On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, L-8804-04.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Telephonically argued March 12, 2008
Before Judges Sabatino and Alvarez.
Plaintiff Maria Berrios appeals summary judgment granted by the Law Division on May 25, 2007, dismissing her claims that she had been discharged in February 2004 from her employment with defendant, Virtua Health, Inc. ("Virtua"), in violation of the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act ("CEPA"), N.J.S.A. 34:19-1 to -14. We affirm.
The facts contained in the motion record relevant to our consideration of the issues on appeal are as follows. Plaintiff began working for Virtua in September 1993 as a coordinator for the Healthy Start Program, a federally-funded program for pregnant women with substance abuse problems. The Healthy Start program was operated within the unit of Virtua known as Alcove. Alcove also provided other mental health and substance abuse counseling services. Alcove had two out-patient treatment centers, one located in Camden and the other in Mount Holly.
Plaintiff is certified as an alcohol and drug counselor, a criminal justice counselor, a perinatal specialist, and a prevention specialist. In addition, she has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Spanish and in Liberal Arts from the former Glassboro State College (now Rowan University). Plaintiff's duties within Alcove involved primarily the counseling of patients. Her supervisor initially was Kevin Gregan, who was then the program director of Alcove.
While working at Alcove, plaintiff also completed fifteen credit hours towards a Masters degree in counseling at Rowan.
As of the time of her discharge from Virtua in February 2004, she was still forty-five credits shy of her Masters degree.
According to the allegations in her complaint, plaintiff began in 2000 to inform Gregan of what she considered to be problems with the Alcove program. Among those criticisms, plaintiff wrote to Gregan in August 2000 complaining of the work performance of her fellow employee, Maria Rivera. Plaintiff contends that Gregan did nothing in response to that letter. Over the next few years, plaintiff also complained about the deficient work performances of Donna Winder, the Alcove outpatient coordinator, and Melanie Lucas, an office manager. Specifically, plaintiff contended that Winder was leaving work early to attend night classes, and had been instructing Lucas to conduct patient evaluations in her absence. Plaintiff asserts that Lucas was not a certified counselor and was not qualified to do patient evaluations.
Plaintiff contends that she brought these various criticisms to the attention of not only Gregan but also JoEllen Layne, the Corporate Director of Virtua. Plaintiff allegedly received no response from either person.
In the latter part of 2002, Virtua hired an outside consultant, Elaine Selan, to perform an evaluation of the Alcove program. According to Selan, Layne asked her to investigate "a number of organizational and clinical problems" at Alcove, and had also informed her of certain perceived problems with Gregan. Selan performed her evaluation of Alcove from approximately October to December 2002. As part of her review, Selan recalled speaking with plaintiff about various problems with the program.
In December 2002, Selan issued a report detailing her findings. Among her suggestions for improvement, Selan noted in her report that, "[i]t is apparent to most of the staff that there are interpersonal conflicts among the [Alcove] Leadership Group." Selan also observed that her "[i]nterviews with [Alcove] staff demonstrate clear lines of division that have resulted because of these conflicts."
Within a few months of Selan's report, Gregan and Lucas were fired, and Winder did not return from medical leave. Selan thereafter replaced Gregan as Acting Director of the Alcove program in February 2003. She held that position for about one year, ...