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Dettelbach-Hook v. St. Peter's Haven for Families

July 22, 2010

MARSHA DETTELBACH-HOOK, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
ST. PETER'S HAVEN FOR FAMILIES, THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF ST. PETER'S HAVEN FOR FAMILIES, ST. PETER'S EPISCOPAL CHURCH, THE VESTRY BOARD OF ST. PETER'S EPISCOPAL CHURCH; THE EPISCOPAL DIOCESE OF NEWARK, FATHER PETER DEFRANCO, WARDEN NANCY YOUNG, AND WARDEN PAMELA FUESHKO, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic County, Docket No. L-260-09.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued February 23, 2010

Before Judges Wefing and LeWinn.

Plaintiff is the executive director of a shelter program, St. Peter's Haven for Families (Haven), which is run by St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Clifton. Defendant Peter DeFranco is an Episcopal priest assigned to St. Peter's Church who works in the Haven program.

In 2006, Haven's board of trustees voted to compensate DeFranco by paying his rent; however, DeFranco apparently never received any tax reporting documents reflecting that compensation. Plaintiff became convinced that DeFranco was receiving improper payments that should be reported as income to him, and she questioned several Haven officers about the matter.

In 2008, plaintiff prepared a budget for Haven that reflected the rent paid on behalf of DeFranco as salary. DeFranco thereupon ordered plaintiff to remove his name from the budget. The working relationship between plaintiff and DeFranco deteriorated from that time on.

On or about January 22, 2009, plaintiff filed a complaint against Haven, St. Peter's, the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, Father DeFranco and others, claiming that she suffered certain retaliatory employment actions as the result of her efforts to address what she considered a serious issue involving DeFranco. Specifically, she alleged that on various dates between March 24 and July 24, 2008, DeFranco "rebuked [her] for her job performance"; "gave out [her] personal cell phone number to a Haven client"; "rebuke[d] her repeatedly asking about tasks that were performed by an employee of the church"; "angrily berated [her] about putting a[n] . . . item on the Board [a]genda"; "mentioned that a 'performance evaluation needs to be done' for [her]" during a Board retreat; "ignored [her] . . . [and] complained . . . that [she] was being 'cold' to him and deliberately ignoring him"; made her "feel afraid . . . [and] intimidated by him"; "in the presence of a co-worker, . . . started an argument with [her,] . . . call[ing her] a liar"; threatened that "he would put negative comments in her evaluation"; and on one occasion, "physically blocked her and would not let her out of the Haven office, causing physical contact."

Plaintiff had complained to various church officials who offered to arrange a meeting between plaintiff and DeFranco "to see if they could 'iron out [their] differences and clear the air.'" In September 2008, Haven agreed to terminate the "rent" paid to DeFranco. However, plaintiff alleged that "[n]either . . . Haven, St. Peter's Episcopal Church nor the Diocese of Newark resolved the retaliatory harassment and threats to [her] by Father DeFranco."

Plaintiff's complaint alleged violations of the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), N.J.S.A. 34:19-1 to -14; assault; and defamation. She now appeals two orders entered by the trial court on May 28, 2009; the first granted Haven's motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a cause of action pursuant to Rule 4:6-2(e), and the second granted summary judgment to all other defendants. In her brief, plaintiff addresses only the dismissals of her CEPA and defamation claims; she does not address dismissal of the assault claim in count two of her complaint. We affirm.

It is undisputed that plaintiff was not terminated, demoted, or subject to a reduction in pay or any other benefits of her position. Under these circumstances, we are satisfied that the trial court properly dismissed her CEPA claim, finding:

The [p]laintiff was not discharged, did not suffer a reduction in rank, compensation or title, was not terminated, suspended or demoted, nor were [d]efendant's [sic] actions a change in the terms or conditions of her employment. She suffered no disciplinary action but simply complains of actions that made her job unpleasant, such as being rebuked and berated and having her private cell phone number given to a client.

Discipline and criticizing an employee are well within practices that are allowable to employers and . . . not every employment action that makes an employee unhappy constitutes . . . "an actionable adverse action[]" . . . .

Allegations of retaliatory conduct that make a person's job unpleasant and do not result in a substantial impact in any of the [p]laintiff's working conditions or cause a de facto termination are ...


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