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Leang v. Jersey City Board of Education

April 16, 2009

SOPHARIE LEANG AND SONG LEANG, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
JERSEY CITY BOARD OF EDUCATION, VLADIMIR ASHWORTH, CHARLES T. EPPS, JR., (IN HIS CAPACITY AS VICE PRINCIPAL) AND ANGELA BRUNO, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS, AND JANE AND JOHN DOES 1-5, DEFENDANTS.
SOPHARIE LEANG AND SONG LEANG, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
JERSEY CITY MEDICAL CENTER MOBILE CRISIS UNIT AND THE JERSEY CITY MEDICAL CENTER, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS, AND JERSEY CITY POLICE DEPARTMENT, JOHN AND JANE DOES 1-5 BEING EMPLOYEES OF THE JERSEY CITY MEDICAL CENTER MOBILE CRISIS UNIT AND/OR THE JERSEY CITY MEDICAL CENTER AND JOHN AND JANE DOES 6-10 BEING EMPLOYEES OF THE JERSEY CITY POLICE DEPARTMENT AND CITY OF JERSEY CITY, DEFENDANTS.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 399 N.J. Super. 329 (2008).

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).

This appeal stands at the intersection between the rights of a school employee who, it is alleged, uttered words that threatened the safety of the children then in her care, and the obligations of other school employees who claim to have heard those words or who, when advised of them, exercised what they believed was their authority to act to ensure the safety of those students.

Plaintiff Sopharie Leang was hired, pursuant to a one-year contract, by defendant Jersey City Board of Education, as a provisional teacher of English as a Second Language (ESL). At the time, defendant Charles T. Epps, Jr. was the Superintendent of Schools, defendant Angela Bruno was the principal of the school where Leang was assigned, and defendant Vladimir Ashworth was another ESL teacher.

On May 14, 2002, Leang was advised in writing that her contract would not be renewed for the following year. She did not request a statement of reasons or otherwise challenge the non-renewal decision. As part of this litigation, however, she asserts that Ashworth did not give her the ESL textbooks that she needed and that Bruno did not provide her with a mentor, both of which interfered with her job performance and negatively impacted her evaluations, and both of which, she alleges, were motivated by Ashworth, who sought revenge for her refusal of his sexual advances. Leang also asserts that she complained about Ashworth to some of the other teachers, but concedes that she never filed a formal complaint with the principal.

On June 24, 2002, Leang and Ashworth were in a classroom, along with two teaching assistants and twenty-two students. Ashworth asked Leang what had happened to her voice and Leang responded that she had laryngitis, caused by stress. When Ashworth pressed her about that comment, Leang said, "My doctor said the amount of stress in my body could have killed some people." Ashworth, however, insisted that Leang initiated the conversation and, more to the point, that she said to him "I'm so stressed out that I can kill twenty-two people." Ashworth was alarmed by that statement in light of what he described as Leang's "bizarre behavior" and her "stressed out and . . . very unkempt" appearance. Believing that Leang had uttered a threat to the safety of the students in the room, he immediately reported what he had heard to the school nurse, and eventually to Bruno. Leang was then escorted to the nurse's office. When Bruno and the school board's social worker attempted to speak with Leang about the incident, she became distraught.

At the time of those events, the Board was a signatory to a document entitled "A Uniform State Memorandum of Agreement Between Education and Law Enforcement Officials" (the Agreement). The Agreement "requires an appropriate and decisive response" to events that threaten the "safety and well-being of members of the school community." Although the Agreement addressed perceived threats by students rather than by a faculty member, defendant Jersey City Police Department's Emergency Services Unit (ESU) was summoned in response to Leang's behavior. ESU was accompanied by defendant Jersey City Medical Center Mobile Crisis Unit and its Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). Leang was reported as being "irate," "upset," and "frantic." She was transported to a hospital where she underwent physical and psychiatric evaluations. Leang alleges that she was physically abused by the police, but the evaluations revealed no bleeding or bruises. The record instead shows that Leang was suffering from high blood pressure and that the psychiatric evaluation included an Axis I diagnosis of "generalized anxiety, rule out homicidal ideation." Leang left the hospital that evening against medical advice and never underwent any other medical or psychiatric evaluation and received no treatment of any kind in connection with those events.

Plaintiff's original complaint named only the Jersey City Board of Education, Epps, Bruno, and Ashworth as defendants (the school defendants) and included eleven counts, all directed to the Board of Education. The counts are: false imprisonment; assault and battery; invasion of privacy; defamation; sexual harassment and retaliation; breach of her employment contract; violation of due process; wrongful discharge and constructive discharge; intentional infliction of emotional distress; and a per quod claim asserted by her spouse. Plaintiff filed a separate complaint in which she named the Jersey City Medical Center Mobile Crisis Unit and the Jersey City Medical Center (the medical defendants), the Jersey City Police Department, John and Jane Does described as employees of the Jersey City Police Department, and the City of Jersey City. That complaint included five counts, as follows: acts taken under color of law and excessive use of force and abuse of governmental authority; per quod; false arrest; malicious prosecution; and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Following discovery, defendants successfully moved for summary judgment, essentially based on the motion judge's analysis of qualified immunity and an alternative analysis relating to an absence of evidence supporting damages. The Appellate Division, in a published opinion, affirmed in part and reversed in part. The Appellate Division divided the claims into several broad categories, which can be summarized as the federal claims, the state law tort claims, the state law discrimination and employment claims, and the claims directed to the medical defendants. For the sake of brevity, the various holdings of the Appellate Division are discussed below in conjunction with this Court's holdings.

The Supreme Court granted the separate petitions for certification filed by the school defendants and the medical defendants, and granted amicus curiae status to the Attorney General.

HELD: The Court reverses the judgment of the Appellate Division to the extent it: reinstated plaintiff's breach of contract and employment claims; reinstated plaintiff's federal claims against the school defendants; allowed plaintiff's false imprisonment and assault and battery claims to proceed; and, rejected Title 30 immunity to the medical defendants. The Court affirms the judgment of the Appellate Division allowing plaintiff's state law defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims for compensatory and punitive damages and per quod claims to proceed. In addition, the Court affirms the judgment of the Appellate Division reinstating plaintiff's state law tort claim for invasion of privacy against defendant Ashworth, but reverses that judgment to the extent that it reinstated the claim against defendant Bruno.

1. The Court reverses the judgment of the Appellate Division to the extent that it reinstated plaintiff's breach of contract and employment claims. Public entities may be found liable for discrimination claims brought by their employees notwithstanding the limitations imposed by the Tort Claims Act (TCA). Thus, any analysis of the claims raised by plaintiff that relate to her employment follow the Court's usual rules governing such claims and without any overlay of TCA immunities. Plaintiff's claims for sexual harassment or workplace discrimination fail as to the Board because plaintiff made no complaints and as against Bruno and Ashworth because of a lack of proof that they engaged in an act of aiding or abetting. In addition, the Court reverses the judgment of the Appellate Division to the extent it reinstated plaintiff's breach of contract claim as against the Board because the Contractual Liability Act itself does not apply to those claims and because relevant statutory provisions offer plaintiff no basis for relief. Similarly, the Court concludes that the appellate panel erred in addressing plaintiff's due process argument as it bears on her employment claims. Plaintiff did not avail herself of applicable statutory protections and therefore failed to take advantage of the avenues of relief that would have afforded her the due process she now complains was denied to her. (Pp. 16-21)

2. The Court reverses the judgment of the Appellate Division to the extent that it reinstated plaintiff's federal claims against any of the school defendants. First, plaintiff's only asserted constitutional claim was directed to her argument that she was not afforded an opportunity to be heard when her contract was not renewed: It had nothing to do with her assertion, first raised on appeal, that she was deprived of liberty when taken to the nurse's office or transported to the hospital. Second, under the circumstances, the Court declines to permit plaintiff's unsupported assertion that Ashworth and Bruno were acting in bad faith to deprive them of the qualified immunity that so plainly obtains. Third, the Court reverses the judgment of the appellate panel to the extent that it concluded that Ashworth's mere presence in the nurse's office would suffice to support a federal cause of action against him. (Pp. 21-25)

3. On plaintiff's claims for defamation and for intentional infliction of emotional distress, the Court concludes that although the record is far from clear, it agrees with the Appellate Division that, viewed in a light most favorable to plaintiff, her factual allegations suffice: a reasonable person could consider the school defendants' accusation that plaintiff had threatened to kill twenty-two students, if untrue, to be defamatory. Moreover, defendants are not entitled to immunity under the TCA. Thus, the Court agrees with the judgment of the Appellate Division reinstating plaintiff's defamation claim as well as the reinstatement of her punitive and per quod damages associated with that claim. The Court reaches a similar result in its evaluation of plaintiff's intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. It agrees with the Appellate Division's reinstatement of that claim as well as the punitive and per quod damages associated with it. (Pp. 25-34)

4. The Court affirms in part and reverses in part the reinstatement of plaintiff's claim for invasion of privacy. The common law right to privacy recognizes essentially two causes of action: the tort of "intrusion on seclusion" and the tort of "false light." Plaintiff's invasion of privacy claim, based on a "strip search" by hospital doctors and the psychiatric evaluation, must be analyzed within the parameters of the tort of intrusion on seclusion. Plaintiff's claim rests on her assertion that Ashworth, seeking revenge, intentionally and falsely reported that plaintiff had uttered a threat, with the malicious intent that she would be taken to the hospital and subjected to examinations that would be highly offensive to an ordinary person, and that his false report caused those events to occur. As to Bruno, plaintiff's invasion of privacy claim must rest on the assertion that she shared or joined in Ashworth's plan with a malicious intent and knowing that his claim about the threat was false. A careful review of the record convinces the Court that plaintiff simply cannot meet these proof requirements as to Bruno. Although the question is a closer one as to Ashworth, there is evidence that he did not accurately report what plaintiff said and that he would have been aware that under the Agreement, his report would trigger a call to the police or a mental health evaluation. The Court finds in those assertions the bare minimum needed for plaintiff to be able to proceed on her claim against Ashworth for invasion of privacy. In addition, the Court considers and rejects the assertion that plaintiff can proceed to trial on her claim of false imprisonment or on her claims for assault and battery. (Pp. 34-40)

5. The Court granted the petition of the medical defendants to consider their arguments that the Appellate Division erred in its rejection of their assertions that they were entitled to immunity either under the Good Samaritan Act or Title 30. As the Appellate Division concluded, the Good Samaritan Act does not apply to these defendants. Plaintiff was not the victim of an accident or an emergency of the kind envisioned by the Legislature when it enacted the Good Samaritan Act. The Court reaches a contrary conclusion, however, with respect to Title 30. The section of Title 30 that defendants assert applies relates to the care and treatment of persons who are mentally ill, and, in particular, governs involuntary civil commitment of such individuals. Based on the undisputed factual record, there can be no question that the medical defendants are entitled to the protection of this statutory immunity. Also, there is no basis on which to permit plaintiff to proceed against the medical defendants for punitive damages. The Court therefore reverses that aspect of the Appellate Division's judgment and directs that judgment in favor of the medical defendants be entered. (Pp. 40-46)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED to the extent that it reinstated plaintiff's federal causes of action and employment claims and to the extent that it reinstated plaintiff's state tort claims for assault and battery and false imprisonment as against the school defendants. The judgment of the Appellate Division is also REVERSED to the extent that it reinstated the tort claim for invasion of privacy as against defendant Bruno. The judgment of the Appellate Division is further REVERSED to the extent that it reinstated plaintiff's claims against the medical defendants. In all other respects, the judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, WALLACE, and RIVERASOTO join in JUSTICE HOENS's opinion. JUSTICE ALBIN did not participate.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Hoens

Argued January 5, 2009

Recent events around our nation and here in New Jersey have made it clear that children in our schools are vulnerable to dangers that many of us could not have even imagined when we were growing up. In response to that sad reality, our school systems, often in cooperation with law enforcement personnel, have embraced a variety of means and methods designed to return our neighborhood schools to the relatively safe havens long believed to be most conducive to effective education. Those efforts have much to commend them. At the same time, however, those same strategies often impact on the freedoms once enjoyed, and long cherished, by both the students and those who work in our schools. Creating mechanisms to ensure that our children, our educators, and our other school employees can learn and work in an atmosphere that is both safe and nurturing while, at the same time, maintaining a system that protects the rights of all of them, are not mutually exclusive goals. Rather, they are goals that, although sometimes in apparent conflict, nonetheless can and must be harmonized.

Today we are confronted with a factual setting in which we must balance those important rights and responsibilities in one such apparent conflict. This matter stands at the intersection between the rights of a school employee who, it is alleged, uttered words that threatened the safety of the children then in her care, and the obligations of the other school employees who claim to have heard those words or who, when advised of them, exercised what they believed was their authority to act to ensure the safety of those students. That the school employee's words may have been misunderstood, that the other school employees or authorities might have had other options available to them for dealing with the perceived threat, are but a part of the fabric against which we must analyze these important goals and interests in the specialized setting of our public schools.

I.

The claims for relief set forth by plaintiff Sopharie Leang and her spouse, Song Leang, arise from a complex series of events relating to plaintiff*fn1 Sopharie Leang's employment as a teacher of English as a Second Language (ESL) in a Jersey City elementary school. Because the factual assertions are recited at length in the Appellate Division's published opinion, Leang v. Jersey City Bd. of Educ., 399 N.J. Super. 329 (App. Div. 2008), we need not reiterate them. Instead, for purposes of our review, we elect to summarize only the salient facts and those as to which our review of the record differs from that of the appellate panel. Nevertheless, because this matter comes to us in the context of a motion for summary judgment, we recite our summary in the light most favorable to plaintiff.*fn2

Plaintiff, who was born and raised in Cambodia, where she asserts her family was victimized by the Khmer Rouge, emigrated to this country and achieved an advanced degree in foreign languages. She was hired, pursuant to a one-year contract, by defendant Jersey City Board of Education, as a provisional teacher, N.J.S.A. 18A:26-2a(a), of ESL. At the time, defendant Charles T. Epps, Jr. was the Superintendent of Schools, defendant Angela Bruno was the principal of the school where plaintiff was assigned, and defendant Vladimir Ashworth was another ESL teacher. Plaintiff asserts that Ashworth sexually harassed her, that she rebuffed his advances, and that she complained about him to some of the other teachers. She concedes that she did not heed the advice of her acquaintance, an attorney in New York, who suggested that she make a complaint about Ashworth to Bruno.

On May 14, 2002, plaintiff was advised in writing that her contract would not be renewed for the following year. She did not request a statement of reasons or otherwise challenge the non-renewal decision. As part of this litigation, however, she asserts that Ashworth did not give her the ESL textbooks that she needed and that Bruno did not provide her with a mentor, both of which interfered with her job performance and negatively impacted her evaluations, and both of which, she alleges, were motivated by Ashworth, who sought revenge for her refusal of his advances.

The events that give rise to plaintiff's essential factual allegations took place on June 24, 2002, which was the last day of the school year. All parties agree that plaintiff and Ashworth were in a classroom, along with two teaching assistants and twenty-two students, and that Ashworth asked plaintiff what had happened to her voice. Plaintiff asserts that she told him that she had laryngitis, and that, as the discussion between them continued, she said that it was caused by stress. According to plaintiff and one of the witnesses, when Ashworth pressed her about that comment and about the cause of her stress, she said, "my doctor said the amount of stress in my body could have killed some people." Ashworth, however, insists that plaintiff initiated the conversation and, more to the point, that plaintiff said to him "I'm so stressed out that I can kill twenty-two people."

Ashworth was alarmed by that statement in light of what he described as plaintiff's "bizarre behavior" and her "stressed out and . . . very unkempt" appearance. Believing that plaintiff had uttered a threat to the safety of the students in the room, he immediately reported what he had heard to the school nurse, and eventually to Bruno. Based on Ashworth's report, plaintiff was escorted to the nurse's office. Apparently plaintiff believed that if she went to the nurse's office and awaited Bruno's return from the graduation ceremony that was then underway, she would be rehired for the following year. When Bruno and the school board's social worker attempted to speak with plaintiff about what Ashworth reported had happened, and about what was troubling her, she became distraught.

At the time of those events, the Board was a signatory to a document entitled "A Uniform State Memorandum of Agreement Between Education and Law Enforcement Officials" (the Agreement), which had been adopted by the Board and approved by both the Department of Law and Public Safety and the Department of Education. Section 1.2 of the Agreement, titled "Nature of the Problem," declares: "[r]ecent events in New Jersey and throughout the nation have made clear that while schools are generally safe places for students and staff members, a wide range of offenses are occasionally committed on school property, during operating school hours." That section further provides that the signatories recognize that any such offense, including "the actual or threatened infliction of bodily injury . . . not only undermines the educational environment, but can directly endanger the safety and well-being of members of the school community." Because of those concerns, the parties also agree that an event of that type "requires an appropriate and decisive response."

In order to effectuate its purposes, Section 4.10 of the Agreement requires school officials to immediately notify the Jersey City Police Department, whenever any school employee in the course of his or her employment develops reason to believe that a student has threatened, is planning, or otherwise intends to cause death, serious bodily injury, or significant bodily injury to another person under circumstances in which a reasonable person would believe that the student genuinely intends at some time in the future to commit the violent act or to carry out the threat.

Although the Agreement addressed perceived threats by students rather than by a faculty member, defendant Jersey City Police Department's Emergency Services Unit (ESU) was summoned in response to plaintiff's behavior. Because it had been reported to ESU that there was an "emotionally disturbed person" at the school, when ESU arrived, it was accompanied by defendant Jersey City Medical Center Mobile Crisis Unit and its Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). According to Steven Nacim, one of the EMTs, plaintiff was "irate," "upset," and "frantic," and reported that she had a history of hypertension. When she allowed him to do so, Nacim took her blood pressure and found that it was elevated. Nacim testified that a police officer accompanied them when they took plaintiff to the hospital for an evaluation and that they changed their route to accommodate plaintiff's request that they take her to a different hospital.

Hospital personnel performed both a physical examination and a psychiatric evaluation. Although plaintiff alleges that she was repeatedly kicked at the school by the police with the result that she sustained "seventy-two bruises" and was bleeding, the emergency room records of her physical examination include neither a reference to, nor any other indication of, either bleeding or bruises. Instead, those records reveal that plaintiff was suffering from high blood pressure and that the psychiatric evaluation included an Axis I diagnosis of "generalized anxiety, rule out homicidal ideation."

In spite of those findings and the treatment recommendations of the physicians relating to her elevated blood pressure, plaintiff left the hospital that evening against medical advice. She never underwent any other medical or psychiatric evaluation thereafter and received no treatment of any kind in connection with those events.

II.

Plaintiff's original complaint named only the Jersey City Board of Education, Epps, Bruno, and Ashworth as defendants (the school defendants) and included eleven counts, all directed to the Board of Education.*fn3 The counts are: (1) false imprisonment; (2) battery; (3) assault; (4) invasion of privacy, alleged to have been a "strip search" and psychiatric examination performed at the hospital; (5) defamation, libel, and slander, asserted to be based on the "notorious manner of the accusations that amount to malice per se"; (6) sexual harassment and retaliation, the latter of which is asserted to be poor performance reviews that led to her non-renewal; (7) breach of her employment contract; (8) violation of due process, asserted to have been a deprivation of her property interest in her employment; (9) wrongful discharge and constructive discharge; (10) intentional infliction of emotional distress; and (11) a per quod claim asserted by her spouse.

Plaintiff's second, separately filed complaint, which was later consolidated with the original complaint, named only the Jersey City Medical Center Mobile Crisis Unit, the Jersey City Medical Center (the medical defendants), Jersey City Police Department,*fn4 John and Jane Does described as employees of the Jersey City Police Department and City of Jersey City. That complaint included five counts, as follows: (1) acts taken under color of law and excessive use of force and abuse of governmental authority; (2) per quod; (3) false arrest; (4) malicious prosecution; and (5) intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Following discovery, defendants successfully moved for summary judgment, essentially based on the motion judge's analysis of qualified immunity and an alternative analysis relating to an absence of evidence supporting damages. The Appellate Division, in its published opinion,*fn5 affirmed in part and reversed in part. See Leang, supra, 399 N.J. Super. at 380. In its analysis, the Appellate Division reviewed the matter indulgently, permitting plaintiff to rearticulate many of her claims, in some ways resulting in dramatically different assertions of law and fact than had been pleaded or raised before the motion judge. In deciding the appeal, the Appellate Division divided the claims into several broad categories, which can be ...


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