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Sattelberger v. Township of Byram

September 30, 2008


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County, L-507-05.

Per curiam.


Submitted September 11, 2008

Before Judges Winkelstein, Fuentes and Gilroy.

Plaintiff appeals from an August 17, 2007 summary judgment dismissing her employment discrimination complaint. We affirm.

Plaintiff is the former Municipal Court Administrator for defendant Byram Township. She held her position from December 10, 1997, until her resignation on December 10, 2004.

Defendant Gregory Poff became the Township Manager in May 2004. He held his first department head meeting on June 4, 2004. Although plaintiff believed her attendance at the meeting would violate the Code of Conduct for Judicial Employees (the Code), she nevertheless attended because the municipal court services division manager, Irene Turner, told her she was permitted to attend. Plaintiff did not tell Poff either prior to or at the meeting that she believed her attendance was in violation of the Code.

Sometime after the meeting, plaintiff was called to Poff's office to discuss a voucher payment issue. Plaintiff's daughter had worked the recording system during a municipal court session in May 2004, and Poff told plaintiff that her daughter's employment with the municipal court posed a conflict. Plaintiff responded that it was Judge Jubanowsky's decision to have her daughter work the system. Poff wanted plaintiff to promise that her daughter would not work the recording system in the future, but plaintiff declined to do so, telling Poff to talk to Judge Jubanowsky.

After discussing the voucher payment issue, plaintiff told Poff that her attendance at the department head meetings was a potential violation of the Code. According to plaintiff, Poff continued to insist that she attend. Although plaintiff did not feel sexually harassed at this meeting, she felt that Poff talked down to her; and that it was inappropriate for him to ask her to promise that her daughter would not work another municipal court session. In plaintiff's opinion, Poff would not have demanded such a promise from a man.

On July 16, 2004, plaintiff, Poff, and Lisa Spring, the Township's Financial Director, met to discuss plaintiff's attendance at staff meetings and the tone of correspondence she sent to the Township attorney. Poff told plaintiff to have all written correspondence approved by him before sending and to report her whereabouts to Spring before leaving her desk. According to plaintiff, no other municipal employees were subjected to similar restrictions or micromanagement.

Poff testified that the meeting was civil, and that he and plaintiff agreed that a letter should be sent to the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) to determine if plaintiff was permitted to attend department head meetings. Plaintiff later claimed that the issue of sending a letter to the AOC was never discussed.

Poff prepared a memorandum to summarize what occurred at the meeting. In his memo, he stated that a letter would be sent to the AOC to determine if it would be a conflict for plaintiff to attend department head meetings. Spring testified that Poff directed plaintiff to send such a letter.

Judge Jubanowsky testified that whether plaintiff should be required to attend department head meetings was not that "big a deal" to Poff. He testified that it was not appropriate for anyone from the court to attend these meetings, whether it was myself or Roberta and that the way to resolve it was to get an opinion and he didn't have any problem with it, [Poff] didn't push for attendance on a temporary basis until the opinion was forthcoming and that was pretty much the end of it.

I didn't feel that [Poff] was angry with me or that this was something that was festering on an ongoing basis and he could have been angry with me.

Following the July 16 meeting, Poff did not require plaintiff to attend department head meetings until a determination was made by the AOC.

As to Poff's questioning the "tone" of plaintiff's correspondence to the municipal attorney, plaintiff acknowledged that the requirement that letters be checked for tone and content applied to all Township employees, not just to her. Nevertheless, she also believed she was being indirectly sexually harassed based on Poff's condescending and reprimanding behavior.

In August 2004, because the part-time deputy court administrator, Sherri Hansen, was not working the minimum number of hours she had been appointed to work, plaintiff requested that she "offer her resignation." Plaintiff helped Hansen write her resignation letter that day, a Friday. The following Monday, Judge Jubanowsky spoke with Hansen, who was hysterical about what had happened. Judge Jubanowsky was upset with plaintiff as he did not want Hansen to resign. He considered her to be one of the best employees he had. He testified that he would have considered firing plaintiff himself for telling Hansen to resign if he was not so fond of plaintiff. After the judge advised Poff of the Hansen resignation issue, Poff instituted an administrative investigation by the Township police department.

On August 11, 2004, when Poff told plaintiff that an investigation was being conducted, she responded that any further conversations or communications "would be through her attorney." Plaintiff testified that as she was leaving Poff's office, he said, "you know how to make this stop," which plaintiff interpreted as having sexual connotations. Plaintiff did not, however, confront Poff regarding her interpretation of his comment; nor did she tell Judge Jubanowsky or any other Township employee that she thought the statement was sexual in nature.

Sergeant Raymond Rafferty, who was in charge of the investigation, testified that Poff never indicated that he had problems with plaintiff; rather, Poff was not comfortable with plaintiff asking for Hansen's resignation and wanted "to find out what was going on." On September 13, 2004, after Rafferty's report confirmed that plaintiff told Hansen to resign and helped her prepare her letter of resignation, plaintiff, Poff, Judge Jubanowsky, and Spring met regarding the incident. In her answers to interrogatories, plaintiff states that "Poff read aloud from a written reprimand and a second memo with points of criticism." The written reprimand states the following:

I am advising you, with this written reprimand, that you are to perform the functions of your job within the confines of local ordinance and state statute. You do not have the authority to request another employee's resignation. Your writing or assistance in writing Ms. Hansen's letter of resignation further demonstrates a lack of understanding of the authority and responsibility of the Court Administrator's position.

Your action that day at a minimum can be viewed as interfering with another employee's work and more severely can be viewed as threatening an individual's livelihood. Acting outside the scope of your authority not only disrupts the effective administration ...

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