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Terri Collins v. Beauty Plus Trading Company

March 23, 2012


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Docket No. L-1196-08.

Per curiam.


Submitted January 25, 2012

Before Judges Cuff and Lihotz.

Plaintiff Terri Collins appeals from the December 4, 2009 summary judgment dismissal of her complaint, alleging discrimination in violation of the Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49, and other claims against her former employer, defendant Beauty Plus Trading Company. We affirm.

The facts are derived from evidence submitted by the parties in support of, and in opposition to, defendant's summary judgment motion, viewed in a light most favorable to plaintiff. Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 523 (1995). In January 2007, plaintiff, a former radio station advertising sales representative, interviewed with Jay Choi, defendant's marketing manager, and Chung Moo Lee, defendant's president, to discuss possible employment. Because Lee was not fluent in English, the meeting was conducted in a mix of English and Korean, with Choi translating and interpreting between plaintiff and Lee as needed.

Defendant, which sold wigs, hair weaves, and related hair products to retailers, discussed an ethnic marketing position with plaintiff, an African American. In subsequent telephone conversations between plaintiff and Choi, the "particulars" of plaintiff's potential employment were further discussed and agreed upon.

At a second meeting between plaintiff, Choi, and Lee, plaintiff presented a written document outlining her salary and benefit requests. Following these negotiations, defendant offered plaintiff a position and the parties later signed an employment agreement on January 29, 2007.

The document outlined plaintiff's "annual gross salary [in] the amount of $60,000.00[,]" for a four-day workweek, Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Further, defendant agreed to "provide health insurance for [plaintiff], however, [defendant] and [plaintiff had to] pay half each . . . for the rest of [plaintiff's] family members." Following a six-month probationary period, if plaintiff was retained, defendant agreed to provide her with dental insurance. Finally, defendant agreed to provide plaintiff with a laptop computer and a cellular phone, and to reimburse gasoline and tolls at the daily rate of $34. Nothing in the document addressed plaintiff's title, position, or responsibilities.

A second document entitled "Company Employment Agreement" set forth the provisions of a non-compete agreement precluding plaintiff's employment with "other hair companies" for two years following separation from defendant's employment.

Plaintiff maintained these documents did not reflect the agreed terms of employment she reached with Choi. She did not dispute the document governed the agreed upon salary, length of workweek, laptop and cell phone provisions, and the non-compete restrictions, but argued she never agreed to pay half of the insurance costs for her children's health insurance, did not negotiate for dental insurance, or agree to be subject to a probationary period. Plaintiff also testified defendant agreed to provide her with her own office, title her Vice President of Ethnic Marketing, and afford her a business expense account. When plaintiff complained these items were not in the written agreement, Choi stated, "don't worry about it[.]"

Plaintiff's direct supervisor was Lee. She and other managers reported daily to Lee's office for meetings, during which she, and others who did not speak Korean, required interpreter services as "ninety percent" of the meetings were conducted in Korean. At other times, plaintiff worked with Lee directly and their conversations where mostly in English. Plaintiff asserts she voiced complaints about the use of Korean during meetings, as she felt left out.

Plaintiff explained she had a "professional . . . normal cool working relationship" with Choi. She stated her "issue[s]" with Choi included that she "didn't have an office," or "a business account," while other male managers had expense accounts, and "as a manager[,] she had to request supplies." Plaintiff believed Choi "did not respect the fact that [she] was a woman in management." This belief was not based on disparaging comments or actions, rather, plaintiff stated "it was evident." Plaintiff articulated a belief she experienced "subtle" discrimination, which stemmed from the rejection of African American models she presented for advertisements in favor of others with smaller noses, hips, and lips. Plaintiff acknowledged the models chosen by Choi and Lee were a result of defendant's pre-existing "marketing strategy as it related to what they thought beauty was, and that was light-skinned black women with skinny noses and little lips and skinny faces." However, to plaintiff these model selections were "very disrespectful, very discriminatory and very offensive, because black is beautiful in all shades."

Because of the "informality" of the company, plaintiff voiced her concerns through "a whole lot of verbal complaining." Further, she kept a log of them on her laptop computer, which was surrendered when she left her employment. She did not elaborate on the specifics of these complaints.

By early May 2007, Choi was fired and replaced by another employee, Sammy Lee. Conflicts soon developed between plaintiff and Sammy. In an "interoffice memorandum" dated May 14, 2007, plaintiff outlined discontent with Sammy:

Sammy Lee displayed unprofessional communication. He raised his voice disrespectfully and mentioned that "he would resign if I didn't resign" and also stated that "we will see who would be let go[."] His behavior was unprofessional. I was hired as Vice President of Ethnic Marketing by Mr. Chang Moo Lee to evaluate current marketing strategies and to make/implement recommendations concerning the same. His behavior makes me uneasy. Vice President of Ethnic Marketing is a management position that should be respected. In addition, I reiterated to him that I was Vice President of Ethnic Marketing and he stated that my position is of no consequence because Jay Choi no longer is employed by [defendant] -his exact words was "that was before[."] I will not tolerate his verbal abuse, nor will he treat me in a demeaning or ...

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