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Shepherd v. Hunterdon Developmental Center

August 07, 2002

WILLIAM SHEPHERD AND RICHARD SAYLOR, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
HUNTERDON DEVELOPMENTAL CENTER, MARIO SCLAMA, COTTAGE TRAINING SUPERVISOR AND IDA GAL, COTTAGE TRAINING SUPERVISOR, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS, AND WILLIAM WALL, SUPERINTENDENT, LEON CRONCE, ASSISTANT SUPERINTENDENT, ARTHUR SEARFASS, ASSISTANT SUPERVISOR OF PROFESSIONAL RESIDENTIAL SERVICES, VINCENT MURANTE, COTTAGE TRAINING SUPERVISOR AND DONALD STAMBAUGH, COTTAGE TRAINING SUPERVISOR, DEFENDANTS.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 336 N.J. Super. 395 (2001).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

The issue before the Court is whether the claims made by Richard Saylor and William Shepherd pursuant to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) can survive the bar of the two-year statute of limitations by application of the "continuing-violation" doctrine. This matter comes before the Court on appeal of a motion for summary judgment; therefore, the facts are taken from the pleadings, deposition testimony, and other evidence developed during discovery.

Hunterdon Developmental Center (HDC) is a State-owned and -operated facility that provides long-term care to physically and mentally handicapped clients, primarily male adults. HDC consists of several cottages that house the clients. During the relevant period, Shepherd and Saylor (collectively, plaintiffs) each worked as a Cottage Training Technician (CTT) in Cottage #22, which housed thirty-two severely retarded male clients. Plaintiffs worked the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift and were responsible for conducting bed checks every half hour to ensure that clients were sleeping well and were not wet or soiled. Mario Sclama and Ida Gal supervised plaintiffs.

In 1989, plaintiffs' co-workers, Annie Sampson and Donald Greenfield, both African-American, claimed that Sclama and Gal, among others, discriminated against them because of race and created a hostile work environment. Plaintiffs supported their co-workers and both signed a letter of protest describing several alleged incidents that were consistent with Sampson and Greenfield's claims. The Sampson-Greenfield discrimination suit was tried from October through December 1994. Plaintiffs' letter of protest was used as evidence in the trial, which resulted in favorable verdicts for both co-workers.

Plaintiffs claim that, at about the time of the Sampson-Greenfield trial, Sclama and Gal began a continued pattern of ill treatment and hypercritical supervision. On November 30, 1994, Gal allegedly approached Shepherd and yelled at him for what she claimed she and Sclama had to go through during the trial. Gal told Shepherd that she and Sclama were going to watch everything plaintiffs did and that "what goes around, comes around." On December 6, 1994, Gal reportedly repeated the "what goes around, comes around" comment loud enough for Saylor to hear. Plaintiffs also claim that in December 1994, Sclama gave holiday gifts to the entire staff, except for them. They also were not invited to the Christmas party for shift employees.

At about the same time, Shepherd took a sick-leave-day. He thereafter was placed on extended "medical verification" status for an alleged pattern of absences, which required him to obtain a doctor's note to verify any future illness. Shepherd filed a grievance and, following a hearing, that status was lifted. Plaintiffs further allege that on December 30, 1994 and January 12, 1995, Sclama was unfriendly and hostile toward them, but not to other co-workers, during the shift.

Plaintiffs also claim that Sclama and Gal began to supervise them more aggressively and "hypercritically." Plaintiffs were constantly reminded to come back on time from their breaks, while others received no such warnings. A co-worker, Irene Capitulik, wrote a letter to HDC's affirmative action officer describing the hostility that the supervisors had shown toward plaintiffs and that, since the start of the Sampson-Greenfield trial, the supervisors had tried to provoke arguments in an effort to get plaintiffs transferred from the cottage.

On February 1, 1995, plaintiffs wrote separate letters to HDC's superintendent, William Wall, detailing the incidents with Sclama and Gal and seeking assistance. In response, Wall called a shift meeting on February 9, 1995. He later scheduled a counseling session in March that plaintiffs were not able to attend because of scheduling conflicts. Plaintiffs allege other hostile incidents occurring on February 3, 1995 and February 10, 1995. On February 27, 1995, after experiencing severe hostility from Sclama, Shepherd went home sick. Shortly thereafter, he requested a transfer. On March 2, 1995, Shepherd, on his and Saylor's behalf, filed a discrimination complaint with the Department of Human Services (DHS). On the complaint form, he listed the dates on which the discriminatory activities allegedly occurred, November 30, 1994, through and including February 27, 1995.

On March 3, 1995, Sclama charged Saylor with using inappropriate language in front of clients. Saylor denied the allegation and no disciplinary action was taken. On March 18, 1995, Shepherd transferred from Cottage #22. At about the same time, Saylor applied for retirement, effective August 1, 1995. On April 5, 1995, HDC brought disciplinary charges against Saylor for alleged racial epithets made against Sclama. After a hearing, the charges were dismissed for lack of corroboration. Lastly, on April 19, 1995, Saylor was sent a letter regarding a pattern of sick leave usage.

After Saylor's retirement and Shepherd's transfer, plaintiffs each received a response to their complaint to DHS, finding no support for the claims alleged. Plaintiffs appealed to the New Jersey Department of Personnel, which found the matter moot because of Shepherd's transfer and Saylor's retirement.

On February 27, 1997, plaintiffs filed a complaint against HDC, Sclama, Gal (collectively, defendants) and others, claiming hostile work environment, retaliation, constructive discharge, negligent supervision, and conspiracy in violation of the LAD. Plaintiffs claim that defendants subjected them to ongoing acts of intimidation, harassment, and retaliation because they had given their support to their co-workers in the Sampson-Greenfield trial.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, dismissing plaintiffs' complaint as untimely because it was barred by the two-year statute of limitations. The court rejected the argument that the alleged discriminatory acts constituted a continuing violation that enabled plaintiffs to include claims outside the two-year limitations period. On appeal, a divided panel of the Appellate Division reversed and remanded for trial, determining that plaintiffs had sufficiently established defendants' continuing violation and that some of the acts giving rise to the violation occurred during the relevant limitations period. The panel also upheld Saylor's constructive discharge claim.

Defendants appealed to the Supreme Court as of right based on the dissent in the Appellate Division.

HELD: Under the continuing-violation doctrine, Shepherd and Saylor's hostile-work-environment claims accrued within the two years of filing their complaint. Those claims present material issues of fact such that summary judgment should not have been granted. In addition, no reasonable jury could find that the facts presented support Saylor's constructive discharge claim; therefore, that claim was properly dismissed.

1. The continuing-violation doctrine provides an exception to the LAD's two-year limitations period. Under that doctrine, the cumulative effect of a series of discriminatory or harassing events may represent a single cause of action and the limitations period does not begin to run until the wrongful conduct ends. The U.S. Supreme Court in National Railroad Passenger Corp. v. Morgan noted that hostile-environment claims are different from discrete acts of discrimination. While discrete acts of discrimination occur on a specific day or with a specific event, hostile-environment claims involve repeated conduct that occurs over several days or years and where a single act may not be actionable on its own. In does not matter that some of the acts of a hostile-work-environment claim fall outside of the statutory time period. As long as one act contributing to the series of acts constituting the claim occurred within the limitations period, the court may consider all alleged acts to determining liability. (Pp. 19-24)

2. The Court will apply Morgan's analytical framework when evaluating a state cause of action under the LAD.

Except for two discrete acts, there is no dispute that the conduct alleged in the complaint was continual and occurred during the period set forth by plaintiffs. Plaintiffs allege that their supervisors subjected them to heightened scrutiny beginning November 30, 1994, and that conduct, along with the "what goes around comes around" comments continued over the ensuing months, with no one incident constituting a stand-alone claim. Those allegations clearly fall within the hostile-environment framework set forth in Morgan and, as such, plaintiffs' cause of action accrued on the date of the last act in the pattern or series of acts the comprise the continuing violation claim. Shepherd's claim accrued on February 27, 1995 when Sclama's alleged hostility caused Shepherd to go home sick. For Saylor, the last act occurred on April 19, 1995 when he was sent a letter of caution regarding a pattern of sick leave usage. Because both acts occurred within two years of the filing of the complaint, plaintiffs' hostile-work-environment claims are timely. (Pp. 24-26)

3. A victim's knowledge of a claim is insufficient to start the limitations period so long as the defendant continues the series of non-discrete acts on which the whole claim is based. The victim's knowledge becomes relevant only within the framework of an employer's laches defense (or some other equitable defense), which may bar a plaintiff from maintaining a suit if he unreasonably delays in filing his action and, as a result, harms the defendant. Here, plaintiffs filed suit without unreasonable delay. (Pp. 26-29)

4. Viewed cumulatively, plaintiffs have alleged facts minimally necessary to form a hostile-work-environment claim sufficient to withstand a motion for summary judgment. (Pp. 29-33)

5. An unwelcome job transfer clearly constitutes a discrete act; therefore, Shepherd's retaliation claim, filed within two years of his transfer date, is timely. Saylor's claim of constructive discharge is also a discrete act. However, Saylor has not alleged facts sufficient to survive a summary judgment motion on that claim. On the record presented, a reasonable jury could not find defendants' conduct to have been so intolerable that it would have forced Saylor's retirement. (Pp. 33-38)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED IN PART and REVERSED IN PART and the matter is REMANDED to the Law Division for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

JUSTICE ZAZZALI, concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which JUSTICES STEIN and LONG join, agrees with the Court's conclusion that plaintiffs' hostile-work-environment claims are not barred by the statute of limitations under the LAD, and that those claims present material issues of fact for a jury to determine. However, Justice Zazzali dissents from the majority's conclusion that Saylor did not allege sufficient facts to sustain a claim of constructive discharge.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES COLEMAN and LaVECCHIA join in JUSTICE VERNIERO'S opinion. JUSTICE ZAZZALI, joined by JUSTICES STEIN and LONG, filed a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Verniero, J.

Argued January 28, 2002

This case arises under the Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49 (LAD). The primary issue is whether plaintiffs' claims are barred by the two-year statute of limitations. To resolve that question, the Court is called on to consider an equitable exception to the statute of limitations known as the "continuing violation" doctrine. Under that doctrine, a plaintiff may pursue a claim for discriminatory conduct if he or she can demonstrate that each asserted act by a defendant is part of a pattern and at least one of those acts occurred within the statutory limitations period. West v. Philadelphia Elec. Co., 45 F.3d 744, 754-55 (3d Cir. 1995).

The claims here include allegations that defendants had subjected plaintiffs to a hostile work environment by targeting them for strict enforcement of workplace rules. That conduct purportedly was in response to plaintiffs' support of an unrelated lawsuit against defendants. Finding that plaintiffs' allegations did not implicate a continuing violation, the trial court dismissed all claims as untimely. The court identified one act that had occurred within the limitations period, but it concluded that that act was insufficient to sustain a cause of action under the LAD. A divided panel of the Appellate Division reversed. The panel determined that plaintiffs sufficiently established defendants' continuing violation and that some of the acts giving rise to the violation occurred during the relevant limitations period. The panel also upheld plaintiff Richard Saylor's constructive discharge claim.

We now affirm in part and reverse in part. We hold that under the continuing violation doctrine plaintiffs' hostile work environment claims accrued within two years of their Law Division action. We further agree that those claims present material issues of fact such that summary judgment should not have been granted in defendants' favor. However, we disagree with the Appellate Division in respect of Saylor's constructive discharge claim. Although plaintiff filed that individual claim on a timely basis, we hold that no reasonable jury could find in his favor on the facts alleged. As to that claim only, summary judgment remains the proper disposition.

I.

The facts are derived largely from the parties' pleadings, deposition testimony, and other evidence developed during discovery. We will begin by summarizing a previous lawsuit filed by two of plaintiffs' co-workers that forms the backdrop to the current litigation. We next will describe plaintiffs' claims and the numerous incidents on which they are based, including their respective dates, which are essential to our analysis of the statute of limitations. We consider all facts in a light most favorable to the non-moving parties, in this case plaintiffs. Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co., 142 N.J. 520, 523 (1995).

A.

Hunterdon Developmental Center (HDC) is a State-owned and -operated facility that provides long-term care to physically and mentally handicapped clients, primarily male adults. HDC consists of several "cottages." Each cottage is divided into eight dorms, with four clients residing in each dorm. During the relevant period, William Shepherd and Richard Saylor (collectively, plaintiffs) each worked as a Cottage Training Technician (CTT or technician) in Cottage # 22, which housed a total of thirty-two clients. The clients who resided in Cottage # 22 were severely retarded males, some assaultive or self-abusive, and ranged in age from twenty to sixty-five years old.

Plaintiffs worked the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift with one or two other technicians. As technicians, plaintiffs were responsible for conducting bed checks every thirty minutes to ensure that clients were sleeping well and were not wet or soiled. Other responsibilities included folding laundry and keeping the dorms clean. Mario Sclama and Ida Gal served as plaintiffs' supervisors at all times relevant to this action.

In 1989, plaintiffs' co-workers, Annie Sampson and Donald Greenfield, both African-American, contended that Sclama and Gal, among others, discriminated against them because of race and created a hostile work environment. Plaintiffs outwardly supported Sampson and Greenfield and expressed their displeasure about alleged discrimination in the cottage. For example, they signed a "letter of protest" describing a number of alleged incidents consistent with Sampson's and Greenfield's claims. There were other occasions when plaintiffs wrote statements to management in furtherance of their co-workers' allegations. The atmosphere in the workplace was tense.

The Sampson-Greenfield lawsuit was tried in the Law Division in Flemington beginning on October 24, 1994. Plaintiffs' letter of protest was used as evidence at the trial, which resulted in favorable verdicts to both co- workers. The jury awarded compensatory damages to Sampson and Greenfield in the amounts of $675,000 and $335,000 respectively, and awarded punitive damages to each of them in the amount of $252,000. The trial ended on December 19, 1994. B. Plaintiffs allege that, at about the time of the Sampson- Greenfield trial, Sclama and Gal began a pattern of ill treatment and ultra-critical supervision. On November 30, 1994, Gal allegedly approached Shepherd after he had returned from a break and said to him, "Mario [Sclama] and I are going to watch everything that you and Mr. Saylor do and we'll write everything down in the office." In addition, Gal told Shepherd "do you know we had to go through the [Sampson- Greenfield] lawsuit and we're being sued and you and Mr. Saylor are to blame for it? And what goes around comes around and you will be sorry for not writing better statements for us concerning the lawsuit." Plaintiffs claim that the supervisor also told Shepherd that he and Saylor "would be sorry for not agreeing with her and Mario concerning the lawsuit problems."

On December 6, 1994, Gal reportedly repeated her "what goes around, comes around" comment loud enough for Saylor to hear after he had arrived for his shift. Plaintiffs allege that Gal twice repeated the comment directly to Shepherd on December 21, 1994, and also told Saylor that "they were going to get rid of everybody on our shift that was there when the [Sampson-Greenfield] trial was going on." During the holiday season in December 1994, Sclama gave presents to the entire staff, except plaintiffs. Plaintiffs also claim that they were not invited to the Christmas party for shift employees and were treated coldly by Sclama and Gal.

At about the same time, Shepherd took one day of sick leave. Shortly after the New Year he was placed on extended "medical verification" status for an alleged pattern of absences. That status meant that HDC's management believed that Shepherd had abused his sick time, requiring him to obtain a doctor's verification of all future illnesses. In accordance with union procedures, Shepherd filed a grievance concerning the medical verification status. After a February 3, 1995, grievance hearing, the medical verification status was lifted. The only other occasion when Shepherd had been placed on medical verification status occurred during the original discrimination incidents involving Sampson and Greenfield.

Shepherd further alleges that on December 30, 1994, Sclama was "hostile all night and acted like he was very mad at me and did not talk to me all night, but he talked to C.T.T. Fred Lancaster [another co-worker in Cottage # 22] and was very friendly with him." In the same vein, Shepherd states that on January 12, 1995, Sclama was "unfriendly all night to me and Mr. Saylor, but was very friendly to everybody else . . . . He made it obvious that he was mad at me and Mr. Saylor." Saylor alleges similar treatment by Sclama and Gal.

Shepherd testified at his deposition that "[i]t wasn't like it used to be [before the Sampson-Greenfield trial]. We [Sclama and Shepherd] would talk -- generally discuss general things while you're working with your co-workers, daily occurrences or sports or whatever. Nothing like that was said at all . . . nothing but nasty looks[.]" Shepherd also asserted that before the trial Sclama and he would discuss baseball and eat together, and Sclama would make dinner for everyone.

Plaintiffs claim that Sclama and Gal began to supervise them more aggressively and "hypercritically." For example, Sclama and Gal allegedly allowed other workers to take extended breaks, but the supervisors continuously reminded plaintiffs about the need to be on time when returning from their breaks. Plaintiffs assert that on January 19, 1995, Sclama confronted Saylor "about being a minute or two late on his break." A co-worker, Irene Capitulik, observed the tension in Cottage # 22 and eventually wrote a letter to Susan Carty, HDC's affirmative action officer, describing the animosity that the supervisors allegedly had shown toward plaintiffs. Capitulik also wrote that, from the start of the Sampson-Greenfield trial, Sclama and Gal attempted to provoke arguments with plaintiffs to get them transferred out of the cottage.

On another evening in January 1995, Shepherd reported to Gal that a patient who had been extremely disruptive needed to be medicated. Ordinarily, a supervisor would call immediately for the medication and try to assist the technician. On this occasion, Shepherd had to wait three hours before the patient received the medication. As a result, Shepherd was forced to deal with an unruly client who was yelling, urinating, and disturbing the other patients. Shepherd believed that Gal deliberately delayed ordering the medication. At his deposition, however, Shepherd conceded that he had "no way of knowing" whether Gal had ordered the medication in a timely fashion.

On February 1, 1995, plaintiffs wrote separate letters to HDC's superintendent, William Wall, detailing the above incidents. ...


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