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Linda Cisco Hunter v. Rowan University and Dean Dianne Dorland

December 16, 2010

LINDA CISCO HUNTER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
ROWAN UNIVERSITY AND DEAN DIANNE DORLAND, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Gloucester County, Docket No. L-701-07.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted November 29, 2010

Before Judges Lisa, Reisner and Alvarez.

Plaintiff, Linda Cisco Hunter, appeals from the trial court orders of June 2, 2009 and November 9, 2009, which, in combination, granted summary judgment to defendants dismissing all counts of plaintiff's complaint. Plaintiff had asserted causes of action against her former employer, Rowan University, and Dean Dianne Dorland, her supervisor. Some of the claims were voluntarily dismissed and are not involved in this appeal. With respect to the claims germane to this appeal, the Law Division order of June 2, 2009 granted defendants summary judgment on plaintiff's claim of national origin discrimination for failure to establish a prima facie case; granted summary judgment for defendants on plaintiff's civil rights claim for failure to file the claim within the statute of limitations; and denied summary judgment to defendants on plaintiff's retaliation claim under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49. Defendants moved for reconsideration with respect to the retaliation claim. A different judge heard the motion and granted it, dismissing that claim by order of November 9, 2009.

On appeal, plaintiff contends (1) defendants' motion for reconsideration did not comply with the court rules, (2) the court disregarded the law of the case doctrine when it granted reconsideration and dismissed plaintiff's retaliation claim, (3) the statute of limitations did not bar plaintiff's civil rights claim, (4) the court abused its discretion in granting summary judgment prior to the close of discovery, and (5) the court erred by granting summary judgment on plaintiff's retaliation claim because plaintiff set forth a prima facie case, and provided sufficient evidence of a causal connection to survive summary judgment. We reject these arguments and affirm.

I

Plaintiff is a Caucasian, non-Hispanic woman, who was born in 1947. She began working at Rowan in 1994. In 1995, she became "Administrative Assistant I" to the Dean of the College of Engineering, James Tracey. When Tracey retired, he was replaced by Dorland in 2000. At that time, plaintiff was midway through a three-year employment contract scheduled to end on June 30, 2002.

Dorland restructured her department. Included was the creation of an engineering outreach office, to which she assigned plaintiff in August 2000 as the engineering outreach assistant. Plaintiff maintained the same job title and salary. However, she was relocated away from her former office and her duties and function changed. She was no longer listed in the directory, she did not have a job description, she no longer had business cards, and she was segregated from workers she previously supervised.

Soon after plaintiff was assigned to the outreach office, the director of that office, Melanie Basantis, went out on maternity leave. While Basantis was on leave, Dr. Steven Chin, Associate Dean of Engineering, was assigned greater responsibility in the outreach department. Chin had direct supervisory responsibility over plaintiff, while Dorland maintained overall supervision of plaintiff, specifically with regard to evaluations.

On January 31, 2001, Chin and Dorland met with plaintiff to discuss concerns she had expressed regarding her new assignment. At the meeting plaintiff said she was uncomfortable with how her transition was handled and disappointed with not being recognized for completed projects. After the meeting, plaintiff sent a memorandum to Dorland confirming these feelings.

Dorland responded on February 5, 2001, stating that the meeting had been convened at Dorland's request for Chin to provide an assessment of the outreach office and its staff due to Basantis' return from maternity leave. According to Dorland, plaintiff aggressively pursued her own agenda at the meeting, resisted Chin's efforts to bring focus back to the meeting, and prevented Chin from accomplishing his planned agenda.

The following day, February 6, 2001, Chin rendered his first evaluation of plaintiff. He found plaintiff's work unsatisfactory and noted a few specific examples of inadequate effort. Subsequently, Nicholas DiObilda, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Grievance Chairman, wrote to Robert Zazzali, the Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs, expressing plaintiff's concerns about her job status and unfavorable review. He requested a meeting, which was held on March 5, 2001 and attended by plaintiff, Zazzali, DiObilda, Dorland, and Chin. After the meeting, plaintiff was provided a more specific description of her duties as the engineering outreach assistant.

Chin rendered a second evaluation of plaintiff on April 22, 2001. He noted that improvement was necessary regarding plaintiff's computer proficiency and follow-through on her coordination of tasks. He saw improvement in the latter category, and expressed his expectation that it would continue. On April 25, 2001, Basantis provided a positive review of plaintiff, stating that she was "capable" and "extremely reliable and dependable."

Dorland issued her own evaluation of plaintiff to Donald Farish, President of Rowan University, on April 30, 2001. This evaluation was done as part of the re-contracting process. Dorland noted she had indicated concerns with plaintiff's performance over the past year and recommended against re-contracting. However, Dorland expressed the desire to defer her final evaluation until December 2001 to ensure that the evaluation process was thorough and complete.

On September 24, 2001, Chin provided an update on his evaluation of plaintiff's job performance. He stated that plaintiff's work showed a "pattern of deficiencies" that included "lack of timeliness on project completion, lack of follow-through and coordination on taking tasks to completion, and a lack of proficiency in the Microsoft Office Suite." Chin provided examples of deficient work which he viewed as "serious problems." Chin expressed the view that the evidence suggested plaintiff's performance would not improve and that it was unsatisfactory.

On October 17, 2001, Mel Moyer, the Grievance Chair for AFT, filed a written grievance with Farish alleging violations of Rowan's agreement with the union and requesting a formal hearing. Moyer alleged inequitable treatment, interference and intimidation, creating a hostile work environment. He also alleged that Dorland's April 30, 2001 decision against re-contracting was made without good cause and constituted inequitable application of reappointment procedures.

On November 27, 2001, Chin issued yet another update to Dorland. He expressed his continuing concerns with plaintiff's deficiencies. He found no improvement in her work. On December 6, 2001, Dorland recommended against re-contracting plaintiff in a letter addressed to the Provost, Helen Giles-Gee. Farish accepted the recommendation of Dorland and Giles-Gee, and decided not to present plaintiff to the Board of Trustees for contract reconsideration. Farish informed plaintiff of the decision on March 11, 2002.

As a result of plaintiff's October 17, 2001 grievance, a settlement agreement was reached on April 25, 2002. In return for the union's withdrawal of the grievance, plaintiff was issued a one-year terminal appointment as an administrative assistant from July 1, 2002 to June 30, 2003. Plaintiff was assigned to a position outside the College of Engineering which was consistent with her generic job description. Plaintiff worked that year as the administrative assistant to Dean Gephardt of the College of Fine Arts. At ...


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