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Figueroa v. Princeton University

July 31, 2008


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Docket No. L-0991-04.

Per curiam.


Argued April 16, 2008

Before Judges Lisa, Lihotz and Simonelli.

Plaintiff David Figueroa was terminated from his position as associate director of the Program for Latin American Studies (PLAS) at defendant Princeton University. He alleges disparate treatment because of his national origin (Puerto Rican) and his disability (a pituitary tumor) in violation of the Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49. Although not alleged in his complaint, plaintiff also claims he was subjected to a hostile work environment based on his national origin. Plaintiff appeals from the order of December 15, 2006, granting summary judgment to defendants dismissing his complaint with prejudice. We affirm.


The facts are summarized from evidence submitted by the parties in support of, and in opposition to, the summary judgment motion, viewed in a light most favorable to plaintiff. Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995). Plaintiff graduated from Princeton in 1992, and from Columbia Law School in 1996. He worked in administration at New York University before beginning his employment at Princeton in December 1999 as the associate director of the Program in Law and Public Affairs.

In February 2001, plaintiff became the associate director of PLAS. His job duties included assisting in the program's development; organizing conferences, lectures and symposia; reporting on meetings; editing the newsletter; assisting in grant-writing and fundraising; designing and maintaining internet-based communications; administering fellowships and short-term visits; collaborating in the development of a summer intern program; and promoting cooperation with Latin American studies programs and research. Jeremy Adelman, director of PLAS at the time plaintiff began his employment, noted problems with plaintiff's job performance. Adelman believed that plaintiff:

[D]id not have the communication skills that were necessary to conduct the business that PLAS conducts routinely. Grammatical, spelling, basic organizational mistakes, and a process that was really not up to the standard of Princeton communications, and it required a lot of correcting and revising and it's hard for a director to have to spend that much time correcting programs.

We hire staff to do the communicating.

In July 2001, defendant Kenneth Mills*fn1 replaced Adelman. Adelman advised Mills about plaintiff's job performance issues, specifically, that he "was concerned that [plaintiff] was not fulfilling the obligations that [PLAS] needed [plaintiff] to fulfill."*fn2

Mills' problems with plaintiff's job performance began almost immediately. In August 2001, Mills reprimanded plaintiff for sending an e-mail to students without final approval, and for sending a memorandum to the various Princeton faculty that contained typographical or grammatical errors. Despite admitting that Mills was entitled to expect that correspondence be grammatically correct, plaintiff dismissed the director's concern as invalid because "[t]ypos happen."

In September 2001, Mills spoke to Linda Biagas, Princeton's Human Resources Manager, about plaintiff's unsatisfactory job performance. Mills specifically expressed concern about plaintiff's written work, accuracy, care for detail, and problems with PLAS' program director, Rosalia Rivera, who was also Puerto Rican. Rivera was a thirty-year Princeton employee who worked for PLAS since 1990.*fn3

Mills also spoke about plaintiff's unsatisfactory job performance to Miguel Centeno, a Latino Princeton sociology professor who was also a PLAS Executive Committee member. Centeno concurred with Mills and said his impression of plaintiff's performance "was uniformly negative." Centeno had observed that plaintiff was not focused and did not run meetings smoothly, that plaintiff had arrived late to a meeting, and that plaintiff failed to prepare an agenda for another meeting. PLAS Executive Committee member, Arcadio Diaz-Quinones, a Puerto Rican, expressed his opinion to the Executive Committee that plaintiff's appointment as PLAS' associate director "had not been a good appointment to begin with."

Plaintiff admitted he did not get along with Rivera. One of Rivera's complaints was that plaintiff did not say "hello" or "goodbye" to her. Mills addressed this issue with plaintiff in or about September 2001. According to plaintiff, Mills asked plaintiff why he did not "say good morning every day [to Rivera], and that's something that we do among . . . your people."*fn4 Plaintiff understood that Mills was referring to Puerto Ricans. This is the first of four statements upon which plaintiff grounds his claims of disparate treatment and hostile work environment based on national origin.

Mills wrote to plaintiff in October 2001 about problems with plaintiff's written work, including inconsistent information, "haste in [the] work, . . . basic writing errors," and a "lack of seamlessness in [his] expression." Mills asked plaintiff to "[p]lease begin a system immediately whereby all e-mail letters, reminders, documents, calendars, schedules, publications you are producing for mass-distribution and consideration receive at least one 'extra set of eyes' prior to release." Mills advised plaintiff, "[i]t's when errors in information and confusing grammar and misused words recur, and the risk of the clarity of your communications on behalf of PLAS and yourself and me, that it becomes my job to express concern and seek remedies." Mills implored plaintiff to take the time necessary to have his work reviewed, and assured plaintiff that "[t]hese are matters that you can remedy." Mills suggested that plaintiff take a class on "Business Writing & E-mail," and attached information about it. Plaintiff admitted that as of the date of this correspondence, Mills had never done or said anything to him that was in any way related to his national origin.

In November 2001, plaintiff drafted a PLAS newsletter. Mills made many corrections and revisions to the draft and returned it to plaintiff, but plaintiff ignored them. Mills complained that plaintiff did not make the corrections, that "there is little sign of careful proofreading"; and that "there are ...

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