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Nancy Millar v. Pitman Board of Education

June 13, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kugler, United States District Judge:



Defendant Pitman Board of Education (the "Board") employed Plaintiff Nancy Millar as a part-time, first-grade mathematics and reading teacher pursuant to a one-year contract. In June 2008, the Board did not renew Plaintiff's employment. Plaintiff asserts claims against the Board for detrimental reliance, gender discrimination, and age discrimination based on the Board's non-renewal of her employment contract. Currently before the Court is the Board's motion under Rule 12(c) to dismiss Plaintiff's claim for detrimental reliance. Because Plaintiff's detrimental reliance claim is based exclusively on representations made by non-members of the Board, and because Plaintiff fails to plead a viable theory of vicariously liability regarding those representations, the Court grants the Board's motion to dismiss Plaintiff's detrimental reliance claim.


Plaintiff alleges that prior to September 2007 she was studying at Gloucester County College to be a registered nurse. While she was studying to be a nurse, Craig Harper, a teacher with the Board, contacted her about the possibility of working for the Board as an elementary teacher. At that time, Plaintiff was approximately fifty-one years old, and she had prior experience and training as an elementary school teacher. Plaintiff initially dismissed Mr. Harper's suggestion because she had completed one year of study towards her nursing degree and she believed that she would forfeit those credits if she accepted a teaching position.

Plaintiff claims that Mr. Harper and his wife, Frances Harper, who is a principal with the Board, insisted that she consider working for the Board. According to Plaintiff, Mr. and Mrs. Harper told her that although she would begin as a part-time, first-grade teacher, she would receive a full-time position as a second or fifth-grade teacher within a year. Plaintiff also claims that Mr. and Mrs. Harper told her that she could not obtain a full-time teaching position with the Board unless she first took a part-time position.

Plaintiff alleges that, in reliance on Mr. and Mrs. Harper's representations, she withdrew from the nursing program at Gloucester County College in March 2008 and entered into a one-year Employment Contract with the Board. Pursuant to the Employment Contract, the Board employed Plaintiff as a teacher from September 1, 2007 to June 30, 2008, with an annual salary of $21,280. When the Employment Contract expired in June 2008, the Board decided not to renew Plaintiff's employment.

Plaintiff filed the Complaint in the Superior Court of the State of New Jersey asserting claims against the Board for detrimental reliance (Count I), age discrimination (Count II), and gender discrimination (Count III). In support of Plaintiff's detrimental reliance claim, she alleges that Mr. and Mrs. Harper acted as "agents, representatives, and employees" of the Board. (Compl. ¶ 20). She claims that Mr. and Mrs. Harper "knew or should have known" that their representations to Plaintiff were false and that their actions were "intentional, wanton and willful, and in reckless disregard for the consequences to" Plaintiff. (Id.). Plaintiff alleges that she detrimentally relied on Mr. and Mrs. Harper's representations when she withdrew from Gloucester County College. Plaintiff does not claim that any member of the Board made any representations to her regarding future employment.*fn1 Her claim is based entirely on representations made by Mr. and Mrs. Harper. Plaintiff has not sued Mr. and Mrs. Harper in this action.

The Board now moves under Rule 12(c) for a judgment on the pleadings dismissing Plaintiff's "detrimental reliance" claim. The Board argues: (1) that Plaintiff cannot demonstrate reasonable reliance on Mr. and Mrs. Harper's representations because N.J .Stat. Ann. § 18A:27-3 limits teacher contracts to one-year terms; and (2) the Board is immune from Plaintiff's claim under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act ("TCA"). Plaintiff responds that she reasonably relied on Mr. and Mrs. Harper's representations notwithstanding N.J. Stat. Ann. § 18A:27-3, and the Board is not immune because Mr. and Mrs. Harper's representations were not made for the benefit of the public.


"A Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings is treated like a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6)." Bor. of Sayreville v. Union Carbide Corp., 923 F. Supp. 671, 676 (D.N.J. 1996) (citing Turbe v. V.I., 938 F.2d 427, 428 (3d Cir. 1991)). Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a court may dismiss an action for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. With a motion to dismiss, "'courts accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.'" Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008)). In other words, a complaint survives a motion to dismiss if it contains sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). In addition to the allegations of the complaint, a court may consider matters of public record, documents specifically referenced in or attached to the complaint, and documents integral to the allegations raised in the complaint. Mele v. Fed. Reserve Bank of N.Y., 359 F.3d 251, 255 n.5 (3d Cir. 2004).

In determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief, a court must conduct a two-part analysis. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949-50 (2009); Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210-11. First, the court must separate factual allegations from legal conclusions. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949. "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id. Second, the court must determine whether the factual allegations are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a "plausible claim for relief." Id. at 1950. Determining plausibility is a "context-specific task" that requires the court to "draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. A complaint cannot survive where a court can only infer that a claim is merely possible rather than plausible. See id.


Under New Jersey law, a plaintiff may prevail on a detrimental reliance claim (also referred to as promissory estoppel) if she proves: "(1) a clear and definite promise; (2) made with the expectation that the promisee will rely on it; (3) reasonable reliance; and (4) definite and substantial detriment."*fn2 Toll Bros., Inc. v. Bd. of Chosen Freeholders of Burlington, 944 A.2d 1, 19 (N.J. 2008). Detrimental reliance is a quasi-contract doctrine intended to apply when a party makes an otherwise unenforceable promise, but justice nevertheless requires that the court enforce the promise. Toll Bros., Inc., 944 A.2d at ...

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