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Gerald v. Hopewell Valley Regional School Dist.

June 30, 2010


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Docket No. L-1430-06.

Per curiam.


Argued April 26, 2010

Before Judges Lisa and Alvarez.

Plaintiff Lori Gerald appeals the June 12, 2009 grant of summary judgment dismissing her complaint against defendants Hopewell Valley Regional School District (the District), Domenic Lorenzetti, the District Superintendent,*fn1 Richard Lang, the District Director of Human Services, and Christine Laquidara, the Hopewell Elementary School Principal. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

Plaintiff's five-count complaint alleged violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49, because of the District's failure to hire plaintiff to fill a vacancy as a combination Vice Principal/Math Supervisor at the Hopewell Elementary School. The case was removed to federal court in August 2006. Ultimately, the case was remanded back to the state court and defendants filed a motion for summary judgment regarding the remaining LAD causes of action on February 26, 2009. Judge Innes issued a cogent and thorough oral opinion granting defendants' summary judgment motion on June 12, 2009. This appeal followed.

Plaintiff, a full-time elementary school teacher in the District since 1997, enrolled in the College of New Jersey's Master in Educational Leadership Program in 2001. She obtained her degree in 2003 and immediately commenced applying for administrative positions outside of the Hopewell District. Along with some of her applications, she submitted letters of recommendation from Lorenzetti and Laquidara.

When a Vice Principal/Math Supervisor position became available at Hopewell Elementary School in the beginning of 2004, Lang, Lorenzetti and Laquidara screened approximately 100 candidates. A search committee was formed consisting of nine members, including four teachers, two parents, and a school administrator from another elementary school. The committee met for the first time on June 3, 2004 and developed the relevant criteria for determining who would be best suited for the position. Lang also gave them the applications that had, as he put it, "survived the paper screen." The committee agreed upon questions and a ranking system for the candidate interviews. Each candidate would be asked only the specific questions on the list so that they would be judged, to the extent possible, by the same criteria. By using numerical rankings, it was hoped that more objective conclusions would be reached by committee members.

On February 11, 2004, plaintiff formally applied for the Vice Principal/Math Supervisor position and submitted a letter, her teaching and principal/supervisor certificates, as well as transcripts from her Master's Degree program. The committee was required to interview her because she was an internal candidate who "met the basic qualifications" for the job. Eight candidates, including plaintiff, were interviewed on June 10, 2004. The committee recommended two candidates from that group, neither of which was plaintiff.

Two months later plaintiff's husband sent an email to the president of the Hopewell Valley Regional Board of Education, asserting that the hiring process had been "discriminatory, prejudicial, and fatally flawed." As a result, a formal investigation was ordered by the Board, conducted by an independent consulting firm hired for that purpose. The written report, completed on December 15, 2004, concluded that there was "no evidence of discrimination in the selection process." The opinion was reached after interviews with six District employees who served on the search committee, three additional investigatory interviews, and the review of documents. Plaintiff was also interviewed.

The candidate ultimately chosen for the position of Vice Principal/Math Supervisor was a Caucasian male. The December 15, 2004 report noted, however, that another internal candidate, a Caucasian female, was not given serious consideration either based on her interview.

The report revealed that plaintiff had misconstrued some of the comments made to her after the interview, which led her to mistakenly believe that she was a leading candidate when in fact she was not favorably received by the committee. The report further stated that plaintiff acknowledged giving the responses to some questions during the interview which were pivotal to the committee's decision not to recommend her for the position. When asked if she thought it would be difficult to supervise staff who were currently her peers, plaintiff indicated that she did not believe moving from a teacher's position to an administrative position would be problematic for her. Additionally, plaintiff cried twice during the interview - once when she described her feelings upon walking into the Hopewell School as a teacher on the very first day, and once when she described an incident in which a student's parent insisted that some slave owners were good, just as some dog owners can be good. When plaintiff cried on these occasions, the tears flowed freely down her face.

As described in the report, the committee's decision not to recommend plaintiff resulted from concern that she was not realistic about the difficulties inherent in supervising former peers. The committee was also troubled by plaintiff's tears because of the high level of interaction with the public the position required.

The report included statements taken from Lang, who was present during the interviews even though not a voting member of the committee. He had assured plaintiff that her interview was "awesome" in order to be polite, not because he actually believed it. Similarly, when plaintiff asked him why she was not hired, he assured her that it was her lack of administrative experience. This was actually not a significant factor in the committee's decision-making, but he ...

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