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Michelle Papalini v. Sensient Colors

April 18, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Joseph H. Rodriguez


This matter is before the Court on Defendants' motion to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). For the reasons set forth below, the motion will be granted.


Plaintiff Michelle Papalini filed the Complaint in this matter against her former employer, alleging that she was subjected to a hostile work environment and retaliation, tolerant to sexual harassment in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("NJLAD"), and that she was retaliated against in violation of the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act ("CEPA") due to alleged whistleblowing regarding what Plaintiff viewed as Defendants' defrauding of customers.

Plaintiff resides in Pennsylvania. (Compl., ¶ 1.) On March 22, 2010, she entered into an Employment Agreement with Sensient Colors, Inc. ("Sensient"), a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Missouri. (Compl., Ex. A.)*fn1 Sensient manufactures and sells natural and synthetic colors for food, pharmaceutical, cosmetic, paper, and industrial products and inkjet inks. (Compl., ¶ 14.)

The Employment Agreement contains a Pennsylvania choice of law provision, which states, "This Agreement shall be construed in accordance with and governed by the laws of the State of Pennsylvania." (Compl., Ex. A, § 9.) The Employment Agreement also contains a covenant not to compete which provides that for one year after her termination, Plaintiff would not directly or indirectly engage in employment on behalf of any competitor of Sensient located within 1,000 miles of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Compl., Ex. A, § 4.) Further, the Employment Agreement provides for remedies, in the event of a breach, in accordance with the Pennsylvania Uniform Trade Secrets Act. (Compl., Ex. A, § 7.)

Plaintiff began her employment with Sensient as an Account Manager, responsible for selling Sensient's products, acquiring new clients, and building relationships with existing clients. (Compl., ¶ 18.) Plaintiff alleges that she developed relationships with clients based in New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Georgia, and New York. (Compl., ¶ 22.) She estimates that she spent over 30% of her working hours in New Jersey, (Compl., ¶ 25), because "[a]s a result of New Jersey's proximity to [Plaintiff's] home in Philadelphia and New Jersey's status as a hub of the pharmaceutical industry, New Jersey became the natural focus of [Plaintiff's] efforts to sell Defendant's products." (Compl., ¶ 24.)

Plaintiff alleges that in 2010, she experienced sexual harassment by her supervisor, Chuck Koczwara. (Compl., ¶ 32.) Plaintiff reported Koczwara's conduct to General Manager Steve Strickland and Director of Human Resources Mike Albers, who worked in Missouri. (Compl., ¶ 34.) As a result, Koczwara was demoted, and no longer supervised Plaintiff. (Compl., ¶ 36, 37.) Plaintiff contends, however, that she continued to experience a hostile work environment as a result of Koczwara's improper conduct, which Defendants failed to obviate. (Compl., ¶ 38-42.)

Plaintiff also alleges that in June of 2011, she became aware of claims by at least one customer that Defendants were engaging in false advertising by falsely identifying the manufacturing site of various biological products in Canada to make those products more marketable in light of federal regulations. (Compl., ¶ 27-28.) Because Plaintiff believed Defendants were defrauding customers regarding the Canadian manufacturing site of certain products, she contends she reported her findings in writing to her supervisors and raised her concerns at a July meeting attended by Strickland and members of Sensient's research and development department. (Compl., ¶ 29-31.)

In December of 2010, Strickland advised Plaintiff that she was being given a new territory, the Midwest region. (Compl., Ex. D, August 22, 2011 Internal Memo.) Plaintiff characterizes her reassignment as "abrupt," and contends that it was done in retaliation for complaining about the above two situations. (Compl., ¶ 43.)

On August 11, 2011, Strickland sent an Internal Memo to Plaintiff, copying Albers, with the subject line "Performance Counseling." (Compl., Ex. B, August 11, 2011 Internal Memo.) The memo raised several concerns about Plaintiff's performance and work ethic. (Compl., ¶ 47.) In response, Plaintiff's attorney sent a letter to Strickland disputing his criticisms of Plaintiff and charging that those criticisms were pretextual, and the true motives for the criticisms and Plaintiff's transfer were her two complaints outlined above. (Compl., ¶ 53-54.)

On August 22, 2011, Strickland sent another internal memo to Plaintiff, addressing the concerns raised by Plaintiff's lawyer and denying that Plaintiff ever expressed concerns regarding "defrauding" customers or complained about Koczwara after his demotion. (Compl., ¶ 55-57.) He further stated that at the time she was notified of the transfer, Plaintiff "embraced" her new territory, said it was "better suited" for her skills, and offered to relocate to Chicago. (Compl., ¶ 58.) Plaintiff's counsel denied Strickland's assertions by letter dated August 31, 2011. (Compl., ¶ 58.)

Plaintiff's employment was terminated on October 5, 2011. (Compl., ΒΆ 60-61.) She filed this ...

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