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COOPER v. CAPE MAY COUNTY BD. OF SOCIAL SERVICES

November 27, 2001

RAYMOND G. COOPER, JR., PLAINTIFF,
V.
CAPE MAY COUNTY BOARD OF SOCIAL SERVICES, DIRECTOR JOSEPH B. FAHY, ADMINISTRATIVE SUPERVISOR, EDNA HAND, JOHN DOE DECISION MAKERS, (PLURAL 1-10), DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Brotman, District Judge.

OPINION REGARDING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

I. Introduction

II. BACKGROUND

A. The Parties

Plaintiff Raymond G. Cooper is currently employed as a Clerk at the Cape May County Board of Social Services. (Pl. Compl. at ¶ 1). Defendant Cape May County Board of Social Services is a public agency in the State of New Jersey charged with administering welfare benefits and social services programs throughout Cape May County. (Pl. Compl. at ¶ 2); (Dep. of Joseph B. Fahy, Def. Br.App. M, at 11) ("Fahy Dep."). Defendant Joseph B. Fahy is the Director of the Cape May County Board of Social Services and has direct authority for the hiring and promotion of Board of Social Services Employees in accordance with regulations outlined by the New Jersey Department of Personnel. (Pl. Compl. at ¶ 3); (Fahy Dep. at 11). Defendant Edna Hand is an Administrative Supervisor of Income Maintenance with the Medicaid Unit of the Cape May County Board of Social Services, and is responsible for overseeing the administration of Medicaid programs throughout Cape May County. (Pl. Compl. at ¶ 4); (Def.'s Answer at ¶ 4); (Dep. of Edna Hand, Def. Br.App. L, at 10) ("Hand Dep.").

B. Factual and Procedural Background

In this action, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants denied him a promotion to the position of Income Maintenance Technician in retaliation against him for complaints he made to the New Jersey Department of Personnel regarding a co-worker, Ms. Donna Bright.

On or around December 1994, Plaintiff started working for the Cape May County Board of Social Services ("Board") as a maintenance employee as part of a welfare community work experience, or "reach" program. (Dep. of Raymond Cooper, Def. Br.App. K, at 14-15) ("Cooper Dep."), which placed him in the position as a condition of his receipt of welfare benefits. (Cooper Dep. at 15). On or about April 3, 1995, Plaintiff was hired as a Senior Telephone Operator on a temporary basis to fill in for a disabled employee who was in the hospital. (See Pl. Stmt. of Uncontested Facts at 4); (Cooper Dep. at 17). With the help of Mr. Fahy, Plaintiff was then hired on or about October 2, 1995 as a permanent Clerk within the Fiscal Unit. Id. The job description of Clerk, an entry level noncompetitive position, involves performing "routine, repetitive, clerical work of a varied nature," including a "relatively small proportion of difficult tasks." (See Pl.App. Ex. V).

The first day of operation in the Board's new facilities was on or about June 24, 1996. In the months that followed the move, Plaintiff continued splitting his time (Cooper Dep. at 38) working under the direct supervision of Ed Selnick, a Fiscal Officer within the Fiscal Unit, and also occasionally performing duties for Mr. Jim Hersh, who had previously been his supervisor when Plaintiff worked as part of the reach program. (Fahy Dep. at 35, 54-56).

1. Plaintiff's Interaction with Donna Bright

On February 18, 1997, Ms. Donna Bright ("Ms.Bright") was hired within the Fiscal Unit as a Confidential Clerk reporting directly to Ed Selnick. (Plt'f's Stmt. of Uncontested Facts at 4), (Def. Answer at ¶ 3). Sometime thereafter, Mr. Fahy decided to employ Ms. Bright in the capacity of an Office Manager, and, accordingly, she was given additional responsibilities. (Fahy Dep. at 58-59). Her primary duty was to ensure adequate coverage within the Fiscal Unit. Mr. Fahy communicated this decision to Plaintiff and everyone within the office, even Ed Selnick, who routinely referred Plaintiff to Ms. Bright when administrative issues arose, such as requests for administrative leave, vacation time or the distribution of work assignments. (Cooper Dep. at 44-46). Plaintiff stated that he first learned of Ms. Bright's designation as Office Manager toward the end of 1997 when he started getting his time slips back with her signature on them and when she asserted supervisory authority over clerks within the Fiscal Unit regarding the approval and denial of time. (Dep. of Raymond Cooper, Def. Br. Ex. J at 29-30) ("Cooper II Dep.").

Problems between Plaintiff and Ms. Bright began shortly after she assumed her office management duties. Plaintiffs splitting of his responsibilities working for Ms. Bright and Jim Hersh proved to be problematic and caused friction between her and Plaintiff. Ms Bright gave work to Plaintiff and then he would be called out to assist Mr. Hersh. (Cooper Dep. at 52). Plaintiff stated that Ms. Bright informed the three women clerks with whom he worked that they were not permitted to help Plaintiff with his workload Id. at 52-53, and as a result, upon returning from his maintenance duties, he was behind in his work and wondered why no one would assist him. Plaintiff contacted both his union and Mr. Fahy and told them he "didn't want to do maintenance anymore cause he was hearing slack from the room" Id. at 59., and he was subsequently assigned to work exclusively within the Fiscal Unit. Id. at 55-56. Plaintiff maintains, however, that even after his assignment, Ms. Bright continued to make sly remarks to him. Id. at 58.

Plaintiff maintains that he was denied overtime opportunities involving food stamp distribution. Id. at 51; (See Ltr. from Plt'f. to Mr. Fahy, dated May 6, 1998, Def. Br.App. B) ("Cooper Letter"). He also complained that Ms. Bright suspected him of having stolen food stamps and would come over to his desk, thinking that he "had them stashed around there or something." Id. During this time, incidentally, the fraud unit of the Board had been conducting an investigation of disappearances of food stamp coupons, which resulted in the discovery that two postal employees were involved in the theft. (Fahy Dep. at 112).

Plaintiff sought out his union representatives, Jean Monihan and Judy Ladd, and asked them "how a clerk typist can tell the office staff what to do" Id. at 61, and also asked them to file a formal grievance. They refused, however, stating that because Ms. Bright was appointed to the position, "there was nothing they could do about it." Id. In addition to this specific complaint to his union representatives, Plaintiff complained to the union several other times regarding his treatment by Ms. Bright and her attitude and demeanor not only towards him, but also toward his co-workers. (Cooper II Dep. at 93). It was generally acknowledged, however, that Ms. Bright was "not an easy person," was "sharp in her dealings with anyone," and was "abrupt." (Fahy Dep. at 60).

Aside from the general friction between Plaintiff and Ms. Bright, the first significant incident occurred on or about February 5, 1998, when Plaintiff telephoned the office to leave a message for Ms. Bright informing her that he would be absent from work that day because his son was sick. Id. at 37. When Plaintiff arrived to work the next day, Ms. Bright told him he would have to take administrative time, in lieu of a sick day. Id. When asked why, she told him to take up the time classification matter with Mr. Fahy. Id.

Plaintiff was again denied administrative leave on March 3, 1998 when he asked Ed Selnick for the afternoon off to have the tires on his car replaced because one was "ready to blow." (Cooper II Dep. at 35-36), (Cooper Dep. at 45). Although Mr. Selnick permitted Plaintiff to take the afternoon off, Ms. Bright later denied his request, despite Plaintiffs explanation of the situation. Id.

On April 24, 1998, Plaintiff was formally reprimanded after an incident involving the postage meter on the postal machine. Plaintiff left a note on Ms. Bright's desk informing her that the postage meter required replenishment for an upcoming bulk mailing. (Cooper II Dep. at 50-53). The postage meter was normally maintained at an amount of $1500, but had been substantially depleted. Plaintiff, who had been out of the office the day before, was held responsible for this event, which resulted in a formal letter of reprimand dated April 29, 1998 being placed in his file. Id. at 50-55; 62. Plaintiff was upset because he had nothing to do with the depletion of postage on the machine, having simply informed her of the need to add postage to the meter. The letter of reprimand also addressed a number of other matters, including employee lunches and an incident where Plaintiff forgot to put out new time cards in time for the other employees. Id. at 62; (See "Cooper Letter").

After the postage incident, Plaintiff went to the Union and Mr. Fahy regarding Ms. Bright's exercise of supervisory authority over him, specifically regarding the letter of reprimand. Id. at 53. Mr. Fahy declined, however, to remove the letter from his file. Id. Plaintiff then went further, and on April 30, 1998, contacted and met with Mr. Anthony L. Gricco ("Mr.Gricco"), a Human Resource Management Consultant with the New Jersey Department of Personnel ("New Jersey DOP" or "DOP"). In this meeting, Plaintiff addressed his problems concerning Ms. Bright. He told Mr. Gricco of the treatment he received, the denial of days off, her general tone and demeanor, and repeated his allegations of gender discrimination. (Cooper II Dep. at 65-66). Plaintiff also informed the union and his co-workers about his contact with the DOP. Id. at 147-48. He stated that Mr. Gricco explained to him that Mr. Fahy would be advised that Ms. Bright could not work in that capacity because of her job title. Id. at 66.

Shortly after Plaintiffs conversation with Mr. Gricco, Mr. Gricco spoke to Mr. Fahy regarding Plaintiffs situation. Mr. Fahy testified that "I explained [to Mr. Gricco] what I was trying to accomplish [regarding the functioning of the Fiscal Unit] and he told me what she [Ms. Bright] could and could not do in that position, so that I implemented those changes prior to the receipt of the letter*fn1 which was a couple of months later." (Fahy Dep. at 61).

On May 6, 1998, Plaintiff sent a letter to Mr. Fahy echoing his earlier complaints and grievances. The letter reiterated the above allegations and incidents of unfair treatment from Ms. Bright, the denial of leave and overtime opportunities, and his general malaise at having to work with her. (See Cooper Ltr.). Plaintiff stated that the situation "has only gotten worse and feel that legal action may become necessary to protect my future with this agency." Id.

Following Plaintiffs contact with Mr. Fahy and Mr. Gricco and into the summer of 1998, Plaintiffs situation worsened. He stated:

Well, she [Ms. Bright] started putting me on the phone a lot, lot more to — and then I couldn't get my work done What else? I took on other people's — like I started doing stuff that Janet used to do. I started doing stuff that Janet used to do. The Medicaid things that I would help out on now became mine. He I didn't get to `em — I used to do them when I had time, I would help Janet out, and now it was mine. So they would pile up until I got time to get to `em and then I'd have stacks of `em.

Cooper II Dep. at 82-83.

Plaintiff's time off requests continued to be authorized by Ms. Bright. However, she used a rubber stamp that contained Mr. Fahy's signature, a change that Mr. Fahy instituted in response to his phone call with Mr. Gricco. Id. at 75; (Fahy Dep. at 62) Ms. Bright would consult with him regarding the grant ...


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