TERMINATION DECISIONS INFLUENCED BY ALLEGED DISCRIMINATION...
Updated: Mar 24
Termination Decisions Influenced by Alleged Discrimination Must Be Applied to “Procedural Burden Shifting Methodology”
On December 30, 2021, the Supreme Court of New Jersey rendered a decision concerning a former township manager’s claim of sex discrimination against the township. The decision reiterated the requirements for summary judgment and reaffirmed the shifting-burden requirement for the granting of summary judgment in the case of discrimination claims.
In Meade v. Twp. of Livingston, No. 085176, 2021 WL 6139336 (N.J. Dec. 30, 2021), the Supreme Court of New Jersey determined that summary judgment was improperly granted in favor of the Plaintiff’s former employer, the Township of Livingston. The Supreme Court found that a court, reviewing the evidence, could possibly determine that the township had violated the Law Against Discrimination (LAD) and the court’s granting of summary judgment improperly prevented that. The details of the case are as follows:
Plaintiff was the township manager of Livingston for eleven years (2005-2016). By statute, the police chief was Plaintiff’s subordinate. Plaintiff alleged that the police chief was an insubordinate employee, citing a number of incidents including one where a confrontation occurred between Plaintiff, the police chief, and one other officer.
After the incident, Plaintiff confronted the police chief, as well as the other officer. This heated exchange resulted in multiple complaints, one criminal, against Plaintiff from one of the officers. In the meantime, it was alleged that the police chief was grossly insubordinate and his dealings with Plaintiff. In 2013, a former councilman allegedly said that the reason for the police chief’s insubordination was because he was biased against Plaintiff on the bias of gender.
Plaintiff talked to the town council, as well as the township labor counsel, to discuss what to do about the police chief’s behavior. Plaintiff was advised by labor counsel against taking action against the police chief because her pending accusations would compromise the integrity of a termination and Plaintiff would need the support of the council if she were to terminate the police chief. Plaintiff and the council ordered the police chief to come in for questioning about his performance but declined.
In 2015, the former mayor communicated with Plaintiff to have her either terminate or discipline the police chief. Plaintiff responded saying that she would need an independent investigation, which required funds approved by the council. The council did not approve funds for the investigation, saying that Plaintiff already had enough evidence to justify a termination.
Not having terminated the police chief, Plaintiff was fired in 2016 by the council for several reasons, only one of which vaguely related to the police chief’s insubordination, which the council blamed on Plaintiff. In 2017, no females were considered for Plaintiff’s position, and the township went through two (2) township managers before the police chief voluntarily resigned.
Plaintiff filed a complaint against the township alleging an LAD violation on the basis of sex discrimination. The trial court only considered her interactions with the police chief and decided that she had full authority to fire him at any time. Plaintiff appealed and the decision was affirmed. Plaintiff filed a writ of certiorari and it was granted.
The court cited McDonnel Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973) and Zive v. Stanley Roberts, Inc., 182 N.J. 436 (2005), which outline the procedural shifting burden of proof required when reviewing discrimination allegations: 1.) the Plaintiff must present evidence to prove discrimination prima facie, 2.) the defendant then must provide a reason other than discrimination for the disputed action, and 3.) the Plaintiff must prove that defendant’s reason is pretext for discrimination.
The Court ruled that summary judgment should not have been granted in this case, stating that Plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to prove prima facie discrimination and that the township’s reason of incompetence on her part could be a pretext because of the council’s actions, testimony, and alleged comments. The Court reiterated that the basis of its decision was not based on the truth or falsity of the allegations, but decided that a trial court should have been able to finally consider the case .
Additionally, the Court stated that Plaintiff did not have the statutory authority to simply terminate the police chief. Although Plaintiff could manage the appointment and removal of other town employees (N.J.S.A. 40A:14-147), she needed sufficient cause to remove the police chief, which the town council and labor counsel prevented her from obtaining. The Court, agreeing with Plaintiff that the police chief’s insubordination was based in discrimination, and that such discrimination may have influenced the council’s decision in her termination, should be decided by a jury. Therefore, the Court reversed the Appellate Division’s decision and remanded for trial.
This Alert provides information about the current developments in New Jersey education law. It is necessarily general and not intended as legal advice or a substitute for legal advice. Questions about individual issues should be addressed to Anthony P. Sciarrillo of Sciarrillo Cornell at firstname.lastname@example.org or David N. Tonda at email@example.com