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Paternoster v. Shuster

January 23, 1997

ANGELO PATERNOSTER, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
KAREN SHUSTER, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County.

Approved for Publication January 17, 1997.

Before Judges Michels, Kleiner and Coburn. The opinion of the court was delivered by Kleiner, J.A.D.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kleiner

The opinion of the court was delivered by

KLEINER, J.A.D.

Plaintiff Angelo Paternoster, a school principal, filed a verified complaint and an order to show cause on November 16, 1994, for temporary restraints to enjoin defendant Karen Shuster from harassing him, his family, his counsel, and his co-employees. Shuster had been formerly employed as the school nurse in an Elizabeth public school where plaintiff was the principal. Although plaintiff's complaint sought damages attributable to defendant's negligent or willful interference with plaintiff's business relationships, his request for a temporary injunction specifically related to an act of harassment and a battery on November 15, 1994.

To fully explain the events that gave rise to this litigation, we must briefly review the relationship between the litigants. That relationship may be divided into three phases: pre-1991; 1993 to November 10, 1994; and November 15, 1994, to present.

A.

Prior to 1991, plaintiff, Angelo Paternoster, was employed as a school principal by the Elizabeth Board of Education. Defendant, Karen Shuster, was employed as a school nurse and was assigned to plaintiff's school. From the pleadings, it would appear that defendant has long held the belief that plaintiff was enamored with her. Defendant's perception is that various acts allegedly performed by plaintiff were demonstrative of his flirtatious intentions. Defendant, for her part, was apparently interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with plaintiff. Plaintiff alleges that when defendant's intentions became clear, he made a serious effort to convince her that he, in fact, had no interest in her other than the professional relationship of principal and school nurse. Despite plaintiff's explanations to defendant, plaintiff alleges that defendant persisted in her pursuit and began to telephone him at his home. According to plaintiff, defendant started to leave messages with plaintiff's wife, his mother, and with school employees requesting that plaintiff return her calls.

On or about February 14, 1991, defendant received an anonymous Valentine's Day card. Defendant was positive that the card had been sent by plaintiff. When she confronted plaintiff with her belief, he denied having sent the card. Defendant then submitted the card along with samples of plaintiff's writing to a handwriting expert, who concluded that the card and the samples had been penned by the same hand.

In March 1991, plaintiff contends that he was contacted by defendant's therapist and warned that defendant was obsessed with him and that defendant might be dangerous. Plaintiff reported this telephone call to the director of personnel of the Elizabeth Board of Education. Soon thereafter, the acting superintendent demanded that defendant submit to a psychiatric evaluation. Defendant was also suspended from her duties, with pay, pending receipt of a psychiatric evaluation. Defendant resigned, effective May 15, 1991, after refusing to submit to the requested evaluation.

Notwithstanding her resignation, defendant began sending intimate letters and cards to plaintiff. For instance, in June 1991, defendant sent a card to plaintiff that read, in part, "I love you very much . . . . I miss you so much. I am miserable without you in my life." In May and June 1991, defendant sent cards with messages such as, "there is no enemy except the conflict within my own mind," and "we need to trust love not fear it." In November 1991, defendant sent several communications to plaintiff expressing her intimate feelings. Defendant also sent photographs of herself. Plaintiff certifies that, during this time, defendant frequently called his home and office.

Plaintiff became so distressed by defendant's acts that he reported her activities to the local police department on November 19, 1991. Although plaintiff was not interested in pursuing legal action against defendant, he felt that reporting defendant's activities to the police as a matter of record would document his concern for his own safety and the safety of his family. When defendant's acts continued, plaintiff filed a second report with the Elizabeth police on December 7, 1992, but elected not to take further legal action.

The record does not indicate whether defendant continued her activities over the next twelve months. At some point, however, defendant reviewed the police reports and concluded that plaintiff had defamed her. Defendant then filed a complaint, on November 19, 1993, alleging libel, slander, interference with advantageous business relationship, and harassment. Plaintiff filed an answer.

Despite the fact that defendant was represented by counsel, she began to contact plaintiff's counsel directly to discuss her claims and to promote the relationship that she still hoped to have with plaintiff. Because defendant's contacts with plaintiff and his counsel were extremely irritating and disruptive, plaintiff sought a temporary restraint to prevent defendant from contacting him, his family, his counsel, and his co-workers. A temporary restraining order was issued on October 21, 1994. In anticipation of a future plenary hearing, a case management conference was scheduled for November 10, 1994. Shortly before that conference, defendant voluntarily dismissed her complaint and plaintiff withdrew his request for a permanent injunction. Ostensibly, the litigation was at an end.

B.

On February 14, 1994, defendant alleges that she received another anonymous Valentine's Day card. She concluded that plaintiff had mailed the card to her. Again, defendant's handwriting expert concurred with her suspicions.

On November 15, 1994, defendant, who lived near plaintiff, encountered him in a neighborhood supermarket. Plaintiff contends that defendant attempted to strike up a conversation. He ignored her and walked away. Approximately twenty minutes later, defendant confronted plaintiff in the supermarket parking lot and demanded that he speak with her. After the confrontation, plaintiff filed a verified complaint, seeking a temporary restraint. The certification filed at that time asserted the following:

11. I repeated that I had nothing to say to her and asked her to leave me alone. She refused and physically prevented me from putting away my groceries or getting into my car. She then proceeded to roughly grab my coat by the arm and by the collar.

12. At this point I told her that if she didn't allow me to leave I would return to the store to call the police. [Defendant] repeated her demands that I provide her with answers and continued to grab onto by [sic] coat and arm in [an] effort to keep me from leaving.

13. Finally, I managed to break her hold on me and returned to the store in an effort to get away from her.

14. [Defendant] followed me into the A&P but quickly left when I approached ...


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