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J.T.'s Tire Service, Inc. v. United Rentals North America

January 6, 2010

J.T.'S TIRE SERVICE, INC. AND EILEEN TOTORELLO, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
UNITED RENTALS NORTH AMERICA, INC.,*FN1 DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT, AND HAROLD HINKES, DEFENDANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, L-8723-07.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reisner, J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION

Argued December 7, 2009

Before Judges Reisner, Yannotti and Chambers.

Plaintiffs, J.T.'s Tire Service, Inc. (J.T.) and its sole owner Eileen Totorello, contend that a branch manager at United Rentals North America, Inc. (United) tried to extort sexual favors from Totorello as a condition of allowing her company to continue doing business with United. Plaintiffs also allege that because she refused the manager's advances, United ceased contracting with J.T. We hold that plaintiffs' complaint states a cause of action for a discriminatory refusal to do business, under the Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(l). We therefore reverse the order granting United's motion to dismiss the complaint under Rule 4:6-2(e) and remand this case to the trial court.

I.

Both sides agree that, for purposes of the motion and this appeal, the facts in the complaint must be regarded as true. United is a national equipment rental company. Totorello is the sole shareholder of J.T., a company that began selling commercial industrial tires to United's Piscataway, New Jersey branch in 1998. The complaint alleges that in 2005, Harold Hinkes,*fn2 United's Piscataway branch manager, began pressuring Totorello to have a sexual relationship with him. When Totorello refused Hinkes' sexual advances, Hinkes caused his branch of United to stop buying tires from her company. J.T. "managed to get the work back" when Totorello agreed to have lunch with Hinkes. However, Hinkes would periodically make sexual advances and would withhold United's business when Totorello declined his demands for sexual favors.

According to the complaint, "[i]n late 2007, Hinkes began to be more insistent in his desire and effort to have a sexual relationship with Totorello. Against Totorello's will, Hinkes kissed her and groped her body. When she refused his advances, he told her she was making a 'very poor business decision.'" In November 2007, Hinkes began delaying payments to J.T. By December 2007, United, which previously had been buying $29,000 worth of tires per month from J.T., ceased doing business with J.T. altogether.

In pertinent part, plaintiffs' complaint accused United of unlawful sex discrimination in violation of N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(l), and retaliation in violation of N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(d).*fn3 Before filing an answer or engaging in any discovery, United filed a motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted. R. 4:6-2(e). In a brief statement of reasons, the trial court concluded:

[T]here is no evidence to suggest that Defendant United Rentals discriminated against Plaintiff based on her sex, as contemplated by the statute. Therefore, in light of the total absence of any evidence that would establish such sex-based discrimination, Count One of Plaintiff's Complaint as to Defendant United Rentals is Dismissed with Prejudice.

The judge also found that United had not unlawfully retaliated against plaintiffs "as contemplated by the statute."

II.

A complaint sufficiently pleads a cause of action where one is "suggested by the facts." Velantzas v. Colgate-Palmolive Co., 109 N.J. 189, 192 (1988). Upon review of a complaint dismissed pursuant to R. 4:6-2(e), our inquiry: is limited to examining the legal sufficiency of the facts alleged on the face of the complaint.... At this preliminary stage of the litigation the Court is not concerned with the ability of plaintiffs to prove the allegation contained in the complaint. For purposes of analysis plaintiffs are entitled ...


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