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Oakley v. Wianecki

November 16, 2001


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Docket No. MID-L-6501-98.

Before Judges Pressler, Wefing and Lesemann.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lesemann, J.A.D.


Submitted September 17, 2001

Plaintiff, a former Senior Corrections Officer (SCO) with the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC), appeals from a summary judgment dismissing her complaint against the DOC and a number of her superior officers and co-workers alleging violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -30 (LAD), as well as common law torts, breach of contract and unlawful acts of retaliation involving her employment. We are satisfied that under the standard set out in Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995), plaintiff failed to demonstrate that she could establish any of those claims, and thus we affirm.

Plaintiff, a white female, alleges that she was subjected to "reverse discrimination" and was required to endure a "hostile workplace" because of her race and gender. She bases her claim primarily on a verbal confrontation with another corrections officer, Clifford Owens, an African-American male, in which he directed a coarse, insulting and sexually explicit insult at her. Additionally, she claims she was exposed to other hostile incidents over the eleven years of her employment with the DOC and also that the DOC did not properly handle the complaint she lodged against Owens. We find no merit in any of the charges.

Plaintiff began work with the DOC in August 1986, as a Corrections Officer Recruit (COR). As is customary, she remained a COR for one year, after which she became a Senior Corrections Officer (SCO) and then completed a four month probationary period. Thereafter, she worked as a corrections officer – essentially a prison guard – and performed duties customary to that position until she retired in January 1997, because of a back and neck injury unrelated to her present claims.

The incident on which plaintiff's complaint centers occurred on September 6, 1994, while she was working at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center (ADTC) operated by the DOC. She was assigned to an area known as the East Sallyport, and was working a shift that began at 7:20 a.m., and ended at 2:20 p.m. Shortly before 2:00 p.m., it became necessary to deliver a set of keys from her area to a Sergeant Runyon who was located in another area of the prison. Corrections Officer Owens was working in an area next to plaintiff and apparently could have delivered the keys to Runyon. For whatever reason, however, Owens did not deliver the keys and as a result, another officer, Terry Lewis, was required to come and obtain the keys. When Lewis arrived, he expressed to plaintiff his annoyance because he had been required to make an unnecessary trip. Plaintiff expressed her general agreement, commiserated with Lewis and made some uncomplimentary remarks about Owens. Owens, who was within earshot of that discussion, apparently became angry at plaintiff's comments, and called out the crude obscenity referred to above.

At or about the time Owens made that comment, plaintiff left her assigned post in East Sallyport and stepped through a doorway and into another prison area in order to obtain the keys that had to be delivered. She acknowledged that in doing so she departed from her obligation not to leave her post, although she claimed she had done so many times in the past without being criticized or disciplined.

The next day, plaintiff filed a complaint with the appropriate superior prison officer complaining of Owens' remark. As a result, Owens was charged with conduct unbecoming an officer. Within a few days thereafter, plaintiff was charged with having left her assigned post and, since Owens and another officer who had witnessed the incident claimed that plaintiff had (at least in part) precipitated the incident by directing profanity at Lewis and calling him "a baby," she too was charged with conduct unbecoming an officer. Both were told they faced a possible five-day suspension as punishment.

Owens then "stipulated" to the charge against him in return for having his proposed punishment reduced to a three-day suspension. On that basis, he was found guilty of the charge and was suspended for three days. Although that same resolution was available to plaintiff, she rejected it and instead proceeded to a hearing on the charges against her. At the hearing, the charge of conduct unbecoming an officer was dropped, but she was found guilty of having left her post. The originally designated five-day suspension was then imposed upon her.

Plaintiff also asserts that she was required to endure a series of hostile and discriminatory comments and actions throughout her employment with the DOC. However, during a lengthy deposition, constant attempts by the attorney representing the DOC to obtain details of those charges and descriptions of the incidents of which plaintiff complained were unsuccessful. In virtually every instance, plaintiff's complaints turned out to be vague, based on rumors or unsupported conclusions that she drew from comments which might well have been innocent or non- discriminatory, and none of her charges added up to the pattern of discrimination and hostility she claimed.

Thus, for example, plaintiff apparently asserted sexual harassment from what seems to have been nothing more than an invitation to go out with a male officer who was not her superior and who, for all that appears, invited her once, accepted her rejection, and never repeated the invitation. As plaintiff described it:

A: When I first started a black officer Johnson Junior asked me to go out. Didn't even ask me to go out. He wanted me to cook for him ...

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