on that basis.

Quinlan was eventually awarded $4,565,479 in compensatory damages, an equal amount for punitive damages, $1,398,796 in fees and costs, plus additional amounts for prejudgment interest and a tax offset, for a total judgment of $10,649,117.

However, the appellate court threw out the trial court case after finding that Goldman improperly drew a distinction between Quinlan’s copying of the documents to give to Mullin, which was not protected, and Mullin’s use of the documents, which was. “Such an approach, in our view, could have the undesirable result of encouraging employees to go through their employers’ files and copy confidential material, secure in the knowledge that employers could do nothing so long as that material was later used in litigation,” wrote Appellate Judge Dorothea Wefing, according to the news account.

The appeals court also held Quinlan could not seek punitive damages on remand because there was no proof of malice since she kept her job after she sued and even received a raise and a bonus.

The case is Quinlan v. Curtiss-Wright Corp. C-321-09.