On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, L-1527-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Coburn, R. B. Coleman and Gilroy.
Plaintiff, Jevon Hicks, appeals from a November 18, 2005, order granting summary judgment in favor of defendant, Hudson County Correctional Center (HCCC) and dismissing plaintiff's complaint, with prejudice. In a second order, also dated November 18, 2005, the court denied plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment whereby plaintiff sought a determination that he had established a prima facie case that HCCC had violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -42. Because the evidence on the motions was not so one-sided that plaintiff could not have prevailed at trial, we reverse the order granting summary judgment and remand for further proceedings. Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995).
In a complaint filed on March 21, 2005, and in a September 20, 2005, certification (captioned "Affidavit of Jevon Hicks"), plaintiff certified that he is a practicing Rastafarian and that the implementation of the grooming policy of his employer, defendant HCCC, would force him to go against his religious beliefs. He maintains that one of the tenets of this religion is the wearing of long hair and dreadlocks.
Plaintiff began working for defendant as a corrections officer in September 1994. In 2001, defendant drafted and disseminated a policy manual to its employees which stated, in relevant part, that the hair of male corrections officers "shall be no longer than collar length when in standing position and shall not fall over the ears or eyebrows." Notwithstanding that stated policy, plaintiff continued to wear his hair in an uncut, uncombed style known as dreadlocks. He was permitted to comply with the length requirement of the policy manual by tying his hair into a bun. However, as of November 1, 2004, HCCC Director, Oscar Aviles, "re-promulgated and refined" the policy guide so that it thereafter provided:
Custody staff member while on duty and/or in uniform shall maintain a neat, well-groomed appearance and shall adhere to the following standards:
The custody staff member's hair shall be neatly trimmed, combed or brushed and shall be cut to present a tapered appearance when combed. The hair shall not fall over the ears or eyebrows, or extend past the bottom of the collar of the shirt when standing with the head in a normal posture. Sideburns shall be 1/2 inch in length and shall not extend past the center of the ear.
The hair shall not be pinned nor twisted to meet this standard.
The hair shall not interfere with the proper wearing of any authorized uniform headgear.
When a wig or hairpiece is worn, the custody staff member shall conform to the above stated provisions of this section.
According to his certification, Director Aviles "re-adopted a hair-grooming policy intended to protect the safety and foster esprit de corp of the troops. Specifically, the hairline policy was implemented for corrections officer[s] who are involved in an altercation with an inmate." Female custodial staff members were not affected by the revised policy. They are still allowed to pin or twist their hair to comply with the applicable hair standards.
In spite of the revision of the policy for male corrections officers, plaintiff refused to cut his hair, asserting that it was against his religion. As a consequence, defendant subjected plaintiff to notices of progressive disciplinary actions that prompted plaintiff to file a complaint in ...