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Godfrey v. Princeton Theological Seminary

August 4, 2008

BETH GODFREY AND JENNIFER BAYNE KILE, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
PRINCETON THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

In this sexual harassment case, the Court considers whether the actions of an elderly tenant of Princeton Theological Seminary (Seminary) were severe or pervasive enough to create a discriminatory hostile environment under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49.

William Miller, a 1964 alumnus of, and contributor to, the Seminary, resided at apartments that were in close proximity to the Seminary's main campus and were considered on-campus housing. Miller frequently attended public events held at the Seminary and otherwise often could be found on the campus. Plaintiffs Beth Godfrey and Jennifer Bayne Kile were enrolled at the Seminary. Kile's initial contact with Miller was in 1999; Godfrey first encountered Miller in 2000. Miller, who was in his late sixties, attempted repeatedly and persistently to obtain a date with each woman. Godfrey's encounters with Miller took place over a period of years and involved sitting with him during lunch in the Mackay Campus Center at a table with others, seeing him at several fellowship gatherings, receiving from him several social invitations and a Christmas parcel, finding five messages on her telephone answering machine in which Miller became more urgent and persistent in his pursuit of a date with her, and running into him in a local store. Kile's encounters occurred over a similarly lengthy period of time and included three encounters in the library, receipt of a package containing religious articles, an incident in the Campus Center and chapel, and an email that she received while in England, to which she did not respond. Godfrey and Kile were distressed by Miller's persistent advances and believed that he was monitoring their activities or stalking them.

In 2001, Godfrey took her concerns to the Seminary administration, where she learned that the Dean of Students had handled past complaints about Miller. She also was informed by the Student Relations Director that Miller had pursued her when she was a student at the Seminary twenty years earlier. The Dean provided Godfrey with a copy of a letter dated September 4, 2001, which was addressed to Miller. The letter noted Miller's unwelcome contact with a number of women and prohibited him from entering the Mackay Campus Center except to attend public events.

During the fall of 2002, Godfrey and Kile informed the Dean that Miller had violated the Seminary's restrictions on at least two occasions. The Dean informed them that their prior complaints were considered informal. They responded that they wished to engage in a formal process so that a procedure could be developed that would have actual repercussions if Miller violated the restrictions. Shortly thereafter, the Dean sent a letter to Godfrey and Kile informing them that he would take no further action. The letter also advised them that the Seminary's sexual harassment policy had no bearing on Miller's conduct because he was a public tenant, not a member of the Seminary community, and for that reason they should pursue relief through the local police. Additional efforts by Godfrey and Kile through other administration avenues did not produce results. One attempt resulted in a letter being sent to them suggesting that they might wish to seek legal counsel because they had become potentially vulnerable to a lawsuit for libel by making a complaint to the President's Executive Council.

In 2003, Godfrey and Kile filed sexual harassment claims against the Seminary. The matter proceeded to trial. At the close of Godfrey's and Kile's cases-in-chief, the Seminary moved for involuntary dismissal. The trial court granted the motion after finding that Godfrey and Kile had failed to demonstrate sexual harassment because none of the incidents by Miller involved any references to sex or inappropriate sexual suggestions.

The Appellate Division split over the question whether the trial court properly dismissed the LAD claims. A majority of the panel held that no reasonable factfinder could conclude that Godfrey or Kile had been subjected to severe or pervasive harassing conduct. A dissenting judge concluded that the LAD claims should have survived the motion based on the cumulative effect of Miller's conduct against them, their knowledge of Miller's conduct with other women, and the administration's response, including the implied threat of a libel lawsuit.

HELD: Plaintiffs' case fell short of the proofs necessary to state a hostile work environment claim based on sexual harassment because they failed to satisfy the severe-or-pervasive prong of the test set forth inLehmann v. Toys 'R' Us, Inc., 132 N.J. 587 (1993). The Appellate Division majority correctly affirmed the trial court's involuntary dismissal of the claims.

1. New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination (LAD) is the mechanism by which the public's strong interest in a discrimination-free workplace is enforced. Among the prohibited forms of discrimination is harassment based on sex that causes a work environment to become hostile. LAD's promise of protection from discriminatory sexual harassment extends beyond the workplace to other settings. In the non-workplace setting of this case, the standard for demonstrating a prima facie claim of discrimination remains as was expressed originally in Lehmann. That is, a plaintiff asserting a LAD hostile work environment claim premised on sexual harassment must show that the conduct was severe or pervasive enough to make a reasonable woman believe that the conditions of employment were altered and the working environment was hostile or abusive. Whether conduct is severe or pervasive requires an assessment of the totality of the circumstances, which involves an examination of (1) the frequency of all the discriminatory conduct; (2) its severity; (3) whether it is physically threatening or humiliating; and (4) whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance. Although the cumulative effect of the various incidents must be considered, the harassing conduct itself must be evaluated, not its effect on the plaintiff. (Pp. 22-24).

2. A motion for involuntary dismissal only should be granted when no rational juror could conclude that the plaintiff marshaled sufficient evidence to satisfy each prima facie element of a cause of action. Here, the issue is whether Godfrey or Kile met the severe-or-pervasive conduct requirement of LAD. Applying the reasonable-woman standard to Miller's conduct, the trial court and appellate majority regarded the totality of the evidence as falling short of severe or pervasive. Viewing the encounters that the women had with Miller individually, or cumulatively, the Court comes to the same conclusion. Although socially inapt and, no doubt, annoying, Miller's conduct did not approach sexual harassment. Persons who are socially tone deaf are not, by that characteristic, necessarily the equivalent of sexual harassers. Noting that neither woman utilized her own authority to tell Miller to go away, the Court explains that they cannot rely on the prospect of a damages award from the Seminary to replace their own obligation to tell Miller that they had no interest in him romantically or even as a casual acquaintance. (Pp. 24-28).

3. Kile and Godfrey cannot rely on their knowledge that past students were pursued by Miller to satisfy the severe-or-pervasive standard. A plaintiff must marshal evidence of conduct of which she has firsthand knowledge. Godfrey and Kile also cannot rely on the Seminary's response to their complaints about Miller, or the Seminary's failure to take effective action to curb his advances toward other female students, to satisfy the severe-or-pervasive standard. The means employed by an institution to deter harassment may be considered when assessing that institution's vicarious liability for the actions of an individual over whom the institution exercises control. However, the admissibility rationale applicable to the vicarious-liability element of a LAD claim against an institution was never intended to seep into the severe-or-pervasive calculus. (Pp. 28-32).

4. In sum, Godfrey's and Kile's case fell short of the proofs necessary to state a hostile work environment claim based on sexual harassment because the severe-or-pervasive prong of the Lehman test was not satisfied. (P. 32).

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG, ALBIN, WALLACE, RIVERA-SOTO and HOENS join in JUSTICE LaVECCHIA's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice LaVECCHIA

Argued April 7, 2008

In Lehmann v. Toys 'R' Us, Inc., 132 N.J. 587 (1993), Justice Garibaldi, writing for this Court, delineated the standards of proof that are necessary in order to bring a discrimination claim premised on acts of sexual harassment. To demonstrate a discriminatory hostile environment caused by sexual harassment, a plaintiff must show that "the complained-of conduct (1) would not have occurred but for the employee's gender; and it was (2) severe or pervasive enough to make a (3) reasonable woman believe that (4) the conditions of employment are altered and the working environment is hostile or abusive."

Id. at 603-04 (emphasis omitted). The question before us in this appeal concerns whether the severe-or-pervasive-conduct prong of that standard was met.

In this matter, two women enrolled at the Princeton Theological Seminary (the Seminary) claimed that they were harassed by an elderly tenant of Seminary housing. They filed sexual harassment claims against the Seminary under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49. A majority of the Appellate Division below affirmed the trial court's grant of the Seminary's motion for an involuntary dismissal of plaintiffs' claims at the close of plaintiffs' cases-in-chief.*fn1 See R. 4:37-2(b). The majority held that no reasonable factfinder could conclude that plaintiffs had been subjected to harassing conduct that was "severe or pervasive." The case comes to us on an appeal as of right because of a dissent in the Appellate Division, R. 2:2-1(a). We agree with the analysis of the Appellate Division majority, and, therefore, we affirm the judgment below.*fn2

I.

Plaintiffs' LAD claims arise out of the Seminary's handling of their allegations of sexual harassment by William Miller, a 1964 alumnus of, and contributor to, the Seminary. Miller was seventy years old when plaintiffs filed their 2003 Complaint. At all times relevant to this litigation, Miller resided at the Charlotte Rachel Wilson (CRW) apartments, which, while not located on the Seminary's main campus, are located in close proximity to it and are considered on-campus housing. That residence allowed Miller to attend frequently public events held at the Seminary, and Miller otherwise often could be found about the Seminary's campus.

We now turn to the evidence that plaintiffs presented in support of their respective claims. In doing so, we present the facts at length in a light most favorable to plaintiffs, Monaco v. Hartz Mountain Corp., 178 N.J. 401, 413 (2004), and review them, and the reasonable inferences to be drawn therefrom, to determine whether the evidence that plaintiffs presented could reasonably support a judgment in their favor, Barsotti v. Merced, 346 N.J. Super. 504, 512-13 (App. Div. 2002). See also Zive v. Stanley Roberts, Inc., 182 N.J. 436, 441-42 (2005).

A. Godfrey's Claims

Beth Godfrey enrolled at the Seminary in 2000 to pursue a Masters of Divinity degree. She was attracted by the Seminary's "small community atmosphere," and described the Seminary as "a very small place" where student housing, the President's office, administrative offices, and the dining hall are all in close proximity. During her time at the Seminary, Godfrey resided in on-campus student housing and held part-time positions as a photographer and, later, as an assistant in the Seminary's financial aid and admissions offices. She served on the Board of Students during her first year of enrollment, and she also actively participated in Friday Night Fellowship (FNF) gatherings -- weekly student-run worship services that often included guest speakers. Many of the functions that Godfrey attended occurred at the Mackay Campus Center (Campus Center), which housed the Seminary's main dining facility and was the locus of many of the Seminary's public and private events.

It was at the Campus Center that Godfrey first came into contact with Miller. In the fall of 2000, Godfrey, who was then twenty-five years old, entered the Campus Center cafeteria to eat dinner. At a nearby table, Godfrey noticed a friend conversing with a person whom Godfrey believed to be a retired professor or someone affiliated with the Seminary community. That individual, to whom Godfrey was introduced after she joined the table, was Miller.

Godfrey next saw Miller at the first FNF gathering that followed their introduction at the Campus Center. Although Godfrey could not recall whether Miller had attended prior FNF gatherings, she found his presence peculiar because, aside from the guest speakers, only Seminary students generally attended FNF gatherings. Miller participated in the worship service and in discussion groups that ...


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