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Christensen v. Weichert Insurance Agency, Inc.

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

November 22, 2013

DEBRA CHRISTENSEN, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
WEICHERT INSURANCE AGENCY, INC., MARIANNE ROSSI, JACQUELINE VILA, and CHRISTOPHER OEHRLE, Defendants-Respondents

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued telephonically October 8, 2013

On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Morris County, Docket No. L-0286-10.

Noel C. Crowley argued the cause for appellant (Crowley & Crowley, attorneys; Mr. Crowley, on the brief).

Sharon P. Margello argued the cause for respondents (Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C., attorneys; Ms. Margello and Jocelyn A. Merced, on the brief).

Before Judges Ashrafi and St. John.

PER CURIAM

Plaintiff Debra Christensen appeals from summary judgment dismissing her claims of defamation against her former employer, Weichert Insurance Agency, and three individual defendants also employed by Weichert. We affirm.

In reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we apply the same standard under Rule 4:46-2(c) that governs the trial court. Mem'l Props., LLC v. Zurich Am. Ins. Co., 210 N.J. 512, 524 (2012). We must "consider whether the competent evidential materials presented, when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, are sufficient to permit a rational factfinder to resolve the alleged disputed issue in favor of the non-moving party." Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995). Viewed most favorably to plaintiff, the summary judgment record reveals the following facts and procedural history.

Plaintiff began employment with Weichert in 1998. She was an assistant vice-president when she was fired in July 2009. Her immediate supervisor was defendant Jacqueline Vila, a vice-president of the agency. Defendant Christopher Oehrle was a senior vice-president with supervisory authority over both plaintiff and Vila. Defendant Marianne Rossi was an employee who had previously been supervised by plaintiff.

According to plaintiff, her working relationship with Oehrle and Vila soured in the spring of 2009 because she told Oehrle that employees thought he had "a special relationship" with Vila. Oehrle and Vila interpreted plaintiff's remark as suggesting an illicit romantic relationship between them, which they denied and which plaintiff asserts was not her meaning. Plaintiff contends the two supervisors became cold and hostile toward her. Separately, plaintiff alleges that Rossi also harbored resentment toward her because plaintiff had rebuked her about a work-related matter when plaintiff was her supervisor.

In July 2009, Rossi and another employee, Barbara Sproules, made allegations against plaintiff that were the impetus of her being fired. Plaintiff had learned that certain commissions on sales of insurance policies had been miscalculated and overpaid to sales employees, including herself. Plaintiff arranged a meeting with Rossi and Sproules on July 6, 2009, to review and reconcile commissions noted in a "book of business." Their review confirmed that certain auto insurance policies were incorrectly entered as having six-month terms instead of one-year terms, thus doubling the commissions paid to the salespersons who had procured those policies. The pivotal factual dispute in this case springs from the specifics of what plaintiff said to Rossi and Sproules about her own overpayments.

Two days after the July 6 meeting, Rossi and Sproules had a regular meeting with their supervisor, and they reported to him that they felt uncomfortable about plaintiff's alleged instruction to them not to correct plaintiff's own miscalculated commissions and not to disclose those overpayments. The supervisor passed that information on to Oehrle. Oehrle instructed Rossi and Sproules to write statements independently about what had occurred at the July 6 meeting. Rossi and Sproules each wrote a statement on July 14.

In Rossi's statement, the relevant allegation against plaintiff was:

We came upon a Hanover Auto policy that was entered as a 6 month policy that should have been for 1 yr, and [plaintiff] stated, well this is mine, let's keep ...

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