NEWARK, N.J. — Derogatory comments about a Jewish police officer's religion were more than just teasing and constituted a hostile work environment, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The decision could have widespread impact, as the court determined that the standard for demonstrating religious discrimination is the same as that for sexual or racial harassment.
The 5-0 decision by New Jersey's highest court upheld a Camden County jury ruling in favor of Haddonfield Police Officer Jason Cutler. It reversed an appellate ruling that characterized the remarks as "teasing." Two justices did not participate in yesterday’s ruling in Cutler v. Dorn.
A lawyer for the police department says the ruling means ethnic jokes are essentially barred from the workplace.
A Jewish civil rights group applauded the ruling because it would encourage employees to think twice before making such remarks.
In rejecting arguments that the remarks aimed at Cutler, who has since been promoted to sergeant, were harmless teasing, the court determined he "suffered severe or pervasive harassment that was unwelcome."
"Consistent with this state's strong policy against any form of discrimination in the workplace, we hold that the threshold for demonstrating a religion-based, discriminatory hostile work environment cannot be any higher or more stringent than the threshold that applies to sexually or racially hostile workplace environment claims," Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote for the court, in what she said was its first ruling assessing the proof needed in a religious-based claim of workplace hostility.
Cutler lawyer Clifford L. Van Syoc called the decision "gratifying" and said he expected the officer would win damages at another trial.
"There's many ways to be funny; you don't have to use slurs," Van Syoc said.
Haddonfield contended that Cutler participated in ethnic and religious joking, said the borough's lawyer, Mario A. Iavicoli.
"He never believed his job was in jeopardy because he was Jewish. He never believed he would not be promoted because he was Jewish," Iavicoli said.
The lawyer attributed the dispute to a clash between Cutler and another officer.
Iavicoli said the ruling would not permit courts to distinguish between jokes and bigoted, mean-spirited remarks. As a result, he said Haddonfield would discipline employees for ethnic remarks.
"Employees now have to be on guard. They can't even joke about ethnic matters in the workplace," he said. "It's not acceptable."
The Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish groups had encouraged the state Supreme Court to find that the remarks aimed at Cutler were "vicious, anti-Semitic comments."
"This decision does not mean the end of humor in the workplace. But it should make people rethink the type of humor that is being used. People tend to be dismissive when someone else's race, religion or sexual orientation is being mocked," said Etzion Neuer, ADL regional director. "This is not about somebody being too thin-skinned."
Cutler joined the Haddonfield force in January 1995 and sued in July 1999.
He said a former chief would comment on his religion several times a month and referred to him as "the Jew," and once asked him "where (his) big Jew ... nose was." In addition, a lieutenant had told him "Jews are good with numbers" and "Jews make all the money," Cutler claimed.
A Camden County jury in 2003 determined the remarks constituted a hostile work environment, but declined to award any compensatory or punitive damages.