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Champion v. Spencer Gifts

September 24, 2009

MICHAEL CHAMPION, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SPENCER GIFTS, LLC, DEFENDANT.



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

OPINION

Presently before the Court are the parties' Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment on Plaintiff's claims that his termination from employment with Defendant was a violation of his entitlement to reinstatement under the state and federal Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") and in retaliation for the Plaintiff taking that leave. For the reasons expressed below, both motions will be denied.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, Michael Champion, began employment with Defendant Spencer Gifts, LLC ("Spencer") in May 2001, when he was hired as a Promotion and Publicity Manager. In 2006, Plaintiff was promoted to the position of Senior Marketing Manager. (Pl.'s Statement of Facts ¶ 3.) At all times during his employment Plaintiff was, and considered himself, an at-will employee. As an at-will employee Plaintiff was subject to the stipulation in Spencer's handbook which provides, "[Spencer] continues to have the absolute power to discharge anyone with or without cause and without prior notice." (Def.'s Statement of Facts ¶ 3.) Plaintiff's job duty as Senior Marketing Manager was to develop strategic marketing programs to support business, including inand out-of-store marketing, advertising, direct mail, loyalty club, e-commerce development, and email marketing.

Beginning in 2005, Plaintiff began reporting to Steven Chien, the Vice-President of Marketing and E-Commerce. Reporting to Plaintiff at that time was Marketing Coordinator, Theresa Miller, and Marketing Manager, Debbie DeRosa. Plaintiff, Chien, Miller, and DeRosa comprised Spencer's Marketing and E-Commerce Department. The Marketing and E-Commerce Department did not meet their revenue goals forecast for the 2006 calendar year. Not only did the department miss its goals, Plaintiff characterized the margin between projected and actual results by saying, "We defiantly missed them. I know it wasn't close." (Johnson Cert., Ex. A, Pl. Dep. 59:1-2.) Defendant contends that the Marketing and E-Commerce Department's poor performance in 2006 caused executives at Spencer, including CEO Steven Silverstein and COO Ike Silvera, to decide to terminate Chien's employment with Spencer. Although it was ultimately Chien's responsibility to meet revenue goals, and his failure in that area set his termination in motion, the failure to meet those goals also reflected poorly on his entire departmental staff, including Plaintiff.

Additionally, Defendant contends that coinciding with Chien's termination, Spencer management decided to restructure the Marketing and E-Commerce Department. This restructuring was done in an effort to revitalize the department. The Marketing and E-Commerce Department was split, with Kyle Helvie taking responsibility for E-Commerce and Beth Bowman-Taylor being responsible for Marketing. Bowman-Taylor's responsibilities during the restructuring of the Marketing Department consisted of "developing a business plan for the area and the strategy in terms of how she wanted to staff the area and, most importantly, the business objective was imperative[] in terms of making the marketing more relevant to Spencer's." (Johnson Cert., Ex. D, Graziosi Dep. 34:7-12.) The restructuring of the Marketing and E-Commerce Department was first discussed with Bowman-Taylor in late 2006/early 2007, before Chien's termination. (Def. Statement of Facts ¶ 15.) According to Bowman-Taylor, it was during this time period that she first recommended that Plaintiff not come onto her Marketing team.

The restructuring was assigned to Bowman-Taylor by Anthony Graziosi, Senior Vice President General Merchandise Manager, who did so after meeting with COO Silvera, CEO Silverstein, and other Senior Managers. Graziosi emphasized that Bowman-Taylor was directed to cut staff in furtherance of the department restructuring and that she had discretion as to who would work in the revitalized department. Bowman-Taylor used her discretion to make the recommendation that Plaintiff not become part of her Marketing team. Prior to his termination, Plaintiff never reported directly to Bowman-Taylor, although she had the opportunity to interact with him over the course of the previous two years. Bowman-Taylor did not have a high opinion of Plaintiff in any facet of his employment. Bowman-Taylor thought poorly of Plaintiff's leadership skills, productivity, attitude, and his uncooperative nature while working in a team environment. Bowman-Taylor's overall impression led her to recommend that Plaintiff not be a part of the newly-structured Marketing Department. This recommendation was given to her supervisor Graziosi.

A Spencer employee cannot be terminated unless the termination is approved by the CEO. In Plaintiff's case, the decision to eliminate his position resulted from Graziosi passing Bowman-Taylor's recommendation to Silverstein. Silverstein consulted with Gail Margolin, the Vice-President of Human Resources, and counsel Kevin Maloney with respect to Plaintiff's termination. Silverstein concurred with Bowman-Taylor's recommendation that Plaintiff not join the newly restructured Marketing Department based on their dialogue and Graziosi's endorsement. On February 23, 2007, Plaintiff was terminated via telephone by Margolin. At the time of his termination, Plaintiff was on an approved leave of absence under the FMLA.

Plaintiff was scheduled to be on leave for six weeks from January 26, 2007 to March 2, 2007 for the birth of his child. Prior to taking this leave Plaintiff gave appropriate notice to Spencer, and in early January 2007 the leave was approved by both the HR Department and Plaintiff's then supervisor, Chien. Prior to starting his leave, Plaintiff was aware that Chien was no longer working with Spencer. (Johnson Cert., Ex. A, Pl. Dep. 52:22-25.) Plaintiff was aware he would now report to Bowman-Taylor, and he informed her of his pending leave of absence. Bowman-Taylor states that she had already made the recommendation to Graziosi to eliminate Plaintiff's position when she learned of his leave. Plaintiff, however, was not terminated until several weeks into his protected leave, and claims that he was terminated for taking that FMLA leave. Defendant argues the timing is coincidental and attributable to the dialogue that occurred between the recommendation to eliminate the position, and Plaintiff's actual termination.

To support his position, Plaintiff cites a conversation between himself and Graziosi where Graziosi said, "Enjoy the time with your kid." Plaintiff characterizes this comment as being made "sarcastically" and as a "jab." (Johnson Cert., Ex. A, Pl. Dep. 99:13-23.) Defendant denies that his comment was made sarcastically, characterizing the interaction as a sincere "well-wishing." Although the occurrence of the conversation is not disputed, the circumstances surrounding it are. Plaintiff claims that it occurred after a weekly meeting and Graziosi denies this. Plaintiff cannot identify anyone at the meeting who would have heard the comment, and Graziosi does not proffer where the interaction took place. Although Plaintiff found the comment "hurtful," he never discussed it with other Spencer employees. Additionally, Plaintiff did not believe at that time that the comment was an indication that Graziosi would retaliate against him for taking an FMLA leave or that he would have difficulty returning to work at the end of the leave.

After Plaintiff's termination, his job functions were absorbed by Bowman-Taylor and the remaining Marketing Department members, DeRosa and Mesler. Both DeRosa and Mesler's salaries were lower than Plaintiff's. In February of 2008, DeRosa was promoted to a newly-created position of Senior Marketing and Licensing Manager, which focused primarily on a spinoff division of Spencer, Spirit Halloween. Mesler remained a clerical employee in the department.

On January 8, 2008, Plaintiff filed a complaint in New Jersey Superior Court alleging that Defendant violated the FMLA and NJFMLA by retaliating against him for taking a protected leave of absence, and by failing to return Plaintiff to his former position or a position equivalent to that held prior to his leave. (Comp. ¶¶ 12-14.) Plaintiff alleges that because of his termination, he has suffered "grievous economic damage and loss, pain and suffering, humiliation, inconvenience, and emotional distress." (Id. ¶ 15.) Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages, reinstatement, attorney's fees, costs, and any other appropriate relief. (Id.)

On February 7, 2008, Defendant removed the proceedings from Gloucester County Superior Court to this Court. After unsuccessful attempts at arbitration and mediation, Defendant filed the present Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff has cross-moved for judgment in his favor. The Court will now consider both motions.

DISCUSSION

A. ...


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