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Janessa Smith v. Ta Operating LLC

August 19, 2011

JANESSA SMITH,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
TA OPERATING LLC, DEFENDANT.



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

*NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Presently before the Court is a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant TA Operating, LLC ("Defendant" or "TA Operating"). Plaintiff Janessa Smith ("Plaintiff" or "Smith") brought this action seven and a half months after being terminated by her employer TA Operating, alleging violations of the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act ("CEPA"). Defendant contends that Plaintiff's CEPA claim is time barred based upon a contractual statute of limitations contained in Plaintiff's employment application, which required Plaintiff to bring all claims arising out of her employment no later than six months after the cause of action arose. At issue here is whether Plaintiff knowingly and voluntarily waived her rights under CEPA. Because the Court finds that the waiver contained in the employment application is ambiguous, and thus not enforceable in the context of this case, Defendant's motion is DENIED.

I. BACKGROUND FACTS

The facts of this case were already recounted in this Court's prior opinions, and thus, the

Court will refer to them. On October 17, 2008, Plaintiff filled out an employment application (the "Application") for a position with TA Operating. See Application dated Oct. 17, 2008. Included in the Application was a provision which stated:

READ CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING-I agree that any claim or lawsuit relating to my service with TA or any of its subsidiaries must be filed no more than six (6) months after the date of the employment action that is the subject of the claim or lawsuit. I waive any statute of limitation to the contrary. I have read and understand the contents of this employee application and am fully able and competent to complete it.

Id. at p. 2. Plaintiff signed the Application and dated it October 17, 2008. Id.

In November 2008, Smith was hired by Defendant as a truck service advisor. Am. Compl. at ¶ 4. On or about August 20, 2009, Plaintiff allegedly observed two of her co-workers, an off-duty truck service advisor (the "Advisor") and an off-duty mechanic, performing work on the Advisor's vehicle while on Defendant's property, which was purportedly against company policy. Id. at ¶¶ 14-15. Plaintiff reported the alleged incident to a TA Operating manger, Bart Moon, and to her supervisor, Mark Falk. Id. at ¶ 16. Plaintiff alleges that on August 27, 2009, the Advisor was upset with Plaintiff for reporting the alleged incident and retaliated by throwing tools in Plaintiff's direction and calling her a rat. Id. ¶¶ 20-21. Subsequently, Plaintiff reported this incident to the New Jersey State Police, as well as to Falk. Id. ¶¶ 22-23. On August 28, 2009, Plaintiff was terminated from her position with TA Operating. Id. at ¶¶ 26-30.

According to Plaintiff, she filed a charge of discrimination against her employer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") on or around October 20, 2009. The EEOC subsequently denied the claim. See EEOC Letter of Dismissal and Notice of Rights dated Feb. 24, 2010. On April 14, 2010, Plaintiff filed this CEPA action, alleging that TA Operating fired her in retaliation for reporting her co-workers' illegal conduct. On August 17, 2010, the Court dismissed Plaintiff's original complaint without prejudice for failure to state a claim. Plaintiff then filed an Amended Complaint on August 26, 2010. On March 29, 2011, the Court dismissed a portion of her CEPA claim. Defendant then filed the instant motion, claiming that Plaintiff's suit is time barred based on the six-month contractual statute of limitations contained in the Application.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A court may grant summary judgment only when the materials of record "show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). In deciding whether there is a disputed issue of material fact the court must view the evidence in favor of the non-moving party by extending any reasonable favorable inference to that party. See Aman v. Cort Furniture Rental Corp., 85 F.3d 1074, 1080-81 (3d Cir.1996); Kowalski v. L & F Prods., 82 F.3d 1283, 1288 (3d Cir.1996); Meyer v. Riegel Prods. Corp., 720 F.2d 303, 307 n. 2 (3d Cir.1983), cert. denied, 465 U.S. 1091, 1094 (1984). The threshold inquiry is whether there are "any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250, (1986).

Supreme Court decisions mandate that: "[w]hen the nonmoving party bears the burden of persuasion at trial, the moving party may meet its burden on summary judgment by showing that the nonmoving party's evidence is insufficient to carry its burden of persuasion at trial." Brewer v. Quaker State Oil Ref.Corp., 72 F.3d 326, 329-330 (3d Cir.1995) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1987)). However, "the nonmoving party creates a genuine issue of material fact if it provides sufficient evidence to allow a reasonable jury to find for him at trial." Brewer, 72 F.3d at 330 (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248). Once the moving party has carried its burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, "its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to material facts." Matsushita Elec. ...


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