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Spence-Parker v. Delaware River

March 30, 2009

TRUDY SPENCE-PARKER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DELAWARE RIVER AND BAY AUTHORITY & JAMES JOHNSON, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Simandle, District Judge

HON. JEROME B. SIMANDLE

OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter is before the Court upon Defendant Delaware River and Bay Authority's motion to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint [Docket Item 4]. Plaintiff's relatively straightforward claims, premised upon New Jersey statutory and common law, are complicated by the fact that the Delaware River and Bay Authority (the "DRBA" or "Authority"), is a bistate Compact Clause entity that is "not subject to the unilateral control of any one of the States that compose the federal system." Hess v. Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corp., 513 U.S. 30, 42 (1994). This case calls upon the Court to consider whether the state laws under which Plaintiff's claims are brought are applicable to the DRBA. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant the DRBA's motion to dismiss Plaintiff's statutory claims but deny its motion to dismiss Plaintiff's common law claims.*fn1

II. BACKGROUND

A. Facts

1. Plaintiff's Employment at DRBA Plaintiff Trudy

Spence-Parker is a New Jersey resident who was previously employed by the DRBA as the Authority's Chief Human Resources Officer. (Compl. ¶¶ 1, 6.) Plaintiff was hired for the Chief Human Resources Officer position on February 24, 2003, and served in that capacity at the DRBA until she tendered her resignation on March 14, 2008. (Id. at ¶¶ 6, 42.) As Chief Human Resources Officer, Plaintiff was responsible for "the development, implementation, monitoring, and enforcement of the Authority's human resources policies, procedures and practices and creating and sustaining a work environment that will make the . . . Authority an employer of choice." (Id. at ¶ 7.) In her capacity as Chief Human Resources Officer, Plaintiff reported directly to Defendant James T. Johnson, Jr., the Executive Director of the DRBA. (Id. at ¶¶ 3, 9.)

According to the allegations in the Complaint, while Plaintiff had a good working relationship with Mr. Johnson during the first two years of her employment, her relationship with Mr. Johnson began to deteriorate in May 2005. (Id. at ¶¶ 14, 17.) In May 2005, Plaintiff began to harbor concerns about the DRBA's search for a new Chief Financial Officer ("CFO") -- she disapproved of the outside recruiting consultant whom the DRBA employed during the hiring process and felt that the process was being "manipulat[ed]" -- and she expressed her concerns to Mr. Johnson on multiple occasions. (Id. at ¶ 18.) In response to Plaintiff's criticism of the CFO search process, "Mr. Johnson disregarded and dismissed Mrs. Spence-Parker's [] concerns . . . and became increasingly critical of Mrs. Spence-Parker, acting increasingly argumentative and condescending toward her." (Id. at ¶ 19.)

In particular, Plaintiff alleges that Mr. Johnson engaged in the following conduct over the course of approximately three years: (1) Mr. Johnson falsely accused Plaintiff of "going over his head" to express concerns about the CFO search process to the DRBA commissioners, (id. at ¶ 20); (2) Mr. Johnson told Plaintiff that there were "rumors []flying around with [her] name attached to many of them," (id. at ¶ 22); (3) Mr. Johnson excluded Plaintiff from several meetings essential to her job duties as Chief Human Resources Officer and reassigned some of Plaintiff's job duties, (id. at ¶¶ 23, 38-39); (4) Mr. Johnson required Plaintiff to submit weekly updates of human resources activities when other DRBA executives did not have to submit such updates, (id. at ¶ 24); (5) Mr. Johnson said in Plaintiff's presence, "I know I cannot fire tenured employees, but I know how to get them -- death by a thousand paper cuts," (id. at ¶ 25); (6) during a meeting with Plaintiff, Mr. Johnson closed the door to his office and screamed at her for forty-five minutes, telling her that she had mishandled the CFO search process, that she did not understand workplace politics, and that she "was not worth the money she was paid," (id. at ¶ 27); (7) Mr. Johnson removed Plaintiff from a committee that she had created because he did not want her to be the "face" of the committee, (id. at ¶ 29); (8) Mr. Johnson's secretary intercepted Plaintiff's mail, opened it, and did not deliver it to Plaintiff, (id. at ¶ 30); (9) Mr. Johnson falsely accused Plaintiff of stealing from the DRBA, (id. at ¶ 31); (10) Mr. Johnson sent "threatening emails" to Plaintiff because she was unable to schedule a training session around his schedule, (id. at ¶ 32); (11) Mr. Johnson refused to permit the DRBA's Public Information Officer to release an acknowledgment that several DRBA employees, including Plaintiff, had received a human resources certification, (id. at ¶ 33); (12) Mr. Johnson wrote a "letter of reprimand" to Plaintiff wrongly accusing her of having omitted information from a draft harassment policy, (id. at ¶ 34); (13) Mr. Johnson refused to authorize Plaintiff's participation in a volunteering opportunity, notwithstanding the DRBA's policy position encouraging volunteer work, (id. at ¶ 36); (14) Mr. Johnson did not invite Plaintiff to a Delaware Chamber of Commerce dinner, despite inviting her peers and subordinates, (id. at ¶ 40); and (15) Mr. Johnson refused to credit Plaintiff with an additional vacation day after she worked on a holiday. (Id. at ¶ 41.)

In September 2007, Plaintiff met with the Chair and Vice-Chair of the DRBA Board of Commissioners Personnel Committee in order to express her concern over Mr. Johnson's conduct. (Id. at ¶ 37.) The Committee told Plaintiff to "keep her head down and do her job," and told her that they would follow up with her upon further review of the dispute. (Id.) Mr. Johnson's allegedly hostile conduct did not cease in the wake of her complaint to the Personnel Committee. (Id.) Finally, on March 14, 2008, allegedly as a result of Mr. Johnson's sustained hostile conduct "and upon recommendation of her physician," Plaintiff tendered her resignation to Mr. Johnson and the DRBA. (Id. at ¶ 42.)

2. The DRBA Personnel Manual

Plaintiff's common law claims turn in part on certain provisions of the DRBA's Personnel Manual, which are reviewed below.*fn2 The Manual provides on its first page:

This Manual provides general descriptions and guidelines concerning the Authority's personnel policies and practices . . . . The Authority may, where appropriate, deviate from the policies and practices described herein on a case by case basis and subject to the approval of the Commissioners' Personnel Committee. This Manual is not a contract, and nothing in this booklet is intended or shall be deemed to vest any right in any employee of the Authority. (Pl.'s Br. Ex. B at 1.)

Section XVIII of the Manual, which Plaintiff invokes in support of her contract-based claims, states:

Each permanent full-time employee, who has held that status for a period of at least twelve (12) months shall be deemed to be employed upon the condition that the employee shall not be removed from the particular office, position or employment except for good and sufficient cause or reason. It is the intent of these regulations to create for the permanent full-time employee of the Authority a tenure of employment which shall be permanent, subject to good behavior, the proper performance of the employee's duties, or the possible reorganization or reduction in personnel (in whole or part) made in good faith in the interest of efficiency or economy.

(Id. at 67.) Among the non-exhaustive list of examples of "good and sufficient cause" set forth in the Manual are incompetency, insubordination, violation of the Authority's drug or anti-harassment policies, and neglect in the performance of duties. (Id. at 67-68.)

B. Procedural History

Plaintiff commenced this action in New Jersey Superior Court, and Defendants removed the matter to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b) [Docket Item 1]. In her Complaint, Plaintiff asserts common law claims for breach of contract (Count I) and breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing (Count II); a claim that Defendants violated the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act ("CEPA"), N.J.S.A. 34:19-1, et seq. (Count III); and a claim that Defendants violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("NJLAD"), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1, et seq. (Count IV).*fn3 Defendants filed a motion to dismiss [Docket Item 4] in lieu of an answer, as to which the Court heard oral argument on February 26, 2009 and reserved decision.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

On a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim for which relief may be granted, the Court must "accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Pinker v. Roche Holdings Ltd., 292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002)).

While Rule 12(b)(6) does not permit dismissal of a well-pleaded complaint simply because "it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable," the "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level."

Phillips, 515 F.3d at 234. "To survive a motion to dismiss, a civil plaintiff must allege facts that 'raise a right to relief above the speculative level on the assumption that the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).'" Victaulic Co. v. Tieman, 499 F.3d 227, 234 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1965 (2007)).

When deciding a motion to dismiss, the Court generally looks only to the complaint, matters of public record, and "other indisputably authentic documents underlying the plaintiff's claims," such as the agreement upon which contract-based claims are based. Sentinel Trust ...


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