It is also undisputed that a white woman replaced plaintiff and Pilla after their jobs were consolidated.
Vanderkolk's comment at the meeting was a comment about the selection process for UMDNJ trustees and ostensibly her feelings that women and minorities should also have been proposed as candidates. Her use of the term "white boys" was pure sarcasm and at worst, may reflect poor judgment about when flippant language is appropriate but it certainly does not buttress plaintiff's claim of racially discriminatory harassment and discharge. In support of his claim of reverse racial discrimination, plaintiff also relies on the two articles addressing issues of racial diversity on the workforce posted outside his office and Vanderkolk's support of Workforce 2000, UMDNJ's equal opportunity employment program, as further evidence of discriminatory animus. If plaintiff had bothered to read the articles he would have realized that they were innocuous informational material and not hostile or discriminatory. In fact, the U.S. News & World Report article, " The Demonization of White Men ", which he thought stated that white men were evil, is actually a sympathetic article which suggests that white men may be adversely impacted by increasing diversity in the workplace. Indeed, if the Court were to adopt plaintiff's paranoid worldview, no discussion regarding the need to provide equal opportunities for women and minorities in the workplace could occur for fear that white males would feel unlawfully harassed by such efforts. Similarly, the fact that UMDNJ has an equal employment opportunity program and that Vanderkolk supported its goals of achieving broader representation of minorities and women at UMDNJ is not evidence of discriminatory animus.
Accordingly, because plaintiff has proffered no evidence showing that he was discriminated against on the basis of his medical condition or race, the Court dismisses Counts Five and Six of the Amended Complaint.
D. Defamation Claims
In Counts Two and Three plaintiff contends that Vanderkolk's "Message to the University Community" defamed him. To prevail on a defamation claim, a plaintiff must prove: (1) a false and defamatory statement concerning plaintiff; (2) an unprivileged publication to a third party; (3) fault amounting to at least negligence on the part of the publisher; and (4) damages. See Abella v. Barringer Resources, Inc., 260 N.J. Super. 92, 98, 615 A.2d 288, 291 (Ch. Div. 1992). "A defamatory statement is one that is false and 'injurious to the reputation of another' or exposes another person to 'hatred, contempt or ridicule' or subjects another person to 'a loss of good will and confidence' in which she or he is held by others." Romaine v. Kallinger, 109 N.J. 282, 290, 537 A.2d 284 (1988) (quoting Leers v. Green, 24 N.J. 239, 251, 131 A.2d 781 (1957)). The threshold inquiry in a defamation action is whether the statement is reasonably susceptible of a defamatory meaning," and this is a question of law. Id.; Decker v. Princeton Packet, 116 N.J. 418, 424, 561 A.2d 1122 (1989). Moreover, liability for defamation cannot be imposed unless the defendants' statements of fact are "false." Thus, truth is an absolute defense to defamation. Romaine, 109, N.J. at 289; Lawrence v. Bauer Pub. & Printing Ltd., 89 N.J. 451, 446 A.2d 469 (1982).
Vanderkolk's published statement, which did not identify plaintiff by name, is obviously truthful, for plaintiff himself acknowledges that the Annual Report contained errors and that he was partially responsible for them. He also has failed to demonstrate that Vanderkolk's statement was injurious to his reputation and professional standing. The statement reveals no information regarding his employment record but instead merely conveys to the reader that some undefined adverse action has been taken against some unidentified members of the GPA for errors appearing in the Annual Report. Unless someone knew that plaintiff was a member of the department and that he had been discharged, the reader would have no way of knowing that it pertained to plaintiff. The absence of identifying language in the statement compels the Court to reject plaintiff's claim that it defamed him. Therefore, the Court dismisses Counts Two and Three of the Amended Complaint.
E. Breach of Contract Claims
In Counts Four, plaintiff claims that by publishing Vanderkolk's "Message to the University Community" defendants breached an agreement contained in the UMDNJ Staff Handbook that his employment record would remain confidential. The Handbook states:
During the course of your employment you may learn of confidential information about patients, co-workers or the University. Continued employment at UMDNJ is conditioned on your taking every possible precaution to ensure complete confidentiality of information. You must be on guard against potential violations of confidentiality whether you are inside the University or standing at the bus stop talking to a co-worker.
(Vanderkolk, Ex. 37 at 26).
As discussed above, the "Message" merely conveys in non-identifiable general language that the employees responsible for the errors in the Annual Report had been disciplined. Therefore, the Court finds that plaintiff has failed to establish any actionable breach of confidentiality.
In Counts Eight and Ten, plaintiff alleges that he and UMDNJ entered into an implied employment contract contained in various oral statements, performance evaluations, and the UMDNJ Staff Handbook. This agreement purportedly guaranteed that he would not be terminated as long as his job performance was satisfactory.
As a general rule, "an employer may fire an employee for good reason, bad reason or no reason at all under the employment-at-will doctrine." Witkowski v. Thomas J. Lipton, Inc., 136 N.J. 385, 397, 643 A.2d 546 (1994). Thus, "an employment relationship remains terminable at the will of either an employer or employee, unless an agreement exists that provides otherwise." Id. This at-will doctrine applies to public employees like Ditzel. English v. College of Medicine and Dentistry of N.J., 73 N.J. 20, 23, 372 A.2d 295 (1977). However, in Woolley v. Hoffman - La Roche, Inc., 99 N.J. 284, 491 A.2d 1257 (1985), the New Jersey Supreme Court held that "absent a clear and prominent disclaimer, an implied promise contained in an employment manual that an employee will be fired only for cause may be enforceable against an employer even when the employment is for an indefinite term and would otherwise be terminable at will." Id. 99 N.J. at 285-286. In determining whether an employment contract can be implied from an employee handbook, the court must consider "the reasonable expectations of the employees." Witkowski, 136 N.J. at 392. The definiteness and comprehensiveness of the termination policies and the context of the manual's preparation and distribution both bear on whether employees may reasonably understand an employment manual to provide enforceable obligations. Id. at 393. Still, the employer "may overcome the implication that its employment manual constitutes an enforceable contract" by including a disclaimer notifying employees that they may be terminated at the employer's will. Nicosia v. Wakefern Food Corp., 136 N.J. 401, 412, 643 A.2d 554 (1994).
Here, UMDNJ employees could not have reasonably understood the Staff Handbook to create a binding agreement that they would be terminated only for good cause. First, the Staff Handbook did not contain comprehensive and definite provisions on job security and did not state that employees could only be fired for good cause. Second, the Handbook at page seven contained a "clear and prominent" disclaimer that unquestionably informed employees that they could be fired at any time with or without good cause:
All staff members of UMDNJ not covered by a current union contract are considered employees "at will". This phrase refers to the fact that the University retains the right to terminate employment of "at will" staff members any time, with or without cause or notice. No written or oral statement issued by the University or by any employee or agent of the University can affect your status as an "at will" staff member.