On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County.
Approved for Publication June 18, 1996.
Before Judges Baime, Villanueva and Kimmelman. The opinion of the court was delivered by VILLANUEVA, J.A.D. (Retired and temporarily assigned on recall).
The opinion of the court was delivered by: VILLANUEVA
The opinion of the court was delivered by
VILLANUEVA, J.A.D. (Retired and temporarily assigned on recall).
Thirty-four of forty-eight defendants appeal by leave we granted from the trial court's denial of their motion for summary judgment to dismiss defamation counts against them. We reverse.
This lawsuit arises out of events that occurred in 1991. Plaintiff Vinnie M. Feggans, an employee of the State of New Jersey assigned to the Department of Treasury's Office of Telecommunications and Information Systems (OTIS), alleges that she was sexually harassed in April 1991 by co-worker Michael Coleman. In addition to filing a criminal complaint against Coleman, plaintiff asserted a discrimination charge with the Department of Treasury against OTIS management. The department found insufficient evidence to support a finding of probable cause. *fn1
At the end of that year, plaintiff's performance evaluation included a warning that she was to perform only State work on State time. In the spring of 1992, plaintiff reported to the then director of OTIS that some of her co-workers, including supervisory personnel, conducted a sports pool on State equipment during work hours. Plaintiff alleged that as a result of this report she was subjected to retaliatory harassment; therefore, she requested a transfer to another directorate at OTIS, the directorate at which the supervisory and co-worker defendants in this action work.
Plaintiff alleges that after her transfer she was subjected to ongoing retaliatory harassment in the form of false reports of disruptive behavior against her. Plaintiff contends that the harassment and retaliation continued from November 1992 through October 1994. Her complaint recounts several interactions with OTIS personnel which, she alleges, resulted in her being unjustly accused of disruptive behavior. In particular, plaintiff complains that on November 29, 1994, Joanne Watkins, another OTIS employee, "grabbed plaintiff by her left arm" and failed to release her grasp until plaintiff "pulled away." As a result of this incident, plaintiff filed charges against Watkins in the Trenton Municipal Court *fn2 and a grievance through her collective bargaining unit representative.
Thereafter, a petition and memorandum ("petition") dated January 4, 1995, was circulated among OTIS employees, allegedly by Ivan Dommasch, which provided as follows:
We, the undersigned, have been made aware of a situation in which Vinnie Feggans, of our directorate, has filed a criminal complaint against Mrs. Joanne Watkins. Ms. Feggans claims that Mrs. Watkins physically attacked her on the afternoon of November 29, 1994. Such a physical attack is totally uncharacteristic of Ms. Watkins.
We, the undersigned, are also aware that Ms. Feggans previously filed a sexual harassment suit against a fellow employee during her previous assignment in another directorate. That suit was thrown out, but not without causing stress and damage to the reputation of the individual against whom the suit was filed. After the law suit, Ms. Feggans was assigned to this directorate. Ms. Feggan's [sic] is pursuing a similar course of action here, although she is now manipulating the criminal Justice system as opposed to the civil court system.
We, the undersigned, attest that since the assignment of Ms. Feggans to this directorate, morale and productivity have markedly deteriorated. Stress and frustration have become commonplace. In fact, since Ms. Feggan's [sic] arrival, stress related health problems have been reported by several individuals directly involved with her. In addition, most employees located anywhere in the vicinity of Ms. Feggans are fearful that she may file an unfounded criminal or civil action against anyone who offends her.
We, the undersigned, cannot tolerate Ms. Feggan's [sic] incorrigible behavior. She has shown herself capable of maliciously attacking the character of any State employee who may have contact with her (in this latest incident, Joanne Watkins). We, the undersigned, therefore request that Vinnie Feggans be physically removed from our work site in such a way that we are no longer required to have any contact with her whatsoever.
Forty-five State employees, including the thirty-four defendants involved in this appeal, signed the petition. Plaintiff contends that the petition is defamatory and that its circulation by Dommasch is evidence of a ...