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Welter v. Seton Hall University

Decided: August 6, 1990.


On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Essex County.

Pressler, Long and Gruccio. The opinion of the court was delivered by Gruccio, J.A.D.


[243 NJSuper Page 266] Plaintiffs Sister Marilyn Therese Welter and Sister Carolyn Therese Welter, identical twin Catholic nuns, appeal from the dismissal of those portions of their complaint against defendants Seton Hall University, a corporation of the State of New Jersey, Philip R. Phillips, John J. Hampton, William Boncher and Jack Shannon, alleging tortious interference with contract, tortious interference with prospective economic advantage, conspiracy, breach of the duty to abide by the terms of the

employee manual and wrongful discharge for refusing to perform acts that violated public policy. The individual defendants are professors and administrators of the University. Defendants admit that Seton Hall breached the one-year notice provision in plaintiffs' employment contracts but argue that it was impelled to do so because of its religious belief that it could not employ plaintiffs against the wishes of their religious order.

Defendants cross-appeal from the denial of their motion for summary judgment. They contend that the Free Exercise clause of the United States Constitution prohibits courts from exercising jurisdiction over this religious controversy. Thus, they contend that the judgment awarding plaintiffs each $45,000 on the breach-of-contract claims should be reversed.

Plaintiffs entered the Ursuline Convent of the Sacred Heart in Toledo, Ohio, on February 2, 1953, and a few years later took vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and instruction of youth. In 1967, they received bachelors degrees from Mary Manse College. In 1973, they received masters degrees in education with course work in mathematics from the University of Maine. One year later they received masters degrees in mathematics from the University of Toledo. By the late 1970's, plaintiffs had completed the course work necessary for their Ph.D.'s in instruction and higher education, but had not written their dissertations.

While teaching at Madonna College in Livonia, Michigan, plaintiffs received an indult of transfer to the Felician order.*fn1 They had become disturbed by changes in the Ursuline order and were drawn to the Felicians because they continued in a lifestyle similar to that previously pursued by the Ursulines. After deciding not to return to Madonna College, plaintiffs sought employment at three Catholic Universities in the East and with a private corporation. Although they were offered

jobs with the corporation, they chose to accept Seton Hall's offer. They rejoined the Ursuline order, but were not reinstated as regular members.

Plaintiffs testified that they were interviewed by defendant Phillips, Dean of the Business School, and defendant Shannon, Assistant Dean for Administration. Plaintiffs testified that they told Dean Phillips and Assistant Dean Shannon that they had completed all of their course work for their Ph.D.'s in education. They further testified that they at no time indicated that they would be receiving Ph.D.'s in computer science. At trial, Sister Marilyn identified the curriculum vitae she submitted to Seton Hall. While not part of the record on appeal, she testified that the document represented her as a Ph.D. candidate in math and higher education, not computer science. In Dean Phillips' deposition, which was read into the record, he testified that plaintiffs had represented to him that they would receive Ph.D.'s in computer science within a year. He later testified that he never saw their curricula vitae.

By letters dated August 4, 1980, Dean Phillips offered plaintiffs one-year assistant professor positions. These letters informed plaintiffs that they would be up for tenure review after five semesters of teaching. Plaintiffs accepted the offer of employment by signing and returning the letters. On August 4, 1980, they signed one-year employment contracts specifically incorporating the university statutes, faculty guide and executive memoranda.

During their first year at Seton Hall, plaintiffs co-chaired the Computer Science Department and received glowing evaluations. They returned to the Ursuline motherhouse in the summer where there arose problems with their superiors over whether they had properly sought permission to accept posts with Seton Hall. The deposition testimony of Sister Kathleen Padden, the general superior of the Ursuline order, indicated that plaintiffs had not obtained permission. However, they

were not forbidden from working at Seton Hall at that time. Sister Kathleen stated that plaintiffs had led her to believe that they had signed five-year contracts with Seton Hall when in fact they were offered year-to-year contracts. Because of that belief she allowed plaintiffs to continue working at Seton Hall.

During the first half of plaintiffs' second year at Seton Hall, their employment relationship continued to thrive. The problems began, however, during the second half of the year. It appears that at this time a conflict arose between plaintiffs and defendant Hampton, a professor of finance and chairman of the Educational Policies Committee. Over the Christmas break, Dr. Hampton, Assistant Dean Shannon and another professor, Helena Wisnewski, developed a proposal for a masters program in computer science. However, the Computer Science Department, chaired now by Sister Marilyn, chose not to present that proposal to the committee. Sister Marilyn believed that the department lacked adequate faculty to implement the proposal as designed. Instead, the department decided to present another program developed and approved by Sister Marilyn. Dr. Hampton was very critical of this proposal and circulated a memo to the entire business faculty urging them to carefully study it. He maintained that the proposal did not meet the necessary accreditation standards. Sister Marilyn testified that she was never allowed to present the proposal to the Educational Policies Committee chaired by Dr. Hampton.

Dean Phillips testified that around that time he began asking plaintiffs when they would complete their dissertations. He testified that plaintiffs responded very vaguely and said that they "were working on them." As part of its application for accreditation, the business school began preparing a self-study report which required the details of each faculty member's educational and professional background. Dean Phillips testified that he recalled that plaintiffs' written response to requests for their educational background revealed that they were not working on Ph.D.'s in computer science.

Dr. Hampton's deposition testimony, which was made a part of the record, revealed that at this time another professor, Dr. Boncher, began to question plaintiffs' credentials. On May 13, 1982, Dr. Boncher wrote a memo to Dean Phillips and plaintiffs which stated that the self-study report indicated that plaintiffs' "Primary Field of Degree" was computer and information sciences. However, Dr. Boncher indicated that he had spoken to a professor at Toledo University who told him that plaintiffs' Ph.D. studies and masters degrees had been in the field of education, not computer sciences and mathematics. The deposition testimony of Assistant Dean Shannon indicated that he was not alarmed by this information. At the time plaintiffs were pursuing their degrees, very few schools offered computer science degrees and students regularly completed their coursework through the mathematics departments. It was sufficient for him that they were pursuing education degrees with concentrations in mathematics and had completed significant coursework in computer science.

Dean Phillips then removed Sister Carolyn as chairperson of the Computer Science Department and appointed a newcomer to the school. He made Sister Carolyn the director of the microcomputer lab and placed her and Sister Marilyn in charge of assisting faculty in adapting business courses to computers. However, serious conflicts arose between Sister Carolyn and Dr. Hampton over use of the computer lab. Dr. Hampton believed that plaintiffs put many obstacles in his way when he attempted to secure computer time for his students. Sister Carolyn testified that she could not accommodate Dr. Hampton's requests because of electrical work being done in the lab. Each accused the other of attempting to horde lab time to pursue private, profit-making endeavors.

Because of Dr. Hampton's complaints about the lab, its control was transferred to the Division of Research which was headed by him. Dr. Hampton then removed Sister Carolyn as director of the lab and moved both plaintiffs' offices out of the lab. ...

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