On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Warren County, Nos. L-133-05 and L-134-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Wefing, Messano and LeWinn.
Annette Stankavish and Marcie O'Donnell filed separate complaints alleging intentional interference with contractual relations; fraud; violations of the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, N.J.S.A. 34:19-1 to -12 ("CEPA"); wrongful termination; conspiracy; and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Plaintiff Stankavish also included a count for defamation. The trial court consolidated these complaints. Plaintiffs appeal from a trial court order granting summary judgment to defendants. After reviewing the record in light of the contentions advanced on appeal, we affirm.
Defendant The Blue Army, USA, Inc. ("Blue Army") is a nonprofit Roman Catholic religious corporation which was founded to spread the message of prayer and repentance delivered by Mary in an apparition in Fatima, Portugal in 1917. It is governed by a national board of trustees, but it operates under the general supervision of the Bishop of the Diocese of Metuchen. Monsignor Leonard Pivonka was president of the Blue Army's board of trustees from 2002 to 2004. Its executive director was Reverend Ladis J. Cizik, who reported to the board of trustees through Monsignor Pivonka. As part of its ministry, the Blue Army owns and operates the Blue Shrine in Washington, New Jersey. As another part of its ministry, the Blue Army organizes and runs pilgrimages for the faithful to various religious shrines in Europe, such as the one at Fatima.
Defendant Handmaids of Mary Immaculate, Inc. is a private organization of lay women and defendant Mary Hennessey is the mother superior of defendant Handmaids.*fn1 The Handmaids would assist at the shrine in Washington, greet those who would come to visit, explain the history of Fatima and provide music for the religious services. They assisted with the publication of a magazine for the Blue Army and, for a period of time, they also ran the gift shop at the Blue Shrine. The constitution of the Handmaids was approved by the Bishop of the Diocese of Metuchen. The Handmaids lived on the grounds of the shrine in a building referred to as "Holy House."
Both plaintiffs were employed by the Blue Army. Plaintiff Stankavish began as a part-time bookkeeper in 1988 and eventually became the business manager for the Blue Army. Plaintiff O'Donnell started working for the Blue Army in 1999; she managed the Blue Army tours. Neither plaintiff had an employment contract. They last worked for the Blue Army in March 2003, and they filed suit in August 2005.
The financial situation of the Blue Army deteriorated, particularly after the events of September 11, 2001. The number of people interested in taking a pilgrimage to Europe declined dramatically and, as a consequence, so did the revenue of the Blue Army. Plaintiff O'Donnell estimated that there had been approximately a 40% drop in tour business and revenue. Father Cizik and Bishop Pivonka, together with Hennessey, decided that the staff and operations of the Blue Army should be reorganized to save money in light of this decline.
Plaintiff Stankavish testified in her deposition that a general meeting of all employees of the Blue Army was held, at which the employees were told that reorganization was required. After that general meeting, there was a meeting for each individual employee, at which the particular changes for that employee were outlined. Stankavish said she was called into a meeting with Cizik, Pivonka and Hennessey and given a copy of a new employee manual and a job description. She was told she had to sign the manual within twenty-four hours and that if she did not, she would not be permitted to return to work. Although there was no change in her job description, she was also told that her hours were being reduced so that she would work on a part-time basis. Whereas previously she had been a salaried employee earning $60,000 per year, she was to be a part-time employee working 25 hours a week for $18 per hour. She was also informed, however, that her health insurance coverage would remain in place despite the change to part-time status. She left the meeting, did not sign the manual and did not return to work. She never compared the prior employee manual with the one that had been given to her at this meeting to determine the nature of the changes in the manual, if any.
When Stankavish first began her employment for the Blue Army, she worked on the grounds of the shrine in Washington. At some point, the business office was relocated to an annex in Stewartville, and she moved there. Part of her responsibility was to account for the donations received from visitors to the shrine. She said in her deposition that once she moved to the annex she encountered increasing difficulty in getting the donations that had been left in the care of the Handmaids. She said sometimes she would receive checks that had been dated months earlier. She agreed in her deposition that she was not accusing the Handmaidens of pocketing any of the money donated to the Blue Army.
In or around October 2002, the task of counting the donations was switched back to the main grounds of the shrine, and Stankavish was no longer involved in it. It was handled by other employees of the Blue Army and the Handmaids. Stankavish said other changes occurred at around the same time. The combination on the safe was changed, and she was removed as a signatory on Blue Army checks. She said she was also instructed to no longer send the Blue Army's financial statements to the archdiocesan office. She said Father Cizik's demeanor towards her changed and that he became, in her words, "nasty." She also said that Father Cizik told her to take all of her vacation shortly after the turn of the year and that he told her to instruct him in all her job functions before she left on vacation. Her response to the latter was to refuse. She described this exchange in the following manner in her deposition:
Yeah. Before I left for vacation he told me -- he came in my office and he told me that I was to teach him everything. I said, I wasn't hired -- I said I am not a teacher. He said yes, you were a teacher. I said I wasn't hired here to be a teacher; I was hired to be a bookkeeper. I am not teaching you anything.
He got up, and again I thought he was going to smack me. This came first. He walked out and he said to me, you had better sit there and reflect on what you are saying. I started ...