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Stokes v. Management

November 2, 2006

ADRIENNE STOKES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MANAGEMENT, INC., DEFENDANT.



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

ACCOUNTS RECEIVABLE OPINION

HONORABLE JEROME B. SIMANDLE

This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Accounts Receivable Management, Inc.'s motion for summary judgment [Docket Item 15]. The Court heard oral argument on this motion on October 24, 2006. For the reasons explained in this Opinion, the Court will grant the motion in part and deny it in part.

I. BACKGROUND

This employment discrimination case arises out of Plaintiff Adrienne Stokes' employment with Defendant, Accounts Receivable Management, Inc. ("ARM"). Plaintiff alleges that Defendant unlawfully terminated her employment on June 17, 2004, because she is African-American and because she made a good faith complaint of racial discrimination in March 2004. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 8, 11, 14, 16.) In Count One of the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant discriminated against her in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. In Count Two, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant discriminated against her in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("the LAD"), N.J. Stat. Ann. § 10:5-13. (Because § 10:5-13 merely specifies the processes for seeking relief, Plaintiff likely intended to allege discrimination in employment in violation of N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 10:5-12a, which prohibits discrimination in employment, and N.J. Stat. Ann. § 10:5-12d, which prohibits firing someone in retaliation for a complaint of discrimination.)*fn1

This Court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1367. Plaintiff brought this action directly in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, which transferred the case to the District of New Jersey on Defendant's motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). Although the issue is not raised by either party, the Court notes that it has jurisdiction to adjudicate LAD claims filed in federal court, notwithstanding the language of N.J. Stat. Ann. § 10:5-13, which provides in relevant part, "Any complainant may initiate suit in Superior Court under this act . . . ." The Court does not find this provision to limit its federally-authorized jurisdiction to hear state claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1367 or § 1332. See Butler v. Sherman, Silverstein & Kohl, P.C., 755 F. Supp. 1259, 1266 n.9 (D.N.J. 1990) (finding diversity jurisdiction under the LAD).

Plaintiff is a resident of Pennsylvania. Defendant is a New Jersey corporation with its principal place of business here. Plaintiff was employed as a Collections Specialist in Defendant's Bellmawr, New Jersey office and the decisions to hire and fire her were made in New Jersey.

Although on a motion for summary judgment, the Court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986), in this case many of the facts are undisputed. Plaintiff's history of disciplinary and performance problems at ARM is undisputed. (See Def.'s St. of Undisp. Mat. Facts ("DUMF") at 2-3; Pl.'s Resp. in Opp. to DUMF at 1.) Plaintiff began working for ARM on December 23, 2002, as a bill collector. (Stokes Dep. at 11). Five days later, she received a warning from her first supervisor, Kim Haines, regarding her excessive tardiness. (Adair Decl. at ¶ 4.) Approximately one month later, on February 25, 2003, Plaintiff received another warning from her second supervisor, Woodrow Webb, regarding her failure to meet productivity standards. (Id. at ¶ 5; Stokes Dep. at 108.) On February 27, Webb sent Plaintiff home for failure to maintain productivity. (Adair Decl. at ¶ 6). On March 4, Plaintiff received another written warning from Webb regarding her tardiness. (Id. at ¶ 7; Ex. 8 to DUMF; Stokes Dep. at 107-08.) On May 31, two senior supervisors informed Plaintiff that she would be terminated if she did not increase her level of collections. (Adair Decl. at ¶ 8). There was no improvement in Plaintiff's performance that week. (Id. at ¶ 9.) From June 6, 2003, to August 11, 2003, Plaintiff took a leave of absence to deal with personal issues she said were affecting her work performance. (Id. at ¶ 10).

On October 23, the negative evaluations continued when Plaintiff received another warning for failure to maintain productivity standards and follow instructions. (Stokes Dep. 113-14). Plaintiff received another warning on November 3, 2003. (Id. at 116; Ex. 10 to DUMF.)

On December 22, 2003, Plaintiff received a "Fair" performance evaluation from her supervisor, Claude Bernard, with an "Unsatisfactory" rating in eight evaluated categories. (Adair Decl. at ¶ 11.) On February 5, 2004, Plaintiff received a warning regarding her failure to complete her shifts on January 30 and February 3, 2004. (Id. at ¶ 12.) On March 22, 2004, Plaintiff was admonished for soliciting payment, in violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, from a debtor who had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. (E. Dugan Dep. at 29). Later that day, Plaintiff hung up the phone on a debtor (id.) and was sent home early (Stokes Dep. at 57).

That evening, Plaintiff had a scheduled doctor's appointment in Gloucester City, which she was talking about at work. Edward Dugan, one of Plaintiff's supervisors (E. Dugan Dep. at 9-10)*fn2 , overheard a co-worker giving Plaintiff directions and interjected (id. at 26; J. Dugan Dep. at 11-12). Edward Dugan lived in Gloucester City, New Jersey (E. Dugan Dep. at 23, 26), and John Dugan used to live there, (J. Dugan Dep. at 10). Edward Dugan told Plaintiff that "they do not like black people in Gloucester City," and warned her that she "better watch herself." (Stokes Dep. at 45.) John Dugan told Plaintiff to "wear a white sheet and hood" so she would "fit right in with that city." (E. Dugan Dep. at 37.) The brothers laughed at this comment. (J. Dugan Dep. at 13; Stokes Dep. at 45.) Plaintiff was offended at their racism and asked Edward Dugan whether he would help her if, for example, she passed out; he answered "no."

(E. Dugan Dep. at 37-38.)

The following day, March 23, 2004, Plaintiff was issued a "Final Warning," at a meeting with Edward Dugan and his supervisor, Bill Scott, which informed her that she failed to follow proper procedures on March 22 by soliciting funds from a Chapter 7 debtor. (Ex. 12 to Def.'s Summ. J. Br.; E. Dugan Dep. at 47-48.) Also that day, Plaintiff complained to Mr. Scott about the racially offensive conversation she had with the Dugan brothers the day before, (E. Dugan Dep. at 21), and followed up to make sure her claim was being investigated, (Stokes Dep. at 23-24, 55-56). Approximately two weeks after Plaintiff made her complaint, the Vice President of the company spoke with Edward and John Dugan about their comments, informed them that Plaintiff had complained, and notified them that the matter was being investigated. (J. Dugan Dep. at 20).

The following facts are disputed; therefore, they are set forth in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the non-moving party. See Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 255. Less than two months after the Dugans learned of Plaintiff's complaint, on June 17, 2004, Edward Dugan terminated Plaintiff for allegedly leaving work without permission and for raising her voice when confronted about it. (Stokes Dep. at 72-75.) On that day, according to Plaintiff, Edward Dugan had, in fact, given Plaintiff permission to take a break to get coffee at Dunkin' Donuts. (Id.; Compare E. Dugan Dep. at 54.) Plaintiff went to Dunkin' Donuts and was gone for fifteen minutes; when she returned, Edward Dugan confronted her, claimed that she had no ...


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