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Keene v. Sears Roebuck & Co.

September 7, 2007

WILLARD KEENE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SEARS ROEBUCK & CO., INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hughes, U.S.M.J.

OPINION

This matter having come before the Court upon Motion by Defendants Sears, Roebuck, and Co. and Somiya Bhatnagar for Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law on Plaintiff's remaining claims alleging (1) a violation under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1, et seq. for failing to take prompt, effective, and remedial action and failing to train, supervise, and discipline the Plaintiff (Count II of the Complaint), (2) Breach of Contract (Count VII of the Complaint), and (3) Breach of Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing (Count VIII of the Complaint) (See Pl. ['s] Amend. Compl. ¶ ¶ 18-20, 33-38). [Docket Entry # 50].*fn1 Plaintiff opposes the Motion [Docket Entry # 63]. The Court considered the submissions of the parties and conducted oral argument on September 6, 2007. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law as to Counts II, VII, and VIII is granted.*fn2

I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

A. Factual Background

Plaintiff Willard Keene ("Plaintiff") was an appliance salesman at Sears' Seaview Square store. Plaintiff was hired by Sears, Roebuck & Company ("Defendant") as a Sales Associate at a store in Ocean Township, New Jersey on July 16, 1991 and served as an employee of Sears for twelve (12) years. (Pl.'s Ltr. Br. at 5). During his employment, Plaintiff had no disciplinary action taken against him for any reason. Id. In 1999, Plaintiff was transferred to the "Brand Central" Department, "one of the most lucrative placements for a Sales Associate." Id. at 6, 14. Following his transfer, Plaintiff continued his employment without any disciplinary problems.

Id. at 7.

In the mid to late 1990s, Sears changed its business practices by increasing its emphasis on customer satisfaction and giving sales associates authority to implement the changes. Id. As part of this new emphasis on customer satisfaction, Sears gave sales associates more autonomy in their decisions without requiring them to first obtain management approval before adjusting the price of merchandise. Id. at 10. For example, sales associates were permitted to extend a discount of up to 10% to customers for various reasons without first obtaining management approval. Id. at 11. This policy was in Sears' written policies. Id.

In October 2002, Somiya Bhatnagar, a 29 year old male, was hired as Store Manager in the Ocean Township Sears store where Plaintiff was employed. Id. at 14. Plaintiff contends that Mr. Bhatnagar treated him with hostility, frequently ignored him or failed to acknowledge him, and deliberately failed to speak to Plaintiff by name. Id. As an example, Plaintiff alleged that, in one instance, Mr. Bhatnagar directed that a refund be "credited to Mr. Keene's account even though Mr. Keene was not the original associate who rang the transaction" which resulted in a reduction of Plaintiff's revenue figures used to calculate payment and commissions. Id.

During the week of December 9, 2002, Plaintiff extended discounts to eight (8) customers within a two day period. Id. at 14-15. Some of the discounts extended by Plaintiff during this week were the result of a sale that was scheduled for Saturday of the same week. Id. at 16. The discounted prices paid by these customers during the week were no less than the price the customers would have paid if the merchandise had been purchased during the sale on Saturday. Id. at 17.

On December 14, 2002, Plaintiff was brought into the office of the asset protection manager, Mr. McCarthy and told that he had improperly extended discounts to customers during the week of December 9, 2002. Id. at 18. During this meeting, Plaintiff was instructed to provide a written statement which required his date of birth and all of the facts and circumstances regarding the discounts Plaintiff extended. Id. Plaintiff claims that following this meeting, Mr. Bhatnagar treated Plaintiff with hostility by refusing to address Plaintiff by name and instructing the Asset Production Manager not to provide Plaintiff with a copy of his own statement. Id.

On December 16, 2002, Plaintiff was called into the store to discuss with Mr. Bhatnagar the status of his employment. Id. at 19. Plaintiff contends that Mr. Bhatnagar was hostile and demeaning during this meeting by demanding that Plaintiff immediately "sit down" and by talking to Plaintiff through Angela Velardi, a witness. Id. Mr. Bhatnagar then told Plaintiff that he was being terminated for violating Company policy. Id. Plaintiff contends that Mr. Bhatnagar refused to explain what policy Plaintiff had violated and told Plaintiff that there were no avenues of appeal. Id. Plaintiff claims that he never received any termination letter or other document explaining the basis for his termination. Id. at 20. Internal corporate documentation of Sears indicates that Plaintiff retired and makes no mention of his being terminated. Id.

Also on December 16, 2002, Mohammad Moinuddin was hired to fill Plaintiff's position in the Brand Central Department. Id. Plaintiff further contends that Mr. Moinuddin extended a 25% discount to Mr. Bhatnagar's cousin. Id. at 27. Plaintiff further claims that Mr. Bhatnagar himself extended unauthorized discounts to his cousin and his cousin's relative, which were not viewed as violations of company policy by Sears, in direct contrast to Defendants' treatment of Plaintiff. Id. at 26.

B. Procedural History

On December 9, 2004, Plaintiff filed a Complaint against Defendants in the Monmouth County New Jersey Superior Court alleging (1) violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("NJLAD"), including age discrimination, (2) intentional infliction of emotional distress, (3) breach of contract, and (4) breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. (See Pl.'s Compl.). Paragraph nine (9) of Plaintiff's initial Complaint made reference to Mr. Bhatnagar's national origin although the specific nature of his national origin was not known to Plaintiff at that time. (Pl.'s Reply Ltr. Br. at 2). Defendant Sears, Roebuck and Co. removed the case to federal court on February 14, 2005. (See Dkt. no. 05-828, entry no. 1).

Plaintiff filed a First Amended Complaint on March 21, 2005 to include discrimination based on Plaintiff's handicap. (See Dkt. no. 05-828, entry no. 8). Defendants filed an answer and affirmative defenses on April 4, 2005, and filed an amended answer to the First Amended Complaint on February 23, 2006. (See Dkt. no. 05-828, entry no. 9, 16). This Court entered an Order setting discovery deadlines on March 21, 2006 which required Defendants to file summary judgment motions no later than June 9, 2006. (See Dkt. no. 05-828, entry no. 17).

Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment on June 9, 2006 which was granted in part and denied in part on August 2, 2006. (See Dkt. no. 05-828, entry no. 18, 31). Specifically, Defendants' summary judgment motion was granted as to counts 4-6 of Plaintiff's amended complaint (violation of NJLAD for handicap and perceived handicap and intentional infliction of emotional distress), denied as to counts 1-3 (violation of NJLAD for age discrimination, failing to take appropriate remedial action and failure to train, supervise and discipline, and wrongful termination), and denied without prejudice as to counts 7-8 (breach of contract and breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing). (See Dkt. no. 05-828, entry no. 31). During oral argument on the summary judgment motion on July 31, 2006, Judge Cooper noted, without objection or comment from Plaintiff's counsel, that there was no claim for national origin or race discrimination in Plaintiff's complaint. (Defs.' Opp. Mem. at 5).

A Final Pretrial Conference was held on October 6, 2006, and a Final Joint Pretrial Order was filed on November 6, 2006. (See Dkt. no. 05-828, entry no. 36). Plaintiff filed a Motion to Amend/Correct his Complaint on November 10, 2006 seeking to change the reference to Mr. Bhatnagar's national origin in paragraph 9 of the original and first amended complaints from "of foreign descent" to "of Indian/Asian descent." (See Pl.'s Compl. at ¶ 9; Pl.'s Second Am. Compl. at ¶ 9). Plaintiff further proposed to alter paragraph 14 of the original and first amended complaints from referencing only Plaintiff's replacement with younger individuals. Plaintiff also sought to change Count I from a purely age discrimination violation of ...


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