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Lovett v. Flemington-Raritan Regional Board of Education

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

April 6, 2013

CYNTHIA LOVETT, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
FLEMINGTON-RARITAN REGIONAL BOARD OF EDUCATION, KATHY SUCHORSKY, GREGORY NOLAN, and WANDA QUINONES, Defendants-Respondents, and FLEMINGTON-RARITAN EDUCATION ASSOCIATION, FRANK CORIGLIANO, and KARIN DENEKA, Defendants.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued October 7, 2013

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hunterdon County, Docket No. L-681-10.

Kenneth W. Thomas argued the cause for appellant (Lanza & Lanza LLP, attorneys; John R. Lanza, of counsel; Mr. Thomas, on the briefs).

James M. McCreedy argued the cause for respondents (Wiley Malehorn Sirota & Raynes, attorneys; Mr. McCreedy, of counsel; Mr. McCreedy and Erica M. Clifford, on the brief).

Before Judges Parrillo, Harris and Guadagno.

PER CURIAM

Plaintiff Cynthia Lovett appeals from the summary judgment dismissal of her complaint alleging age discrimination in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to 6-2 (LAD), and other related claims. We affirm.

Because this matter comes to us from the motion court's grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants, the

Flemington-Raritan Regional Board of Education, Kathy Suchorsky, Gregory Nolan and Wanda Quinones (the moving parties), we view the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff. Polzo v. Cnty. of Essex, 209 N.J. 51, 56 n.1 (2012).

At the time of her resignation on June 24, 2010, plaintiff was a fifty-seven year old math and science teacher at the Reading-Fleming Intermediate School, tenured since 1993. Plaintiff's step-granddaughter, A.M., was a student at the same school. A.M.'s stepmother Megan — plaintiff's daughter — had a history of aggressive, hostile confrontations with school staff concerning custody issues related to A.M. Because of these incidents, the school principal, defendant Kathy Suchorsky, directed the vice-principal, defendant Wanda Quinones, and main office staff to prohibit Megan from entering the school building past the main office located by the front entrance.[1] Moreover, according to the school district's general policy regarding school visitors, the "Superintendent and building principal each possess the authority to prohibit the entry of any person into a school of this District, or to expel any person from the school when there is reason to believe the presence of such person would be detrimental to the good order of the school."

Furthermore, "[p]ersonal access to school buildings and grounds outside the hours school is in session shall be limited to personnel whose employment requires their presence in the facility." These policies were included in school employee handbooks and discussed with the staff.

At around 10:00 a.m. on June 23, 2010, the day before plaintiff resigned, school administrators found scratches on A.M., which the child said were inflicted by Megan. Vice-Principal Quinones then informed plaintiff about the injuries and asked her to take A.M. home at the end of the day, [2] but plaintiff refused and told her to call Megan instead. Megan ultimately arrived at the front entrance of the school, which is locked, and equipped with a buzzer, intercom and security cameras. Plaintiff let Megan in at her request.[3] While plaintiff then left to attend a teachers' luncheon, Megan walked down to the guidance office where A.M. was with Quinones and started yelling and demanding to know what was going on. By then, police had arrived and escorted Megan out of the building.

The following day, Principal Suchorsky met with plaintiff to discuss the incident. According to Suchorsky, the sole purpose of the meeting was to ascertain plaintiff's version of the events and thus the forty-eight hour notice required by the collective bargaining agreement between the Board of Education and the teachers' union when the meeting is called for the purpose of formal discipline, did not apply in this instance.[4]At the meeting, plaintiff initially denied having any knowledge Megan was not allowed in the building or that her daughter was suspected of being responsible for A.M.'s injuries. As plaintiff's version was at odds with what she had been told earlier by Vice-Principal Quinones, Suchorsky at that point had union representatives Karin Deneka and Frank Corigliano, who had been notified the previous afternoon to make themselves available, attend the meeting.

In front of her union representatives, plaintiff admitted that she let Megan into the school and that she "felt that [Megan] had a right to be with her daughter." According to plaintiff, she "must have claimed that [she] had done what [she] thought was in A.M.'s best interest" and continued to maintain that she did not know she was not allowed to let Megan into the school.

The parties' accounts of what then transpired at the meeting differ. According to Suchorsky, she advised plaintiff that she would have to refer the matter to the Superintendent's office because of the serious safety issues raised by plaintiff's behavior, [5] and also raised the possibility of the Board of Education bringing tenure charges against plaintiff. When plaintiff then asked the union representatives what her options were, they explained that she could choose to resign, or do nothing and risk the Board bringing tenure charges against her. At that point, at plaintiff's request, Suchorsky left the meeting to obtain a sample resignation letter, which she showed to plaintiff when she returned fifteen minutes later.

Plaintiff, on the other hand, claimed Suchorsky said she was going to refer the matter to the Board for tenure charges and take the matter "as far as I can take it, " and that if plaintiff did not resign, she would face public humiliation and lose her job and pension. In fact, according to Corigliano's notes from the meeting, "as far as I can take it" and "think about retirement", refer to Suchorsky telling plaintiff she was going to take the matter as far as she could, i.e., tenure charges, and that plaintiff should consider retiring in lieu of disciplinary charges. According to both union representatives, plaintiff was upset and cried during the meeting, which they described as tense and emotional. Plaintiff denied ever requesting to see a sample resignation letter.

In any event, in the fifteen minutes that Suchorsky was away having the sample resignation letter typed up, plaintiff was able to consult with her union representatives privately. They informed her that after tenure charges were certified, the matter would go public, to which plaintiff responded that she did not want to go through that ordeal. They offered plaintiff the alternative of conferring with an attorney and taking time to think it over, but she declined, although plaintiff denies this option was ever presented to her.

When Suchorsky returned with the resignation letter, plaintiff signed it with the intention of resigning. Suchorsky explained to plaintiff that the resignation letter would become binding when presented to the Board at its next meeting. According to Suchorsky, at the end of the meeting, she offered plaintiff the rest of the day off to think everything through and consult with her husband, but plaintiff decided to spend the remainder of the day with her students in the classroom. A copy of the resignation letter was given to plaintiff, and Suchorsky made another copy for the union.

The Board formally accepted plaintiff's resignation at its next regularly scheduled meeting on June 28, 2010.

Superintendent Gregory Nolan notified plaintiff of the Board's acceptance of her resignation by ...


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