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Stephenson v. McWilliams

February 26, 2010


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County, Docket No. L-583-04.

Per curiam.


Submitted November 5, 2009

Before Judges Cuff and Waugh.

Plaintiff Joan Stephenson appeals the grant of summary judgment dismissing her claims against defendants Sussex County Community College (College), certain individually named officers and employees of the College,*fn1 defendant Sussex County Board of Chosen Freeholders, defendant Sussex County Community College Adjunct Faculty Federation (Federation), and defendant Hank Pomerantz, who was the Federation's Vice-President. We affirm in part and reverse in part.


We discern the following facts from the record. Stephenson, who was born in January 1940, was hired by the College as an adjunct professor of art in October 2000. She had attended the Art Students League of New York, but had no undergraduate or graduate degree when she was hired. She was apparently hired by defendant Julie McWilliams, the coordinator of the Fine Arts Degree Program at the College, on the basis of her prior experience in studying and teaching art. She taught at the College as an adjunct professor from October 2000 through the end of December 2002. Stephenson had a separate contract for each semester. Each contract provided that "[t]here is no guarantee of reappointment."

According to Stephenson, she and McWilliams had a disagreement about student grades during the 2002 summer semester. Although her deposition testimony on the issue is sometimes unclear, Stephenson maintains that McWilliams pressured her at the start of the semester to award inflated grades to several students. Stephenson explained that McWilliams had been advised by guidance personnel that the students were not competent to take the courses. At the end of the semester, Stephenson concluded that two students had plagiarized from a third, but she maintained that McWilliams refused to discuss those concerns. She felt continued pressure from McWilliams to give the students grades they did not deserve. These allegations have been denied by McWilliams.

At the end of August 2002, McWilliams circulated a memorandum to all faculty and adjunct faculty concerning the proposed art course offerings for the 2003 spring semester. A draft of the proposed course offerings in art accompanied the memorandum.

According to McWilliams, at some point prior to September 23, 2002, Stephenson approached her and proposed a special topics art class on sculpting, which she offered to teach during the 2003 spring semester. On September 23, 2002, McWilliams submitted the special topics proposal to the College administration, listing Stephenson as the proposed instructor. The course proposal was approved. Stephenson maintains that someone else had proposed that she teach the special topics class.

At about the same time, McWilliams completed the proposed course teaching schedule for the 2003 spring semester. McWilliams proposed that Stephenson teach several classes that semester, including the special topics sculpture class. According to the College defendants, Stephenson did not accept the courses offered to her. Stephenson contends, however, that she agreed to teach some of the courses, but that the offer to teach that spring was withdrawn after she had accepted.

Stephenson further alleges that, during the conversation in which the teaching offer was withdrawn, McWilliams accused her of having Alzheimer's disease and a faulty memory. Stephenson claims that the courses that would have been assigned to her were taught by one or more adjunct professors who were not in her "protected class," by which she apparently means they were not yet of "retirement age."

At some point during the 2002 fall semester, McWilliams told Stephenson that one or more of her students had complained about her. Stephenson asked for a meeting with McWilliams and defendant Eleanor Carducci, Dean of Humanities and Liberal Arts, to discuss the student complaints. At the meeting, according to Stephenson, she expressed concern about whether the complaints would interfere with her re-appointment and was told by Carducci that "everything is fine."

Stephenson's final contract with the College started on September 3, 2002, and concluded on December 20, 2002. Because each contract provided that "temporary assignments expire immediately at the end of the term," Stephenson's employment ended as of December 20. Nevertheless, Stephenson believed that she continued to be a College employee despite the fact that she did not receive a contract for the 2003 spring semester. Because of the series of events described in the following paragraphs, she was eventually cautioned by campus security against returning to the campus without registering as a visitor.

On May 2, 2003, Pomerantz, on behalf of the Federation, attempted to schedule an informal grievance with College administrators with respect to the non-renewal of Stephenson's contract. On May 7, 2003, he notified Stephenson that the College had taken the position that she had been offered two teaching positions, which she had turned down. He added that he did not "expect that any further offers will come since they reviewed your file and found that you do not have a master's degree which is the usual requirement."

In May 2003, Stephenson sent a letter to defendant Joanna Reed, a professor at the College, which contained a picture of a Nazi officer hanging another individual. The Nazi officer had been altered to have long blond hair, similar to McWilliams. The letter stated that the picture was a representation of how Stephenson viewed her relationship with the College. Reed contacted the Newton Police because she believed the picture was threatening. Although McWilliams was upset by the letter, she did not pursue any charges with respect to the letter or the accompanying picture.

However, it appears that either Reed or McWilliams told the investigating office that Stephenson's contract was not renewed because she had difficulty with some of the students. Stephenson denied that she had poor student reviews; and the record contains a number of positive reviews.

Stephenson filed a small claims action against McWilliams in the Sussex County Special Civil Part, claiming ownership of a piece of office furniture. The case was tried in October 2003. The judge dismissed the complaint after he determined that the item at issue belonged to the College. During her testimony, McWilliams testified that, in November 2002, "students [were] coming to [her] complaining" about a class and that Stephenson became "extremely belligerent" when McWilliams spoke to her about it. McWilliams also testified that "[a]t that time, it also became apparent to [Carducci] that we could not hire her back at the college [b]ecause she doesn't have the proper credentials and degree." McWilliams added: "And, so that's why we haven't offered her any more courses."

In November 2003, Stephenson received a copy of the police report concerning the letter and picture sent to Reed. The report quoted the statement that Stephenson was not continued as an adjunct professor because there were student complaints about her performance. After receiving the document, Stephenson sought to have the Federation file another grievance. When the Federation did not do so, she filed one on her own. The College informed her that grievances had to be filed by the Federation under the terms of the applicable collective bargaining agreement. The Federation takes the position that failure to rehire an adjunct member of the faculty is not a grievable matter.

At some point in the latter part of 2004, Stephenson filed her first complaint involving her alleged wrongful termination and other wrongful actions by the College, its employees, the Federation and Pomerantz. The complaint was amended several times during the next several years. In October 2007, Stephenson filed her seventh, and last, amended complaint, setting forth twenty-one separate counts.

Although Stephenson's complaint is unclear and disjointed, we read it to allege the following causes of action: (1) violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49, based upon age discrimination; (2) violation of the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), N.J.S.A. 34:19-1 to -14, based upon her disagreement with McWilliams about grade inflation and for asserting her rights under the LAD; (3) intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress in connection with allegations that Stephenson's students had complained about her and that the complaints were the reason for her termination; (4) hostile work environment; (5) defamation; (6) the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C.A. § 623(a)(1); (7) conversion, with respect to the disputed furniture; (8) breach of the Federation's duty of fair representation; (9) breach of implied contract with respect to employment; (10) breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing with respect to employment; (11) breach of federal constitutional rights, specifically due process and equal protection; and (12) breach of rights guaranteed by Article 1, paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution. The defendants duly answered and discovery ensued.

Following the completion of discovery, the defendants filed motions for summary judgment. On June 20, 2008, after oral argument, the Law Division granted summary judgment. The judge delivered a cursory oral decision at that time, which contained no findings of fact and conclusions of law as required by R. 1:6-2(f). The oral opinion was supplemented by a brief written decision, primarily on the issues related to the Federation, on June 20, 2008. The order of dismissal was entered that day. This appeal followed.


When reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we employ the same standards used by the motion judge. Nini v. Mercer County Cmty. Coll., 406 N.J. Super. 547, 550-51 (App. Div.), certif. granted, 200 N.J. 206 (2009); Atl. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Hillside Bottling Co., 387 N.J. Super. 224, 230 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 189 N.J. 104 (2006). We first determine whether the moving party has demonstrated that there were no genuine disputes as to material facts; we then decide whether the motion judge's application of the law was correct. Id. at ...

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