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Walters v. Carson

United States District Court, Third Circuit

December 19, 2013

MICHAEL WALTERS, Plaintiff,
v.
RICHARD J. CARSON, et al. Defendants.

OPINION

ROBERT B. KUGLER, District Judge.

In this case, Plaintiff Michael Walters ("Plaintiff") asserts claims of age and disability discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 10:5-1 et seq. ("NJLAD"), violations of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2611 ("FMLA"), breach of contract, and violations of his Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights against the Board of Education of North Hanover Township, and its employees Dr. Richard Carson and Matthew J. Ernandes, Jr. (collectively the "Defendants"). For the reasons stated herein, the Court finds that Plaintiff has failed to offer evidence in support of his NJLAD age and disability discrimination, FMLA, contract, and constitutional claims that would create a genuine dispute of material fact for trial. Accordingly, the Court will grant Defendants' motion.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff's action arises out of his alleged unlawful termination from his employment with the Board of Education of North Hanover Township (the "Board"). Plaintiff believes that his termination was the result of discriminatory animus and in violation of certain of his rights, while the Defendants contend that Plaintiff's termination was due to excessive absenteeism and not any illegitimate reason. As the Court is evaluating the Defendants' motion for summary judgment, it will view the facts underlying the Plaintiff's claims in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the non-moving party. See Petruzzi's IGA Supermarkets, Inc. v. Darling-Delaware Co., Inc. , 998 F.2d 1224, 1230 (3d Cir. 1993).

Plaintiff was hired by the Board on December 16, 1995, as a maintenance and grounds employee for the North Hanover Township School District. (Defendants' Local Rule 56.1 Statement of Facts ("Defs.' SOF") ¶ 1; Michael Walters Dep. ("Pl.'s Dep."), October 16, 2012, 13:11-22.) As part of his job responsibilities, Plaintiff would make repairs pursuant to work orders, maintain the School District's grounds, and fill in for bus drivers and custodians. (Defs.' SOF ¶ 47; Pl.'s Dep. 13:14-22.) During his tenure with the Board, Plaintiff was supervised by Mr. Lee Hill, the director of the School District's buildings and grounds department. (Defs.' SOF ¶ 44.) The buildings and grounds department was staffed during the day by two maintenance workers, Plaintiff and Mr. Greg Byles, and by their supervisor Mr. Hill. ( Id. ¶ 65.)

Plaintiff's employment contract with the Board was renewed for the 1996-1997 school year, and then renewed each year thereafter for a twelve-month term with a July 1 start date and a June 30 end date. ( Id. ¶¶ 2-3.) Pursuant to this contract, Plaintiff received twelve paid sick days per term, and unused sick days could be accumulated and rolled over into the following year. ( Id. ¶ 4.)

During his employment, Plaintiff used his paid sick leave when he was unable to work due to his physical ailments, namely, gastrointestinal problems. (Plaintiff's Response to Defendants' Local Rule 56.1 Statement of Facts ("Pl.'s SOF") ¶ 4.) From 2003 to 2004, Plaintiff used 11.5 paid sick days. (Defs.' SOF ¶ 55.) From 2004 to 2005, Plaintiff used 10.5 paid sick days. ( Id. ¶ 56.) From 2005 to 2006, Plaintiff used 14 paid sick days. ( Id. ¶ 57.) And, as of March 2007, during the 2007-2008 employment term, Plaintiff used 10.5 paid sick days. (Defs.' SOF ¶ 58.)

On March 14, 2007, Plaintiff suffered "an acute myocardial infarction (heart attack) and underwent emergent cardiac catheterization and angioplasty at St. Francis hospital on the same day." ( Id. ¶ 5.) Per doctor's order, Plaintiff remained out of work until June 4, 2007, and the Board used a long-term substitute to fill in for Plaintiff during his absence. ( Id. ¶¶ 7-8; see also Affidavit of Matthew Ernandes, Jr. ("Ernandes Aff.") ¶ 5, Ex. B (attaching Dr. Jay Patel's Medical Compensable Certificate documenting Plaintiff's heart condition and indicating that Plaintiff's injury will prevent him from engaging in his regular employment until June 4, 2007).) On June 4, 2007, Plaintiff returned to work on a full-time basis and without restrictions. (Defs.' SOF ¶ 9.) For the remainder of the 2006-2007 term, Plaintiff did not use a single paid sick day or no pay day. ( Id. ¶ 10.) Plaintiff's contract with the Board was renewed for the 2007-2008 term. ( Id. ¶ 11.)

On July 1, 2007, the start of Plaintiff's employment for the 2007-2008 term, Plaintiff had twelve sick days at his disposal. ( Id. ¶ 14.) As of August 10, 2007, Plaintiff exhausted all twelve days. (Id.) As of December 14, 2007, Plaintiff used ten "no pay" days. ( Id. ¶ 17). On December 14, 2007, Defendant Matthew Ernandes, who served as Business Administrator and Board Secretary, met with Plaintiff to discuss his absences. ( Id. ¶ 17.) In a memorandum to Plaintiff memorializing this conversation, Defendant Ernandes noted that Plaintiff had "exhausted all of [his] earned sick leave" and that "as of this date [he] [ ] called out sick twentytwo [] days since July 1, 2007, " and had called out "sick a total of nine [ ] days" since Labor Day. (Ernandes Aff. ¶ 15, Ex. E.) Effective immediately, Defendant Ernandes required Plaintiff to furnish a note from his doctor upon his return to work, and instructed Plaintiff that he could not return to work until the note, which had to contain a diagnosis and prognosis, was furnished. (Id.) Finally, Defendant Ernandes instructed Plaintiff that his attendance had to improve. (Id.)

By June 30, 2008, the end of the 2007-2008 contract term, Plaintiff called out sick thirtyone times; this included twelve days of paid sick leave and nineteen days of unpaid sick leave. (Defs.' SOF ¶ 15.) Defendants still renewed Plaintiff's employment contract for the 2008-2009 term. ( Id. ¶¶ 12, 19.)

During the 2008-2009 school year, Plaintiff called out sick twenty times; this included 7.5 days of unpaid sick leave. ( Id. ¶ 19.) On September 19, 2008, Mr. Hill prepared a memorandum to Plaintiff entitled "Excessive Absenteeism and Proper Call Out Procedure." In that memorandum, Mr. Hill informed Plaintiff that, since August, his absenteeism had increased and that he only had 8.5 sick days remaining for the 2008-2009 school year. ( Id. ¶ 20; Ernandes Aff., Ex. F.) Between September 19, 2008, and March 1, 2009, Plaintiff called out sick twelve additional times. (Defs.' SOF ¶ 21.)

On March 3, 2009, Defendant Ernandes met with Plaintiff to discuss his attendance. (Ernandes Aff. ¶ 21.) A letter dated that same day from Defendant Ernandes to Plaintiff, noted that as of February 24, 2009, Plaintiff had exhausted his allotted sick time for the 2008-2009 school year, and that he would need to improve his attendance going forward. (Defs.' SOF ¶ 22, Ernandes Aff., Ex. G.) In that letter, Defendant Ernandes put Plaintiff on notice that his "position in the maintenance department with the North Hanover Township School District [wa]s in jeopardy due to excessive absenteeism." (Ernandes Aff., Ex. G.) Plaintiff's attendance improved in March and April of 2009, but Defendant Ernandes advised Plaintiff that he would continue to monitor his absenteeism for the next six months; this warning was memorialized in a letter to Plaintiff dated May 1, 2009. (Defs.' SOF ¶ 25; Ernandes Aff., Ex. H.) Plaintiff's contract was renewed for the 2009-2010 school year. ( Id. ¶ 26.)

On November 4, 2009, by which time Plaintiff had used ten of his twelve paid sick days for the 2009-2010 school year, Defendant Ernandes recommended to the Superintendent of Schools, Defendant Carson, that Plaintiff's employment contract be terminated and memorialized that recommendation in a letter sent to Plaintiff by regular and certified mail. (Defs.' SOF ¶¶ 27-28; Ernandes Aff. ¶ 25, Ex. I.) Defendant Ernandes based his recommendation on Plaintiff's alleged pattern of absenteeism. (Ernandes Aff., Ex. I.)

On November 13, 2009, Defendant Carson sent Plaintiff a letter by regular mail and hand informing Plaintiff that the status of his employment "may be discussed by the North Hanover Township Board of Education at its Closed Session Meeting of November 17, 2009 and/or its Public Meeting of November 17, 2009." (Ernandes Aff., Ex. J.) Defendant Carson further informed Plaintiff that if he desired he could have the discussion held during the public session. (Id.) Plaintiff did not respond to Defendant Carson's letter, and a closed session was held on November 17, 2009, during which the Board passed a resolution to terminate Plaintiff's employment contract effective December 15, 2009. (Defs.' SOF ¶¶ 34-35.) The next day, Plaintiff was informed of the Board's decision by Defendant Ernandes. ( Id. ¶ 36.)

Approximately two years later, on October 21, 2011, Plaintiff filed suit against the Defendants in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Burlington County. On November 8, 2011, the Defendants filed a Notice of Removal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441, invoking this Court's jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Plaintiff filed a Motion to Amend/Correct Complaint on April 10, 2012, (Doc. No. 23), which was granted by Magistrate Judge Donio in an Order dated April 25, 2012, (Doc. No. 24). This motion sought only to amend the complaint to add McNeil-PPC, Inc. as a defendant, and did not amend the complaint as to the Defendants. On April 30, 2012, the Defendants answered the Amended Complaint. (Doc. No. 27.)

On April 26, 2013, the Defendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment.[1] (Doc. No. 59.) The Court will examine each of Plaintiff's claims in turn.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate where the Court is satisfied that "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 330 (1986). A genuine dispute of material fact exists only if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could find for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). When the Court weighs the evidence presented by the parties, "[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Id. at 255.

The burden of establishing the nonexistence of a "genuine issue" is on the party moving for summary judgment. Aman v. Cort Furniture Rental Corp. , 85 F.3d 1074, 1080 (3d Cir. 1996). The moving party may satisfy its burden either by "produc[ing] evidence showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact" or by showing' - that is, pointing out to the district court - that ...


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