Jewish Officer Makes New Discrimination Law, But Does Not Recover Damages

Jason Cutler has been employed by the Haddonfield, New Jersey Police Department since 1995. In 1999, Cutler filed a lawsuit under New Jersey’s “Law Against Discrimination” alleging that he was the victim of religious discrimination. Cutler, who is Jewish and whose faith and background were known by those with whom he worked, observed that supervisors would make negative and demeaning comments about “Jews” while in his presence. The Police Chief commented on Cutler’s Jewish ancestry “a couple of times a month,” and often referred to Cutler as “the Jew” when Cutler was present.

On one occasion, the Chief asked Cutler “where his big Jew nose was,” apparently referencing the fact that Cutler’s nose was smallish. A lieutenant also made comments about persons of Jewish faith, saying things such as “Jews are good with numbers,” “Why didn’t you go into your family business – why are you here,” and “Jews make all the money.”
Other incidents convinced Cutler that he was the target of religious discrimination. On one occasion, a superior officer told Cutler not to wear his yarmulke during Passover because it would be non-compliant with the Department’s uniform requirements; yet, Cutler observed another member of the Department being allowed to wear a “Jesus First” pin on his uniform’s lapel. On another occasion, Cutler arrived at work to find that a sticker of an Israeli flag had been placed on his locker. A few weeks thereafter, a sticker of a German flag was placed above the Israeli flag sticker.

From Cutler’s perspective, the “straw that broke the camel’s back” came when Cutler and a fellow officer were watching a training video about diplomatic immunity, in preparation for the Maccabi games that were to be held in neighboring Cherry Hill. Cutler explained to the other officer that the Maccabi games were the “Jewish Olympics” and constituted an important event in the Jewish community. The other officer responded by blurting out “Those dirty Jews.”

A jury found in Cutler’s favor on his claim of a hostile work environment. However, the jury awarded Cutler no damages. The case eventually made it to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which addressed for the first time the level of proof necessary for a religion-based hostile work environment claim.

The Court ended up concluding that the same standards used to assess sexual or racial hostile work environment claims should be used to assess religious claims. The Court found that “a prima facie case for religion-based hostile work environment claims can arise from the corrosive effect that religious taunts, belittling derogatory comments, and insults about one’s religious beliefs and ancestry can have when made in the workplace. When the jury heard the evidence, it concluded that Cutler proved that he had been subjected to an unwelcome hostile work environment based on his religion and ancestry. In our view, the trial court committed no error by its refusal to disturb the jury’s assessment.”

The Supreme Court’s affirmance of the jury’s verdict also left in place the jury’s award of no damages to Cutler.

Cutler v. Dorn, 2008 WL 2916431 (N.J. 2008).

This article appears in the October 2008 issue