jury box courtroom

A hostile work environment and sexual harassment trial originally conducted years ago must begin again because one of the jurors exhibited possible religious prejudice during the first trial, a New Jersey appellate court has ruled.

In Davis v. Husain, the Appellate Division on March 1 held that a juror’s comment to fellow jury members—that defendant Dr. Abbas Husain, a Hindu, did not put his hand on the Bible when taking the oath—could have tainted the verdict.

The ruling reverses a Camden County Superior Court judge’s 2016 denial of a new trial. But the case was originally filed in 2007 and has been up the appellate ladder before.

The ruling stems from plaintiff Tomika Davis’ lawsuit against Husain. A Camden County jury in 2011 ruled in favor of  Davis, finding that Husain created a hostile work environment, sexually harassed Davis, and retaliated against her during her employment at his medical office, according to the appellate panel’s per curiam opinion. The jury awarded her $12,500.

Sometime after the verdict, during Superior Court Judge Stephen Holden’s ex parte meeting with the members of the jury, it came to light that one of the jurors, identified as a black woman, was “very passionate” about the fact that Husain did not place his hand on the Bible when swearing to tell the truth during his testimony. Later unsuccessful attempts were made to find the juror by mailing the four female jury members, the court noted.

Husain, in seeking a new trial based on potential bias, argued that the woman’s attitude could have improperly influenced other jurors in reaching the verdict.

The case would ascend to the state Supreme Court, prompting it to rule in 2014 that judges may not hold postverdict discussions with jurors. The high court, however, didn’t rule on the new trial motion, instead remanding it. Judge Michael Kassel denied the motion in 2016.

The Appellate Division panel, made up of Judges Carmen Alvarez, Susan Reisner and Hany Mawla, reversed.

“In determining whether the deliberative process has been prejudicially tainted, it cannot be infested by racial or religious bigotry. As the Court discussed in State v. Loftin, ‘an impartial jury is one of the most basic guarantees of a fair trial,’” the March 1 opinion said.

The state Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Loftin dealt with a juror in a capital murder case holding racially based views toward the defendant. In that case, the court held that a it wasn’t a juror’s presence during the formulation of a verdict, but their capacity of influencing it that mattered.

“The juror’s comment regarding the Bible raises the specter of religious bigotry,” the panel said. “Whether that concern colored the view of the other jurors is still unknown, with the exception of the juror who appeared.

“This is a peculiar situation. The Law Division judge said the juror who made the observation was only concerned with Husain’s credibility, i.e., that a person who refused to place his hand on the Bible was incapable of taking the oath seriously and was therefore incredible,” the panel went on. “He contrasted this with out-and-out religious bigotry. But if he was correct, that too is simply impermissible. The exercise of a person’s religion should not make him or her per se incredible.”

The only way to ensure there was no miscarriage of justice, was to grant a new trial, the court said.

Deborah Mains of Costello & Mains represented Davis and did not return a call seeking comment.

Robert Hagerty represented Husain and could not be reached for comment at several listed numbers.