The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Jerome B. Simandle
This matter is before the Court on the motion of Defendants Panther Technologies, Inc., and Peter J. Palko ("Defendants") for summary judgment. [Docket Item 32.] The instant action arises out of the circumstances in which Plaintiff Matthew Edwards ceased his employment with Defendant Panther Technologies as a Field Technician on September 21, 2010. The Plaintiff alleges he was unlawfully terminated because of his back injury and was therefore deemed by Defendants as "no good" as a Field Technician. The Defendants maintain Plaintiff voluntarily left his position after being given a week to obtain a valid driver's license. The Defendants argue that a valid driver's license was a prerequisite to employment as a Field Technician and that the Plaintiff, whose license had been suspended for a DUI offense, knew that he could not obtain one and therefore chose to abandon his position.
The Plaintiff brings the instant action against the Defendants for disability discrimination and retaliation under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-4.1, ("NJLAD"). The Defendants have filed the instant motion for summary judgment. [Docket Item 32.] The main issue before the court is whether the Plaintiff has presented sufficient evidence to establish his claims for disability discrimination and retaliation.
For the reasons discussed below, the court finds that no genuine issues of material fact exist which prevent summary judgment in favor of the Defendants. As to Plaintiff's discrimination claim, there is no doubt that a rational jury would find that the Plaintiff would have been terminated because he lacked a valid driver's license which was a requirement for his position as a Field Technician. In addition, the Plaintiff has failed to present any evidence that he was engaged in a protected activity at the time of his termination, and therefore, Plaintiff cannot sustain his retaliation claim. Therefore, the court will grant Defendants' motion for summary judgment and the Plaintiff's complaint will be dismissed.
A. Statement of the Facts and Procedural History
The parties dispute many of the facts surrounding Plaintiff's employment with Panther. The following facts are set forth in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, as is required in considering a motion for summary judgment.
Plaintiff applied for a position with the Defendants on October 5, 2007 by submitting an application of employment. (Def.'s Ex. D.) The application contained the following language:
Please note that a valid driver's license is required for employment with the Company. Once employed, you will be responsible to maintain a valid driver's license. In the event there are any changes in your driver's license once employed, you must notify the Company immediately. You will also be responsible to provide all certifications required for the position you are applying. (Def.'s Ex. D.)
The application then required Plaintiff to list "all driver licenses, current, existing or suspended." (Def.'s Ex. I at D40.) In response, Plaintiff listed his North Carolina ID, which was not a driver's license, and did not indicate on his application that his North Carolina driver's license was suspended. (Def.'s Ex. I; Edward Dep. at 20:2-22; 29:20-30:4.) In fact, Plaintiff's North Carolina Driver License was suspended in 1994 due to a DUI conviction and was never reinstated. (Edward Dep. at 20:2-22.)
After filling out his application, Plaintiff was then interviewed by John Coffey, former Operations Manager of Defendant Panther Technologies, Inc. ("Panther"). (Def.'s Ex. C, Deposition of Matthew Edwards, January 27, 2012 (hereinafter "Edwards Dep.") at 22:13-25:23.) During his interview, Plaintiff disclosed to Coffey that his license had been suspended in North Carolina because of a DUI. (Edwards Dep. at 66:11-67:2.) Coffey told the Plaintiff that he would "need to get [his] license as soon as possible." (Edwards Dep. at 28:16-17.)
Plaintiff was hired by Defendants as a Field Technician on the same day he applied. (Pl.'s Counter-Statement of Material Facts ¶ 1; Def.'s Ex. C, Edwards Dep. at 24:23-25:23.) Upon accepting the position, Plaintiff received a copy of Panther's Employee Handbook. The Employee Handbook states:
It is the responsibility of each employee to promptly notify Panther of any such changes in personal data, personal mailing address, telephone numbers, number of names of dependents, individuals to be contacted in the event of an emergency, and status reports should be accurate and current at all times. . . .
Panther relies upon the accuracy of information contained in the employment application, as well as the accuracy of other data presented throughout the hiring process and employment. Any misrepresentations, falsifications or material omissions in any of this information or data, whether intentional or not, may result in Panther's exclusion of the individual from further consideration for employment, or if the person has been hired, termination of employment. (Def.'s Statement of Material Facts ¶¶ 13, 14; Def.'s Ex. E, Employee Handbook at 10 ¶¶ 6.4 and 6.5.) Plaintiff testified in his deposition that he reviewed the manual and did not have any questions about any of the provisions therein. (Edward Dep. at 41:10-15.)
Further, in accepting the position as Field Technician, Mr. Edwards signed an Offer of Employment on October 5, 2007. (Def.'s Ex. D.) This Offer of Employment contains the following language:
You will be required to get your driver's license reinstated within 90-days and must maintain it in good standing in order to continue your employment with Panther. You can not operate a Company-owned vehicle until after your license has been reinstated. Your driver's license will be checked bi-annually to ensure such compliance. (Def.'s Ex. A.)
Coffey reviewed this paragraph with Edwards and explained to Edwards that he was required to obtain a valid driver's license within 90 days. (Edwards Dep. at 32:4-11.)
The Plaintiff was unable to obtain a valid driver's license in 90 days. This delay was the result of outstanding DUI fines in North Carolina. The Plaintiff needed to pay these outstanding fines prior to obtaining a valid driver's license in Pennsylvania where he relocated after accepting his position at Panther. (Edwards Dep. at 32:12-33:1.) The Plaintiff did not ultimately obtain a valid Pennsylvania driver's license until September 2008. (Id. at 32:17-19.)
In December 2007, the Plaintiff informed Coffey that he had not yet obtained a valid driver's license because there were problems with North Caroline. (Edwards Dep. at 33:19-25.) After this conversation, Coffey and Defendant Palko, the owner and President of Panther, periodically asked the Plaintiff about the status of his license. (Id. at 36:3-14.) Plaintiff continually informed Coffee and Defendant Palko that he paid his fines in North Carolina and was waiting for clearance from his lawyer that he could obtain his Pennsylvania license. (Id. at 36:12-14.)
In February 2008, Plaintiff was given an employment evaluation. On the first page of the evaluation, Panther stated, "Matt is a good employee who needs to get his driver's license so that he can attain full-time status and operate company vehicles." (Def.'s Statement of Material Facts ¶ 26; Edwards Dep. at 125:4-15.) On the second page of the evaluation, Panther stated, "Matt is a good employee . . . his lack of a driver's license is a major problem and will continue to keep him from reaching his full potential." (Def.'s Statement of Material Facts ¶ 27; Edwards Dep. at 125:21-126:1.) Plaintiff was evaluated again on July 9, 2008, and Panther again noted that Plaintiff's lack of a driver's license was an issue. (Def.'s Ex. I, July 9, 2008 Employee Review Form.) From October 2007 until September 2008 when Plaintiff received his Pennsylvania driver's license, the Plaintiff was instructed that he could not operate any company vehicles and Plaintiff did not in fact operate any company vehicles during this period. (Id. at 36:15-37:6.)
When Plaintiff Edwards received his Pennsylvania driver's license in September 2008, he informed Coffey and then waited for Panther's insurance company to approve the license. (Edwards Dep. at 46:12-47:10.) After Panther's insurance company approved his license, Coffey informed Plaintiff that he could operate company vehicles. (Id. at 47:11-13.) Plaintiff began operating a Ford F150 truck. (Id. at 47:14-17.) Plaintiff later operated a dump truck on site in July 2009. (Id. at 51:11-20.)
On November 9, 2008, Plaintiff committed another DUI offense in Pennsylvania. (Def.'s Ex. G, Pennsylvania Driver's Abstract.) As a result, Plaintiff's license was suspended for one year effective December 8, 2009. Id. The Plaintiff never informed Defendants about the DUI charge or that he subsequently lost his license as a result of this DUI offense. (Edwards Dep. at 58:2-59:22.)
Instead, Plaintiff continued to operate company vehicles on- site after December 8, 2009. (Edwards Dep. at 56:20-57:7.) In February 2010, two months after his license was suspended, Plaintiff informed Coffey that he had lost his license "because of my car." (Edwards Dep. at 57:8-13; 59:14-16.) During his deposition, Plaintiff admitted that he had "just made the story up to Mr. Coffey." ( Id. at 59:21-22.) Prior to this conversation with Coffey, Plaintiff's car had been taken from a job site and impounded because it lacked valid title, registration and insurance. (Id. at 60:18-61:24.) Plaintiff told Coffey that his license would be reinstated in six months. (Id. at 60:3-12.)
Plaintiff continued to operate company vehicles on-site after this discussion with Coffey despite not having a valid driver's license. (Id. at 69:16-24.) Specifically, Plaintiff continued to operate an off-road dump truck and did not operate any vehicle driven on public roads. (Id. at 74:4-11.) Arrangements were made by the Plaintiff with his co-workers for transportation to and from job sites so the Plaintiff did not have to drive to work. (Id. at 83:8-16.)
Sometime after Edwards disclosed the loss of his license to Panther, he asked Coffey to sign a limited work license application for him. (Edwards Dep. at 112:6-15.) Coffey filled out the requested paperwork for the Plaintiff but his limited work license application was denied, according to the Plaintiff, because too many vehicles were designated on the form. (Id.) Panther provided paperwork for a temporary license on more than one occasion, and Plaintiff claimed he had missed his window after one apparent attempt. (Def.'s Ex. H, Deposition of Peter Palko, October 28, 2011 (hereinafter "Palko Dep.") at 49:3-50:13.) Plaintiff never disclosed to anyone at Panther that his license was suspended because of a DUI offense. (Edwards Dep. at 155:24-156:5.)
In July 2010, Plaintiff was asked by Defendant Palko, Coffey and John Twomey, an owner and vice president of Panther, about the status of his driver's license. (Id. at 86:25-87:20.) Coffey asked Edwards about his license and explained that he wasn't happy about the situation. Edwards told Coffey he was working on it. (Id. at 88:8-13.) Sometime in July or August 2010, Defendant Palko asked the Plaintiff about the status of his license. Plaintiff told Palko he was working on it. Defendant Palko responded by saying that Plaintiff needed to get a valid license. Palko further told the Plaintiff that he considered him a good employee and would to like keep him on for another ten years. (Id. at 88:15-89:25.) At this point, Plaintiff still did not disclose to the Defendants that he had lost his license because of a DUI conviction. (Edwards Dep. at 58:2-59:22; 89:6-9.)
Also at the end of July 2010, the Plaintiff was experiencing back problems. (Edwards Dep. at 92:5-20.) Plaintiff's back problem arose in February or March of 2010 and Plaintiff began speaking to his co-workers about his symptoms but did not see a physician and did not inform Panther management. (Id. at 92:22-93:19.)
In August 2010, Defendant Palko saw Plaintiff in the shop and observed that Plaintiff appeared to be in pain. (Palko Dep. at 75:9-76:10.) Defendant Palko asked the Plaintiff what was going on and Plaintiff explained that he was experiencing back problems. (Palko Dep. at 75:9-24.) According to Palko's testimony, Plaintiff told him that sometimes his back gets "flared up" and he injured it four months ago "outside of work one weekend." (Id. at 75:19, 22.) Plaintiff testified that he told Palko he thought he "may have a slipped disc." (Edwards Dep. at 95:19-20.)
Defendant Palko then informed John Coffey that he was concerned about Plaintiff's back injury and told Coffey that he wanted Plaintiff seen by a physician because he was concerned Plaintiff's back was inflamed. (Pl.'s Counter Statement of Material Facts ¶ 32; Palko's Dep. at 75:9-76:10.) Consequently, Plaintiff was referred to Panther's company physician, Dr. Bojarski, and Plaintiff was seen that same day. (Palko Dep. at 76:3-17; Edwards Dep. at 95:1-6.) Dr. Bojarski diagnosed Plaintiff with lower back pain and sent him to get a lower back x-ray and an MRI. (Palko Dep. at 76:14-79:13; Edwards Dep. at 98:21-23.) Dr. Bojarski referred Plaintiff to the Rothman Institute to receive additional treatment. (Edwards Dep. at 132:15-133:9.) The Plaintiff was also given a week off of work to rest and obtain follow up treatment with a family physician. (Def.'s Ex. B, Def.'s Response to Interrogatory 10.)
While off of work, Plaintiff did not see any other medical professional and remained at home. (Edwards Dep. at 102:19-25.) The Plaintiff called Coffey and told Coffey he felt fine and wanted ...