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Sergent v. St. Helena School

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

September 18, 2013

DEBRA SERGENT, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
ST. HELENA SCHOOL and DIOCESE OF METUCHEN, Defendants-Respondents.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued December 5, 2012

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Docket No. L-5406-10.

Barry E. Levine argued the cause for appellant.

Vincent N. Avallone argued the cause for respondents (K & L Gates, L.L.P., attorneys; Mr. Avallone, of counsel and on the brief; C. Bryan Cantrell, on the brief).

Before Judges Nugent and Haas.

OPINION

NUGENT, J.A.D.

Plaintiff, Debra Sergent, appeals from the Law Division order dismissing on summary judgment her complaint alleging that defendants, St. Helena School and the Diocese of Metuchen, breached the terms of her employment contract with them, and violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -42, when they terminated her employment. She argues that the evidence she presented in opposition to defendants' summary judgment motion established a triable issue as to whether defendants terminated her employment because her performance was unsatisfactory, as they claim, or because she took a maternity leave, as she claims. Having considered plaintiff's arguments in light of the record and controlling law, we affirm.

I.

St. Helena School (the School), a Roman Catholic elementary school in the Diocese of Metuchen, employed plaintiff as a teacher from 2000 through March 30, 2010. Each school year, the parties signed a one-year employment contract. In June 2009, they signed the "Employment Contract For Tenured Teachers" for the 2009-2010 school year.[1] The contract included a termination provision, which provided in pertinent part:

The Employer may immediately discharge, terminate, or otherwise discontinue the Teacher's employment for reasons of "cause, " including, but not limited to: unsatisfactory performance, insubordination, neglect of duty . . . or any other failure, neglect, or any other action on the part of the Teacher which the Employer in good faith, determines to impair the Teacher's job performance. In such instances, the Employer will endeavor to present the Teacher with written notice specifying the reason for discharge. Any and all pay or other privileges shall terminate at the effective date of this notice.

From 2001 through 2005, at least once each year, the school's vice-principal observed plaintiff in her classroom for approximately one half-hour to one hour. In her reports following those observations, the vice-principal generally rated plaintiff's performance as excellent, outstanding, above average, or very good.[2] In a "2008-2009 Teacher Evaluation Form, " the School's Principal rated plaintiff as "mee[ting] expectations" or "satisfactory with commendation" in all categories, with one exception: in the category "Collaboration and Partnership, " the Principal rated plaintiff as "satisfactory with reservation." The Principal commented: "You need to be more faithful in attending H.S.A.[3] meetings and faculty in-service days. This does add to the building of relationships with parents and peers."

In a "Walkthrough Assessment Form for Teaching Staff" prepared in March 2010, the School's Principal rated plaintiff satisfactory in all categories with two exceptions: classroom management and teaching techniques. In those categories, the Principal suggested that students' desks face the front of the room, not each other, because when the desks faced each other the situation presented an opportunity for students to talk to one another, and also the students had to turn to see plaintiff as she taught.

Over the years, parents had both complimented plaintiff and complained about her. For example, in 2003, a couple wrote to the Principal and asked if their son could be placed not in plaintiff's fourth-grade class, but in the other fourth-grade class. They explained that "the heavy project load" assigned by plaintiff required them to spend an inordinate amount of time helping their child in plaintiff's class, and left insufficient time to devote to their other children's needs.[4] Yet, in January 2010, a parent praised plaintiff for her wonderful way of connecting with students generally, and for the help she had given to the writer's child specifically. According to the writer, her child had developed confidence and a skillset that would benefit her throughout her life.

In November 2007, the School's Principal received the first in a series of letters that, according to defendants, were significant to their decision to terminate plaintiff's position. The November 2007 letter was written by a person who had been "a parent at St. Helena School for eight years." She complained about what she considered to be an unusual workload for third-graders, and the assignment of too much homework on nights students were studying for tests. She also complained that her child was not learning in plaintiff's class, and said her child had reported that the classroom was unruly. The writer stated that she had spoken with "many other students['] parents and they express[ed] similar concerns regarding the level of education our children are getting this year." The parent also stated that "these concerns have been mentioned in previous years and in my opinion have not changed."

In December of that year, the Principal received a letter from another parent complaining about the workload of the students in plaintiff's class, and that the students did not appear to be learning their lessons. A month later, in January 2008, the parent who had written the November letter wrote a second letter complaining about the workload in plaintiff's class. According to the parent, when her child returned from a winter break the child had to take six tests in one week. The parent complained that in addition to the unusual number of tests given in one week, "classroom learning is not optimal and some of the teaching is being done at home during the studying." The parent referred to "so many issues with this classroom over ...


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