⚫ A prison officer says she was forced to resign after receiving bad medical news

⚫ An appeals court agrees with a 2017 ruling in the plaintiff's favor

⚫ Judges hope the ruling will 'deter future unlawful conduct'

New Jersey is still on the hook for $10 million in punitive damages to be paid to a former correctional officer.

The state had appealed a Mercer County jury's 2017 verdict siding with a female employee who said she was forced to resign after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

But a ruling from a three-judge appellate panel on Tuesday suggests that higher-ups at the Juvenile Justice Commission facility operated in an egregious manner in the aftermath of a fight between two inmates that Shelley Pritchett, a senior corrections officer, had to break up.

Pritchett resigned from her position at the facility in November 2012 and she sued the state for discrimination in 2013.

"Upper management behaved reprehensibly in blithely dismissing plaintiff's request for an unpaid leave of absence to accommodate treatment for her newly diagnosed MS," Appellate Division Judge Heidi Willis Currier wrote in the opinion.

Pritchett's MS diagnosis

While Pritchett was receiving treatment for injuries related to the inmate fight in June 2011, her physician suspected that she was suffering from the early stages of MS.

The doctor noted that she could return to work with no restrictions, but he recommended that she seek additional leave to seek a proper diagnosis and treatment for the disease.

Pritchett followed that recommendation and requested unpaid leave from her position.

Upper management at the facility did not want to approve the leave, despite calls from human resources personnel to allow it, according to case documents.

Eventually, Pritchett was granted leave. But she was told that after a certain date, no additional leave would be awarded and she'd have to resign if she wants more time off.

When that date came — after Pritchett was officially diagnosed with MS — Pritchett was told that she'd be subject to termination without a pension if she did not resign by the end of the week. She then submitted an application for retirement disability benefits, at age 37.

Ruling for Pritchett

The ruling in Pritchett's favor in 2017 came with a total judgment of more than $12 million, including $10 million in punitive damages.

During the trial, a medical expert testified that Pritchett was stable and able to return to her position as a senior corrections officer without any restrictions. At the time of the trial, Pritchett was working two jobs: one at Home Depot, and another working with individuals in the foster care system.

The appeals panel noted that the payout to Pritchett is "substantial" but warranted, given upper management's actions.

"After having reviewed the award with great care in light of defendant's status as a public entity, we find the award appropriate to deter future unlawful conduct," Currier wrote.

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