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Hughes v. State

United States District Court, Third Circuit

April 29, 2013

Brian Patrick HUGHES, Plaintiff,


ANNE E. THOMPSON, District Judge.


This matter has come before the Court on Defendant Joan Van Pelt's ("Ms. Van Pelt's") Motion for Summary Judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. (Doc. No. 22). Plaintiff Brian Patrick Hughes ("Plaintiff") opposes the Motion, and has filed a Cross-Motion to Amend the Complaint, (Doc. No. 27), which in turn is opposed by Ms. Van Pelt and the State Defendants, [1] (collectively "Defendants"), (Doc. No. 32). The Court has decided the motions based upon the written and oral submissions of the parties. For the reasons included herein, the Court will deny Plaintiff's cross-motion to amend, and grant Ms. Van Pelt's motion for summary judgment.


The present motions stem from Plaintiff's 2011 suit claiming various rights violations and unlawful employment practices on the part of Ms. Van Pelt, the State Defendants, and various other unidentified individuals. For the purposes of this background section only, the Court will rely principally on the facts asserted in the initial Complaint so as to provide context for the litigation. The Court will refer to the allegations in Plaintiff's proposed amended Complaint and Ms. Van Pelt's Statement of Material Facts where relevant.

1. Summary of the Allegations brought in the Initial Complaint

Plaintiff, a New Jersey resident, has been a State employee since September 2002. (Doc. No. 1, "Compl." at §§ 1-2). In February 2004, Plaintiff was hired as a staff attorney in the Alternative Commitment Unit ("ACU") of the Department of the Public Advocate/New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, a position he continues to hold today.[2] (Compl. at §§ 2-4). New Jersey Resident and Deputy Public Defender Ms. Van Pelt was Plaintiff's supervisor from 2006 until 2008. (Compl. at §§ 5, 27, 70).

The bases for Plaintiff's claims span various years and events. Plaintiff alleges that during his entire tenure with the ACU, the unit has experienced staffing issues that have increased the pressure and stress on staff attorneys and other personnel. (Compl. at § 29). Plaintiff himself has allegedly experienced many periods of severe anxiety and occasional panic attacks. (Compl. at § 30). In December 2006, Plaintiff's anxiety and panic attacks reached such a level that he telephoned his director, Patrick D. Reilly, to request time off and to be relieved of some of the more stressful aspects of his position. (Compl. at § 32). For example, Plaintiff apparently requested permission to handle appellate matters without a trial calendar. (Compl. at § 33). While Mr. Reilly initially agreed to permit Plaintiff a few days off, Richard Friedman, Plaintiff's immediate supervisor, informed him that his full request could not be accommodated, and that Plaintiff's only alternative to his current workload was to resign from office. ( See Compl. at § 33).

On June 19, 2007, Plaintiff was involved in a serious car accident in which he suffered a concussion. (Compl. at § 35). As a result, Plaintiff took medical leave until the end of June. (Compl. at § 35). In early July, Plaintiff requested additional time off due to his head injury. (Compl. at § 36). Ms. Van Pelt allegedly responded that there would be consequences should Plaintiff take time off and fail to handle his full calendar. (Compl. at § 37). Around that same time, Plaintiff's doctor recommended that Plaintiff relax his work schedule in the interest of recovery and to refrain from trying cases. (Compl. at §§ 36, 37). Despite this advice, Plaintiff alleges he returned to work and handled his full calendar. (Compl. at § 42).

In August 2007, two major events occurred for the purposes of this lawsuit. First, Plaintiff applied for and was hired in the position of Union County Assistant Prosecutor. (Compl. at §§ 43-44). Second, it was discovered that Plaintiff had a tumor on his pituitary gland and would need surgery for removal. (Compl. at § 45). After the diagnosis, Plaintiff informed Ms. Van Pelt of his condition, as well as his intention to take time off for surgery and recuperation under the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"). (Compl. at § 48).

Plaintiff alleges that Ms. Van Pelt subsequently informed Union County Prosecutor Ted Romankow and a series of public officers and employees of Plaintiff's condition. (Compl. at § 50). In September 2007, Mr. Romankow allegedly telephoned Plaintiff and told him that Ms. Van Pelt had informed him of Plaintiff's brain tumor. (Compl. at § 51). As a result, Mr. Romankow stated he would have to freeze Plaintiff's hiring. (Compl. at § 51). Mr. Romankow further urged Plaintiff to consider withdrawing his candidacy. (Compl. at § 51).

Between July 2007 and September 2007, Plaintiff alleges that his caseload was almost doubled, (Compl. at § 54), and that Ms. Van Pelt told him that, as his department was understaffed, Plaintiff would need to be replaced. (Comp. at § 55). She purportedly warned of consequences should Plaintiff not tender his resignation. (Compl. at § 55).

In late September 2007, Plaintiff took a medical leave of absence pursuant to FMLA. (Compl. at § 56). Plaintiff alleges that despite his medical condition, Ms. Van Pelt continued to list him as trial counsel in certain October cases. (Compl. at § 57). Plaintiff was also informed that if he failed to appear in front of Judge Serena Perretti (assumedly for his assigned cases), he would be held in contempt of court. (Compl. at § 57). Ms. Van Pelt also conducted an employee evaluation and failed Plaintiff in two of the five evaluation categories, noting that Plaintiff was incompetent and had engaged in unethical conduct as counsel and before tribunals. (Compl. at § 58).

Concurrent with the above post-diagnosis developments, Plaintiff experienced other personal problems, and suffered a drug and alcohol abuse relapse. (Compl. at § 66). His wife obtained a restraining order and he was arrested by the Westfield Police Department, although all charges were subsequently dropped. (Compl. at § 67). Plaintiff asserts he successfully completed a substance abuse rehabilitation program prior to his brain surgery. (Compl. at § 68).

Two weeks before his November 2007 surgery, Plaintiff allegedly received an email from Ms. Van Pelt at the behest of Mr. Romankow, in which she implored Plaintiff to formally withdraw his candidacy as a Union County Assistant Prosecutor, and asserted that such a withdrawal would be better for Plaintiff in the long run. (Compl. at § 59). Plaintiff subsequently withdrew his candidacy and underwent surgery. (Compl. at § 47).

Upon his return in January 2008, Plaintiff received an evaluation form and notice of discipline from Ms. Van Pelt in his mailbox. (Compl. at § 47). Ms. Van Pelt purportedly wrote an internal memorandum noting that Plaintiff's file did not contain a signed Performance Evaluation System ("PES") for the period of September 2007 through August 2008 [sic]. (Compl. at § 71). Ms. Van Pelt included a PES for the period of June 2007 through September 2007, and requested any comments from Plaintiff by January 22, 2008. (Compl. at §§ 71-72). A second internal memorandum dated January 17, 2008 was entitled "Disciplinary Action." (Compl. at § 76). In that memorandum, Ms. Van Pelt documented areas of concern and/or deficiencies related to "the problem... addressed during [Plaintiff's] leave of absence." (Compl. at § 74). Ms. Van Pelt further requested that her supervisor commence progressive disciplinary action. (Compl. at § 75). After three days, Plaintiff returned to medical leave for further recovery. (Compl. at § 47).

Around the time of Plaintiff's return in May 2008, Patrick Reilly responded to a request from Plaintiff to file a recusal motion of Judge Perretti from all cases for which Plaintiff was assigned as counsel. (Compl. at § 79). Mr. Reilly modified Plaintiff's schedule so as to temporarily exclude appearances before Judge Perretti, (Compl. at §§ 79-80), but believed that the recusal application would not, in fact, be in the best interests of Plaintiff's clients. (Compl. at § 81). Plaintiff alleges that he sought to file the motion out of ...

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