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Morris v. City of Trenton

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

September 26, 2014

CITY OF TRENTON, et al., Defendants.



This matter comes before the Court by way of Motion [Docket Entry No. 8] filed by Defendants City of Trenton ("City") and former City Mayor Tony Mack ("Mack") (collectively, "Defendants") for an order granting summary judgment in this matter. Defendants contend that, as the underlying dispute was previously brought before a state administrative tribunal, the instant action is precluded. Plaintiff Michael Morris ("Plaintiff") opposes Defendants' Motion. The parties have consented to disposition of a dispositive motion by a United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(e). [Docket Entry No. 11]. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' Motion is denied.

I. Factual Background

Plaintiff was hired by the City prior to the Mack administration as a "Supervising Security Guard, " a position he held until his initial layoff on November 5, 2010. (Def. Br., at 3; Docket Entry No. 8-2). During Plaintiff's tenure, Mack was elected Mayor of Trenton and assumed the office on July 1, 2010. ( Id. ) Once in office, Mack informed Acting Business Administrator William Guhl that a man named Robert Mendez ("Mendez") had been instrumental to the Mack campaign and that Mack wanted Mendez employed by the city. (Rau Cert., Ex. 5, Guhl Cert., at ¶¶ 6-8; Docket Entry No. 8-4). Specifically, Mack contemplated hiring Mendez in a supervisory position with the city's park rangers. ( Id., at ¶ 9). Trenton, as a civil service municipal corporation of the State of New Jersey, is subject to the regulations prescribed by the New Jersey Civil Service Act. ( Id., at ¶ 10). As such, Guhl explained that Mendez could not be employed in such a position since Plaintiff already held that title. ( Id. ) Additionally, since Mendez's Civil Service test results had not been released at that time, Guhl stated that Mendez could only be hired in a provisional capacity no matter which position he was hired into. ( Id., at ¶ 14).

Nevertheless, Plaintiff was laid off as part of a November 2010 layoff process. (Rau Cert., Ex. 5, Richardson Cert., at ¶¶ 1-2). On March 24, 2011, Mendez was indeed hired as a "part-time provisional Senior Security Guard." (Rau Cert., Ex. 4, at 41; Docket Entry No. 8-4). Also in March of 2011, Mack was informed that due to the seniority system, the Civil Service Commission ("CSC") was requiring that Plaintiff be reinstated and that Mendez be laid off. (Richardson Cert., at ¶¶ 1-2). Although Mack was staunchly opposed and made derogatory comments regarding Plaintiff, the City Personnel Office informed Plaintiff that he would be reinstated. ( Id., at ¶¶ 3-4). Plaintiff subsequently released a press release regarding his reinstatement, which further upset Mack. ( Id., at ¶¶ 5-6). Additionally, Mack retained Mendez as a "Seasonal Security Guard" and instructed the Personnel Office to increase his salary and allow seasonal employees to work in excess of the twenty hour per week limit that had previously been imposed. ( Id., at ¶¶ 7-9).

On June 28, 2011, Plaintiff was again laid off when the City submitted another layoff plan to the CSC, which was approved. (Def. Br., at 4). Plaintiff appealed this action to the CSC, which reinstated him on April 3, 2013. ( Id. ) In his appeal, Plaintiff argued the relevant seniority rules and also alleged a bad faith motive behind the 2010 layoff, referencing Mack's derogatory comments. (Rau Cert., Ex. 4, at 41). Although the CSC reinstated Plaintiff, it found that his bad faith arguments were untimely since they did not address the 2011 layoff and, thus, the CSC did not consider them in its opinion. ( Id., at 42, 44).

Both parties moved for reconsideration, Defendants seeking a stay of the decision and Plaintiff seeking back pay and attorney's fees. (Rau Cert., Ex. 3, at 34). In connection with his appeal, Plaintiff submitted the certifications of City employees William Guhl and Maria Richardson, which the CSC considered in finding that the bad faith argument should have been considered since Mack's "animus [described in the certifications] clearly extended to the next layoff action and demonstrate[d] the Mayor's intent on removing him at any cost." ( Id., at 36). The CSC issued an opinion on September 4, 2013 denying Defendants' request for reconsideration and granting Plaintiff's request for reconsideration, granting back pay, seniority, and benefits.[1] ( Id., at 38). Plaintiff then filed the instant action alleging violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination (the "NJLAD"), N.J.S.A. 10-6-1, et seq., which was subsequently removed to this Court.

II. The Parties' Arguments

A. Defendants' Arguments

Defendants believe that Plaintiff should now be precluded from seeking additional remedies since the CSC's September 4, 2013 opinion and order "placed [Plaintiff] in the status quo ante " and there is nothing further to litigate. Advancing this argument, Defendants address res judicata, collateral estoppel, and New Jersey's entire controversy doctrine. (Def. Br., at 5). Defendants state that, in New Jersey, res judicata "is applicable where there is an identity of parties, identity of issues, and identity of causes of action." ( Id., at 6 (citing Bondi v. Citigroup, Inc., 423 N.J.Super. 377, 422 (App. Div. 2011)). Defendants argue that Plaintiff's factual allegations are identical to those contained in his CSC appeal, which were addressed in that appeal, and, thus, res judicata should serve to prevent relitigation of any part of the matter, including damages. ( Id., at 7).

Defendants additionally believe that collateral estoppel serves to bar this suit. In furtherance of this argument, Defendants note that the New Jersey Supreme Court has stated that collateral estoppel should apply when

(i) the issue is identical to the issue decided in the earlier proceeding; (ii) the issue was actually litigated in an earlier proceeding; (iii) the court issued a final judgment on the merits; (iv) the determination was essential to the earlier judgment; and (v) the party against whom the doctrine is asserted was a party to or in privity with a party to the earlier proceeding.

( Id., at 8 (citing Ivan v. County of Middlesex, 595 F.Supp.2d 425, 474 (D.N.J. 2009); In re: Estate of Dawson, 136 N.J. 1, 20-21 (1994))). Defendants state that collateral estoppel may also apply to decisions rendered by administrative agencies. ( Id. (citing City of Hackensack v. Winner, 82 N.J. 1 (1980)). Further, courts may apply this principle even where every aforementioned element is not present when a litigant does not fully pursue an issue in the prior litigation ( See Winters v. North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue, 212 N.J. 67 (2012)) and, thus, since Plaintiff raised the bad faith issue during his CSC appeal, Defendants believe that Plaintiff should now be precluded from relitigating the issues of liability or damages. ( Id., at 9-10).

Finally, Defendants argue that New Jersey's "entire controversy doctrine" applies where a litigant fails to bring all known claims in the prior action and the subsequent action involves the same factual circumstances that gave rise to the underlying controversy. ( Id., at 11). Defendants state that the doctrine serves to preclude the filing of additional claims in subsequent lawsuits following prior adjudication of an action between the same ...

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