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Anthony Onuoha v. Roche Molecular Systems

July 3, 2012


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Docket No. L-7419-09.

Per curiam.


Submitted June 5, 2012 --

Before Judges Yannotti, Espinosa and Kennedy.

Defendant Roche Molecular Systems, Inc. (Roche) appeals from a judgment awarding plaintiff Anthony Onuoha damages on his claim for retaliatory discharge, in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49, as well as attorneys' fees and costs. We affirm.


The following are the relevant facts. Plaintiff is an African-American who emigrated to the United States in or about 1991, and became a citizen of this country in 2005. In 1996, plaintiff received a doctoral degree in chemistry from the University of Connecticut. He was thereafter employed by several companies in this field. In February 2004, plaintiff was hired by a staffing agency as a temporary employee for Roche.

Roche is the manufacturer of diagnostic test kits used to screen blood for infectious diseases. Roche employed scientists at its Branchburg, New Jersey location to confirm that its products were in proper working order through a process called "validation." Validation requires determining that Roche's kits met certain specifications established in the manufacturing process. Roche's scientists were required to author reports about their findings. As a temporary employee, plaintiff worked as a scientist validating products in a department that Kristy Figlar (Figlar) supervised.

In June 2004, Roche announced an opening for a position as senior scientist, with a $75,000 starting salary. At Roche, the lowest pay grade is the pay for senior scientist, with higher pay for principal scientist, a group leader or senior manager, and a director, in that order. Plaintiff applied for the position of senior scientist. Roche offered plaintiff the position but as a principal rather than senior scientist because plaintiff had a doctoral degree. Roche nevertheless offered plaintiff the salary of a senior scientist. Plaintiff accepted the offer.

In December 2004, Roche reorganized the company's validation operations into three groups: equipment facility validation, test-method validation and process validation. Francis Regina (Regina) was promoted to head all groups, and Figlar was placed in charge of the process validation group.

Plaintiff was assigned to Figlar's group, which was divided into two sub-groups, one managed by Lon Goei (Goei) and the other managed by Jenny White (White). Plaintiff worked in the Goei sub-group, with principal scientists Vera Krasovsky (Krasovsky) and Gilbert Quinton (Quinton), and senior scientist Tim Dunkel (Dunkel).

In February 2005, plaintiff received his annual performance review for 2004. Figlar rated plaintiff "3" on a scale of one to five, which signified that he had "fully achieved" his employment objectives. Based on the "3" rating, plaintiff received a 4.75 percent raise in salary. Figlar testified that plaintiff's raise was above average, because a "3" rating would usually result in a 3.5 percent raise.

Sometime in 2005, plaintiff learned that other employees in the product validation group had higher salaries even though they were hired after him. Plaintiff also learned that Roche usually paid new hires at his level a salary of $88,500. Plaintiff complained to Figlar about his salary. She conferred with Regina and denied plaintiff's request for a raise.

In February 2006, plaintiff received his annual performance review for 2005. Figlar rated plaintiff a "2", which signified that plaintiff had only "partially achieved" his employment objectives. Plaintiff reacted negatively to his rating and asked Figlar to change the review to make it "more positive." She declined to do so. Plaintiff initially refused to sign the review, but later signed it with a written comment that it did not reflect his "true performance."

On February 20, 2006, plaintiff submitted a complaint to Joanne Spadaro (Spadaro), Roche's vice-president, about his performance review for 2005 and his low salary. A week later, plaintiff submitted another complaint to Spadaro about his salary and his perception that Regina and Figlar had prevented him from attending training seminars to advance his career. He also complained that Regina was not friendly to him. Plaintiff attributed Figlar's performance review and the lack of training and advancement opportunities to prejudice and unfair treatment by Regina and Figlar.

Spadaro met with plaintiff, Figlar and Regina to discuss plaiantiff's complaints. According to Regina, plaintiff stated that he felt he was being discriminated against, but did not mention that it was racially based. Figlar showed Spadaro various data to support her review of plaintiff's performance. She also said that some of plaintiff's reports were untimely and of poor quality.

The meeting was not productive and Spadaro referred the matter to Roche's human resources department, which investigated the complaints and concluded that plaintiff's performance review was fair. The human resources department also concluded that plaintiff's pay was within the salary range, and plaintiff would not receive additional compensation because he had a Ph.D. degree. Plaintiff was told that if he wanted a higher salary, he would have to get a better performance rating. The human resources department additionally noted that Regina and Figlar had encouraged plaintiff to attend training seminars, provided they did not conflict with "business matters."

Plaintiff was re-assigned to a new supervisor, Dorta Hoag (Hoag), who reported to Filgar. Hoag reviewed plaintiff's performance for 2006. She rated plaintiff a "2." In August 2007, plaintiff was again assigned to Goei's sub-group. In 2007, plaintiff had difficulty obtaining approval of his request for vacation leave. Goei refused to allow plaintiff to take a two-week vacation, after being out for up to six weeks on medical leave, because there was too much work.

In May 2009, Spadaro told Regina she would have to lay off nine permanent employees in the validation service groups. Roche employed about forty-five persons in these groups. Regina evaluated the three groups and determined that additional workers were needed in the equipment validation group. Spadaro re-assigned employees to that group, including Goei. To work in the equipment validation group, an employee had to have an engineering background. Plaintiff did not have such a background.

Regina then decided that the only test-method validation group would be in New Jersey and, consequently, he terminated six employees working in that group in California. Regina also terminated his administrative assistant and a senior manager in the equipment validation group because of poor performance. Thus, Regina had terminated eight employees and needed to terminate one more.

Employees in the test-method validation group in New Jersey were not considered for termination because of the increased workload resulting from the termination of employees in that group in California. Therefore, the last employee to be terminated would have to come from the process validation group, which worked in New Jersey.

Regina refused to consider terminating employees in White's sub-group, because four persons in that group had recently resigned, and only one of those persons had been replaced. Regina focused on Goei's sub-group. He would have to terminate either Dunkel, Quinton, Krasovsky or plaintiff. Regina reviewed their ...

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