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McRoy v. Mercer County Board of Social Services

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

May 20, 2014

ERIC M. McROY, Plaintiff,
v.
MERCER COUNTY BOARD OF SOCIAL SERVICES, FRANK CIRILLO, DELORES SMITH, SUSAN RUCKMAN, ROBERT FORRESTER, CHRISTINA HARCAR, AMINI SABABU, JAMES CACACE, and JOHN WOOD, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

PETER G. SHERIDAN, District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court on Defendants Mercer County Board of Social Services ("MCBSS"), Frank Cirillo, Delores Smith, Susan Ruckman, Robert Forrester, Christina Harcar, Amini Sababu, James Cacace, and John Wood's (collectively, "Defendants") Motion for Summary Judgment pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 56 (ECF Nos. 40 and 41). Pro se Plaintiff Eric McRoy ("McRoy" or "Plaintiff"), a social worker employed by the MCBSS, alleges that Defendants subjected him to discrimination and a hostile work environment and retaliated against him in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. ("Title VII"). The Court held oral argument in this matter on November 20, 2013. For the reasons set forth herein, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment is granted.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Parties

Plaintiff Eric McRoy is a resident of Trenton, New Jersey. (Compl. at 1). He has been employed as a social worker by the Mercer County Board of Social Services since December 26, 1989. ( Id., Ex. A at 1). Defendant Mercer County Board of Social Services ("MCBSS"), established pursuant to N.J.S.A § 44:1-1 et seq., provides economic and social services to individuals and families residing in Mercer County, New Jersey. Defendant Frank A. Cirillo serves as Director of the MCBSS. (Defs.' Br. in Supp. of Summ. J. ("Defs.' Br.") at 2). Defendant Delores G. Smith is employed by the MCBSS as an Assistant Personnel Officer. (Aff. of Delores G. Smith ("Smith Aff.") at ¶ 1). Defendant Susan Ruckman is the former Administrative Supervisor of Social Work at the MCBSS. Defendant Robert Forrester currently serves as Assistant Administrator of Social Work at the MCBSS. (Aff. of Robert Forrester ("Forrester Aff.") at ¶ 1). Defendant Christina Harcar serves as Assistant Administrative Supervisor of Social Work at the MCBSS. (Aff. of Christina Harcar ("Harcar Aff.") at ¶¶ 1, 13). Defendant Amini Sababu is a social worker at the MCBSS who previously served as Supervisor of Social Work. (Defs.' Br. at 4). Defendant James Cacace currently serves as Supervisor of Social Work at the MCBSS. (Aff. of James Cacace ("Cacace Aff.") at ¶ 12). Defendant John Wood is a Senior Training Representative at the MCBSS.

B. Factual Background

Plaintiff Eric McRoy, an African American male, has been employed as a social worker by the MCBSS since December 26, 1989. (Compl. at 1). The record indicates that he has lodged numerous formal and informal charges of discrimination and harassment against his supervisors and fellow employees at the MCBSS dating back to 2002. The instant dispute arises out of alleged instances of discriminatory, harassing and retaliatory conduct that occurred primarily in 2006, 2007 and, most recently, in November 2010. The relevant facts for purposes of deciding Defendants' instant Motion for Summary Judgment are as follows.

On January 31, 2006, Plaintiff attended an "open house tour" of the Family Preservation Center ("FPC") and Marie Katzenbach School in West Trenton, New Jersey. ( Id., Ex A. at 41). While participating in an art class presented by the FPC, an employee of the non-profit corporation Home Front, Inc.[1] named Lynne Wise, "came into the class and asked [Plaintiff] what [he] was doing." ( Id. ). After describing that he was painting a sculpture that was to be hung on a wall with those being created by other class participants, Ms. Wise allegedly responded by stating "Look at Eric, we need to straighten him up, maybe we should hang him up by a chain." ( Id. ). Plaintiff, having viewed the statement as racially insensitive, responded by informing Ms. Wise that "you should never tell a black person that you are interested in hanging them, especially by a chain." ( Id. ). One day later, on February 1, 2006, Plaintiff sent a memorandum to FPC Director Thora Faigle reporting the incident. According to the memorandum, the "comments were made in front of several program participants, the art instructor, and... Administrator Susan Ruckman." ( Id. at 42).

On February 8, 2006, Plaintiff filed a complaint with the Director of the Family Development Division of the New Jersey Department of Human Services alleging that he had been discriminated against based on "color", "marital status", "race", and "sex" due to the prior week's incident. ( See id. at 48). In that complaint, Plaintiff alleged that "[his] Administrator Susan Ruckman participated in [the allegedly discriminatory] actions by laughing at the comments made." ( Id. at 44). One week later, on February 14, 2006, Plaintiff received a handwritten note of apology from Ms. Wise stating: "I'm very sorry for having caused you any pain. I feel terrible that a careless turn of phrase caused you grief. That was certainly not my intention. I value our working relationship and I look forward to working with you in the future. Please accept my sincere apology." (Pl.'s Br. in Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Opp'n Br."), Ex. 12). The record does not indicate whether the Family Development Division investigated Plaintiff's February 8, 2006 complaint or whether a final disposition regarding the complaint was ever made. The MCBSS itself apparently "investigated the matter and had Ms. Ruckman go to sensitivity training in an attempt to satisfy [Plaintiff]." (Defs.' Br. at 1).

In September 2006, Plaintiff requested vacation time to take his wife to Ethiopia. According to Plaintiff, at that time, his wife was continuing to experience negative side effects from two car accidents that had occurred on March 24 and July 31, 2004, and he wanted to bring her to see her mother before her "medical condition deteriorated even further." (Pl.'s Opp'n Br., Ex 12). Plaintiff's supervisor allegedly denied Plaintiff's request on the advice of Ms. Ruckman. As a result of this denial, Plaintiff "put in for personal Family Leave due to stress[]" after his "primary care physician signed off on t[he] paperwork." ( Id. ). In explaining his decision, Plaintiff stated that he "had already reserved difficult to obtain plane tickets, so it was imperative that [he] kept [his] schedule." ( Id. ). On October 2, 2006, Assistant Personnel Officer Delores Smith sent a memorandum to Plaintiff acknowledging his "request for a leave of absence for the period November 2, 2006 to December 12, 2006." (Compl., Ex. A at 35). In the memorandum, Ms. Smith wrote: "As your leave request is dated September 19, 2006, and the actual leave begins over a month later, a physical has been scheduled for you on Thursday, October 5, 2006 at 9:00 AM[.]" ( Id. ). On October 4, 2006, one day prior to his scheduled physical, Plaintiff resubmitted his request for Family Leave only this time his request was based on his wife's apparent medical condition and not his own stress. (Pl.'s Opp'n Br., Ex. 12). Plaintiff was subsequently granted leave, took his scheduled trip to Ethiopia, and returned to New Jersey on December 18, 2006. ( Id. ).

On January 25, 2007, Diana Hemphill, Operations Manager for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Trenton, held a meeting with representatives of the MCBSS, including Plaintiff, to discuss issues involving transitional housing. During that meeting, which took place at the MCBSS, Plaintiff allegedly exhibited a confrontational demeanor towards Ms. Hemphill that brought her to tears. After receiving a letter from Ms. Hemphill complaining that Plaintiff had threatened her and other employees during the January 25, 2007 meeting, Director Frank Cirillo and Administrator Susan Ruckman conducted an investigation to ascertain whether disciplinary action was warranted. On February 6, 2007, following the conclusion of the investigation, Delores Smith issued Plaintiff a Preliminary Notice of Minor Disciplinary Action charging him with (1) conduct unbecoming a public employee in violation of N.J.A.C. § 4A:2-2.3(a)(6) and (2) violation of the MCBSS's Professional Conduct Policy in contradiction of N.J.A.C. § 4A:2-.23(a)(11). ( See Dep. of Amini Sababu ("Sababu Dep."), Ex. 3 at 1). On February 16, 2007, a disciplinary hearing was held before Director Cirillo during which witness testimony was received.

On February 22, 2007, Director Cirillo issued a memorandum sustaining the charges against Plaintiff. In making his determination, Director Cirillo found that "[t]he testimony of the three witnesses testifying for [the] administration with regard to Mr. McRoy's demeanor and behavior at the meeting on January 25, 2007, was consistent in its details and found to be credible. This was in direct contrast to Mr. McRoy's contradictory and somewhat theatrical portrayal of events." (Sababu Dep., Ex. 3 at 2). The Director further found that "Mr. McRoy's actions were in direct contrast to the Board's policy regarding professional conduct and constituted behavior unbecoming a public employee." ( Id. ). Accordingly, Director Cirillo ordered that Plaintiff be "suspended for three days on February 28, 2007, March 7, 2007 and March 14, 2007[]" and recommended that Plaintiff receive "mandatory training on professionalism in the workplace." ( Id. ). A Notice of Minor Disciplinary Action was served on Plaintiff the same day.

On March 8, 2007, Plaintiff filed a verified complaint with the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights ("DCR") alleging that the MCBSS discriminated against him based on race and sex in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("NJLAD"), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 et seq., and subjected him to reprisal for asserting his rights under the New Jersey Family Leave Act, N.J.S.A. 34:11B-1 et seq. Plaintiff asserted in his complaint that his allegations were based on: (1) the MCBSS having "reluctantly g[iven] him time off pursuant to the New Jersey Family Leave Act in order to take care of his wife who was ill as a result of being pregnant" and (2) having suspended him for three days "for being rude to a vendor." (Compl., Ex. A at 54). More specifically, Plaintiff alleged that he "was discriminated against because of his race and sex... [because] a similarly situated, non Black female... who was found to have been rude to a vendor was not suspended." ( Id. ). On April 24, 2007, the DCR sent a letter to Plaintiff acknowledging receipt of his complaint. ( Id. at 51).[2]

On May 9, 2007, two months after filing his complaint with the DCR, Plaintiff received another Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action from Delores Smith charging him with (1) conduct unbecoming a public employee in violation of N.J.A.C. § 4A:2-2.3(a)(6) and (2) violation of the Mercer County Employee Integrity Policy and Professional Conduct Policy in contradiction of N.J.A.C. § 4A:2-.23(a)(11). The Notice described the allegations against Plaintiff as follows:

On March 2, 2006, you were assigned to an emergency assistance case in which the client was in mortgage arrears on her home. On March 20, 2006, you paid 3 months arrears and later money owed for utilities. On June 4, 2006, your client indicated that she was thinking of moving and you told her that you were a real estate agent and would list her house for sale. On June 7, 2006, you became the listing agent for the client's home. This is a direct violation of the Board's Integrity Policy. (Pl.'s Opp'n Br., Ex. 14).

On May 17, 2007, a disciplinary hearing was held before Director Cirillo during which witness testimony was received. On May 22, 2007, Director Cirillo issued a memorandum sustaining the charges against Plaintiff. In that memorandum, the Director noted that "[i]t has clearly been the established policy and practice of the [MCBSS] to protect the people it serves from any actual or perceived conflict of interest on the part of its employees. By his actions, Mr. McRoy violated the Integrity Policy and the Professional Conduct Policy that are designed to [e]nsure this public protection." ( Id. ). Accordingly, Director Cirillo ordered that Plaintiff be suspended without pay for five days - May 30, 2007, June 6, 2007, June 13, 2007, June 20, 2007, and June 27, 2007. ( Id. ). Two days later, on May 24, 2007, Plaintiff submitted a request for vacation days, two of which coincided with days on which he was to serve his suspension. (Sababu Dep., Ex. 10). The request was granted by Amini Sababu the same day without her having knowledge of the days on which Plaintiff's suspension was to occur. On May 25, 2007, Plaintiff sent an e-mail to Director Cirillo requesting information as to how he could appeal his May 22, 2007 suspension. (Pl.'s Opp'n Br., Ex. 15B). On June 8, 2007, Plaintiff submitted another request for leave of absence pursuant to the New Jersey Family Leave Act. By letter dated June 19, 2007, Director Cirillo granted Plaintiff's request for unpaid family leave for the period of June 18, 2007 to July 2, 2007.

On July 2, 2007, Assistant Administrator of Social Work Robert Forrester sent a memorandum to Director Cirillo expressing his concerns regarding ...


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