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Best v. Housing Auth.

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

November 18, 2014

MICHAEL BEST, II, Plaintiff,
v.
HOUSING AUTHORITY, ET AL., Defendants

Page 466

For Michael Best, II, Plaintiff: LaTonya N. Bland-Tull, Esq., HAGERTY & BLAND-TULL LAW, LLC, Moorestown, NJ.

For Housing Authority, Urban Redevelopment Agency of the City of Atlantic City, Urylene Judy Grate, and Pamela James, Defendants: Susan E. Volkert, Esq., DECOTIIS, FITZPATRICK, COLE & WISLER, LLP, Teaneck, NJ.

OPINION

Page 467

HONORABLE JEROME B. SIMANDLE, Chief United States District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff, a former employee of the Housing Authority and Urban Redevelopment Agency of the City of Atlantic City (" ACHA" ), alleges in an eight-count complaint that he was fired due to his political affiliation and in retaliation for exercising his rights under the United States and New Jersey Constitutions and the Family and Medical Leave Act. This matter comes before the Court on Defendants' motion for summary judgment. [Docket Item 23.] Defendants maintain that Plaintiff's claims are supported only by bare allegations in his complaint, and contrary to these allegations, Plaintiff's position at ACHA was eliminated as part of a well-documented workforce reduction in 2011. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant Defendants' motion for summary judgment on all claims.

II. BACKGROUND

A. Facts

Plaintiff Michael Best was employed by the Housing Authority and Urban Redevelopment

Page 468

Agency of the City of Atlantic City as a Social Caseworker Supervisor and Family Self-Sufficiency Coordinator (" FSS Coordinator" ) from April 3, 2006 to June 24, 2011. (Def. SMF [Docket Item 23-2] ¶ 1.) Plaintiff is the nephew of former Atlantic City Council President, Craig Calloway,[1] who was a political opponent of former Mayor Lorenzo Langford. (Id. ¶ 5; Pl. Counterstatement of Material Facts (" Pl. CMF" ) [Docket Item 32] ¶ 2.) His mother, Gwendolyn Lewis, is Craig Calloway's sister and a former ACHA employee. (Def. SMF ¶ 6.) In the 2009 mayoral election, Plaintiff supported another opponent of Mayor Langford, Scott Evans. (Best Dep. [Docket Item 23-5] at 254:14-21.) Members of the ACHA Board are appointed by the Atlantic City Council. (Pl. CMF ¶ 10.)

Defendants Pamela James and Judy Grate were Plaintiff's supervisors at ACHA and both are supporters of Mayor Langford. (Id. ¶ 8.) James was involved in the hiring process for Plaintiff's position in 2006, but did not recommend him for the position. (Def. SMF ¶ 3.) She was aware that Plaintiff was Ms. Lewis' son and Langford's nephew, and has referred to Mayor Langford as a " friend or colleague." (Pl. CMF ¶ ¶ 6, 9.)

Plaintiff alleges that James and Grate treated him differently from other employees due to his relation to Calloway. In April, 2007, Plaintiff wrote a memo to Personnel Director, Alesia Humphrey,[2] complaining about James, his supervisor at the time. (Pl. Ex. B [Docket Item 34-1.]) In the memo, Plaintiff discusses James' request for a list of FSS clients and clarifies that he has no objection to her request for the list, " but she was condescending in her tone and the nature of these questions . . . seemed more like accusations and innuendos implying things were being done improper [sic]." (Id.) In March, 2007, Plaintiff wrote a memo to ACHA Acting Executive Director, James Gannone, raising his concern that James would use her position as his supervisor " for retaliatory purposes" due to her " personal objection to me and my family." (Pl. Ex. C [Docket Item 34-1.]) Plaintiff attached a newspaper article from March 29, 2007 to corroborate his concerns. (Id.) The newspaper article reported that James' sister, Gabrielle Jacobs-Caldwell, Vice Principal of the Richmond Avenue School, was disheartened by numerous failed attempts at a promotion to principal due to " the votes of a six-member bloc aligned with former City Council President Craig Callaway." (Id.) The article noted that Caldwell " claims the votes against her are political pay-back stemming from her sister Pamela Jones, an official with the city's Housing Authority, refusing to hire Callaway's nephew, Michael Best, also a former school board member." [3](Id.)

Plaintiff asserts that his mistreatment by James and Grate intensified when Mayor Langford took office and " more board members became Langford board members at the Housing Authority." (Best Dep. at 231:6-18.) Plaintiff contends, based on a January 28, 2010 memo, that Grate required him to " clock in and out" and took away his office and " all [of his] different job duties and job descriptions" that he performed before Grate became

Page 469

his supervisor.[4](Id. at 162:24-164:14.) When Grate became Resident Services Supervisor, she informed Plaintiff that he was demoted, prevented him from attending senior staff meetings, prohibited him from using the ACHA van, and removed two employees, John Wright and Melinda Batts, from his supervision. (Id. at 236:4-8; 238:8-22.)

Plaintiff also contends that the ACHA discriminated and retaliated against him for taking leave under FMLA in 2009 and 2010. (Def. SMF ¶ 29.) Defendant Grate requested that Plaintiff notify her of his requests for Intermittent Family Medical Leave by calling her business cellular phone instead of her office phone. (Id. ¶ 31.) However, Plaintiff did not call her business cell phone as directed. (Id. ¶ 32.) This upset Grate because she would not know if Plaintiff was taking leave until she arrived at work. (Pl. CMF ¶ 30.) In one instance, Plaintiff was initially granted leave, then notified by Human Resources that he was not eligible for FMLA and that his leave would be unpaid. (Id. ¶ 34; Def. SMF ¶ 26.) During his leave, James and Grate reassigned some of Plaintiff's clients to another employee. (Pl. CMF ¶ 27.) Grate locked some of Plaintiff's files in her office and prevented him from accessing them. (Best Dep. at 190:3-9.)

While employed at ACHA, Plaintiff filed union grievances against James and Grate, as well as a tort claims notice against Defendants for violating his rights. (Pl. CMF ¶ ¶ 31-32.)

On May 6, 2011, Plaintiff was notified that " for reasons of economy and efficiency you will be laid off from your permanent or probationary position of: Social Case Work Supervisor effective at the close of the working day on June 24, 2011." (Def. SMF ¶ 23.) On May 10, 2011, ACHA provided to the Communication Workers of America -- Local 1038 and the New Jersey Civil Service Commission (" CSC" ) a list of nine employees who had been laid off, including Plaintiff.[5](Id. ¶ 24.)

James made the decision to terminate Plaintiff's employment. (Pl. CMF ¶ 41.) Grate testified that she was not involved in the decision to terminate Plaintiff and no one consulted her about whether he should be terminated. (Grate Dep., Def. Ex. D [Docket Item 23-6] at 37:15-22.) Plaintiff is unaware whether Grate was involved in the layoff decision, but assumes that the decision makers would ask her because she was his immediate supervisor. (Best Dep. at 208:16-209:4.)

Following Plaintiff's termination, Grate was responsible for two vacant positions of Service Coordinator for which Plaintiff applied. (Pl. CMF ¶ 34.) She interviewed applicants for the vacancies and hired two individuals not previously employed by ACHA. (Id. ...


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