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Weisel v. Hooks

Decided: July 5, 1994.

KATHLEEN R. WEISEL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
LONNA R. HOOKS, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS SECRETARY OF STATE, DEPT. OF STATE, STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANT.



Carchman

Carchman

CARCHMAN, P.J.Ch.

Plaintiff, Kathleen R. Weisel, (plaintiff) served as the "Confidential Secretary," an unclassified position, to then Secretary of State Daniel Dalton during the administration of Governor James Florio. (Plaintiff's title was later administratively changed to "secretary to the Commissioner," but her duties and job description remained the same. For ease of reference, the title will be referred to as confidential secretary.) After the 1993 gubernatorial election, Governor Christine Todd Whitman, appointed defendant, Lonna R. Hooks (defendant) as Secretary of State. A few months after her appointment, defendant and the newly-appointed Assistant Secretary of State, Lathea Morris (Morris) dismissed plaintiff from her position as confidential secretary. Plaintiff alleges that her dismissal was based solely on political considerations and violates her federal and state constitutional rights of belief and association. She brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983 and N.J. Const. art. I, § 5. This court holds that in her position as confidential secretary to the Secretary of State, plaintiff has no protected constitutional rights which preclude her dismissal for "political reasons."

I.

The facts of this case are not complex. Plaintiff served as confidential secretary to Secretary of State Daniel J. Dalton. The unclassified title of "confidential secretary" offers plaintiff no civil service protection and allows her dismissal "at-will." N.J.S.A. 11A:3-4h. Prior to assuming the position of confidential secretary, plaintiff served as Dalton's administrative assistant and at other times served as secretary to various presidents of the New Jersey State Senate. All of these prior employment positions were for office holders who were members of the Democratic Party. In addition, at various times in her career, plaintiff was actively engaged in Democratic Party affairs.

With the change in administration from Governor Florio to Governor Whitman, a new Secretary of State, defendant, was appointed. According to plaintiff, defendant retained plaintiff as her confidential secretary from January 20, 1994, until March 8, 1994, when defendant appointed Debora Banks to the plaintiff's position; thereafter, plaintiff served as confidential secretary to Morris. On March 21, 1994, Morris advised plaintiff that plaintiff was terminated. Morris filled the position by appointing Julia Seymore as her executive assistant. Plaintiff alleges that on February 25, 1994, defendant said to plaintiff, "Quite frankly I'm tired of having to explain having a Democrat work for me as my assistant." Plaintiff also alleges that Morris, upon notifying plaintiff of her dismissal, said "We can't keep you employed here . . . because of politics." On May 20, 1994, plaintiff's employ with both defendant and Morris terminated. Ironically, both of plaintiff's replacements, Ms. Banks and Ms. Seymore, are registered Democrats.

The Department of Personnel job specification for the position of "confidential secretary" describes the position as being under the Secretary of State's direction and includes the following duties:

1. performs a liaison function between the Department of State and other State agencies and professional organizations on issues and programs concerning the Department;

2. prepares correspondence that may or may not require the Secretary of State's review or signature;

3. takes and transcribes dictation, including correspondence, reports and recommendations of a confidential nature;

4. prepares information for reports, speeches and memoranda;

5. maintains confidential, personal, correspondence follow-up and other records and files;

6. when required, instructs and supervises office personnel in accomplishment and duties and develops knowledge of Department programs, ...


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