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Goode v. New Jersey Department of Corrections

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

April 28, 2015

YVONNE GOODE, Plaintiff,
v.
NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al., Defendants.

OPINION

WILLIAM J. MARTINI, District Judge.

Plaintiff Yvonne Goode filed this workplace discrimination action against Defendants New Jersey Department of Corrections ("DOC"), Northern State Prison, Gary Lanigan, Paul Lagana, Jvehghn Brown, Victoria Kuhn, and Hatha Baraka, asserting various federal and state law claims. The Amended Complaint alleges that Defendants subjected her to name-calling and wrongfully punished her for insubordination due to her race and gender. It further alleges that after Plaintiff complained about the alleged mistreatment, Defendants retaliated by wrongfully disseminating her private information. The Court will refer to Defendants Lanigan, Lagana, Brown, Kuhn, and Baraka collectively as the "Individual Defendants."

This matter comes before the Court on Defendants' motion for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. There was no oral argument. Fed.R.Civ.P. 78(b). For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion is GRANTED.

I. BACKGROUND

The following facts are undisputed. The DOC operates Northern State Prison, which is located in Newark, New Jersey. Plaintiff - an African American female - began working at Northern State Prison on June 4, 2000 and has been a Senior Corrections Officer since 2001. Defendant Lanigan is the Commissioner of the DOC. Defendant Lagana was the Administrator of Northern State Prison from August 2010 through December 2013. Defendant Brown is a Corrections Sergeant at Northern State Prison. Defendant Kuhn is the Director of the DOC's Equal Employment Division ("EED"). Defendant Baraka is the former Corrections Chief at Northern State Prison.

The August 10, 2010 Incident and Related Proceedings

On August 10, 2010, Defendant Brown and his team - which included Plaintiff - responded to a Code 33 at Northern State Prison. D.'s R. 56.1 Stmt. ("D.'s Stmt.") ¶¶ 10, 12, ECF No. 55-2. A Code 33 indicates inmate fighting, and Brown and his team were responsible for securing the yard while the fight was contained. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 10, 12. Defendant Brown testified that, after his team secured the yard, he instructed them to submit reports documenting their actions during the Code. Certification of Ashwath S. Trasi, dated August 4, 2014 ("First Trasi Cert.") Ex. E 29:21-23, ECF No. 55.9. Plaintiff testified that Brown did not ask her to write a report, but admitted that departmental policy requires all officers involved in a Code 33 to write a report. Certification of Luretha M. Stribling ("Stribling Cert.") Ex. 3 15:23-24; 21:1-13, ECF No. 59.

Later that day, Sergeant Brown approached Plaintiff while she was having dinner in the officers' dining room and asked her why she had not filled out a report. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 18; Pl.'s Resp. to D.'s R. 56.1 Stmt. ("Pl.'s Resp. Stmt.") ¶ 18, ECF No. 58-20. The parties disagree about the tone of the conversation - Plaintiff testified that Brown started yelling at her about the report. Stribling Cert. Ex. 3 21:3-5. In response, Plaintiff asked, "What report?" D.'s Stmt. ¶ 19; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 19. She also told Brown that no one told her to write a report and that he should not speak to her that way front of others. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 19; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 19. Plaintiff then told Brown to "calm down" and said that if he needed to speak to her, he should "take [her] outside." D.'s Stmt. ¶ 20; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 19. Brown then instructed Plaintiff to step outside the dining room to discuss the report. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 21; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 21. Plaintiff responded, "Right now I'm eating." D.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 22-23; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶¶ 22-23. She did not step outside to speak with Brown. Stribling Cert. Ex 3 21:3-22:10.

Brown filed a Special Custody Report, dated August 10, 2010, regarding the incident. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 24; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 24. In that report, Brown stated that Plaintiff became irate when he asked about her report and that she yelled and screamed at him. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 24; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 24. He further stated that Plaintiff refused to speak with him outside and demonstrated "flagrant insubordination." D.'s Stmt. ¶ 24; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 24. Defendant Stevens was assigned to investigate Plaintiff's insubordination. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 25; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 25. Stevens determined that Plaintiff's response to Brown's request to step outside was "clear insubordination." D.'s Stmt. ¶ 27; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 27.

As a result of the August 10, 2010 incident, Plaintiff received a Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action from the DOC sanctioning her with a 120-day suspension. Stribling Cert. Ex. 6. Defendants maintain that the length of Plaintiff's suspension was calculated based on her prior disciplinary record. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 31. Her record contains several prior incidents, including a 90-day suspension in 2004 for providing a false statement to the Superior Court of New Jersey, Essex County. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 32; Pl.'s Stmt. ¶ 32.

Plaintiff appealed the Preliminary Notice, and a Disciplinary Appeal Proceeding was held on October 14, 2014. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 33; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 33. Based on the testimony presented at the hearing, the Hearing Officer sustained the insubordination charge against Plaintiff. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 35; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 35. He also sustained the 120-suspension based on Plaintiff's prior 90-day suspension and the DOC's progressive discipline policy. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 35; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 35. The DOC then issued a Final Notice of Disciplinary Action, dated October 19, 2010, to Plaintiff. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 36; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 36.

The November 7, 2010 Settlement Agreement

On October 14, 2010, after Plaintiff's hearing had concluded, Plaintiff met with her union representative and union officers. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 37; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 37. They told her that Defendant Lagana was willing to enter into a settlement agreement with her to reduce her suspension. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 38; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 38. Plaintiff testified that her union representative explained that under the agreement, she would agree not to appeal her suspension and, in exchange, her suspension would be reduced to 45 days. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 39; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 39. Plaintiff also testified that her union representative told her that if she chose to appeal, she would be forced to immediately begin serving her 120-day suspension without pay. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 40; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 40.

On November 7, 2010, Plaintiff signed a settlement agreement with Northern State Prison (the "Settlement Agreement"). D.'s Stmt. ¶ 41; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 41. The Settlement Agreement reduced her suspension to 45 days. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 41; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 41. Further, she would be required to serve only a 10-day suspension, with the other 35 days remaining for record-keeping purposes. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 41; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 41. In exchange, Plaintiff gave up certain legal rights. Specifically, Section 6 of the Settlement Agreement states:

Appellant waives all claims, suits or actions, whether known, unknown, vested or contingent, civil, criminal, or administrative in law or equity against the State of New Jersey, the New Jersey Department of Corrections, their employees, agents, or assigns, including but not limited to those which have been or could have been made or prosecuted on account of any conduct of any party occurring at any time with respect to the events, information and disputes giving rise to this action up to the date of this agreement, including, but not limited to all claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and Conscientious Employee Protection Act, and any contract express or implied.

First Trasi Cert. Ex. K § 6, ECF No. 55-17. Plaintiff's union representative also signed the Settlement Agreement. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 42; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 42. Additionally, Plaintiff executed a certification confirming her understanding that the Settlement Agreement terminated "all claims and further appeal against the State of New Jersey Department of Corrections." D.'s Stmt. ¶ 43; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 43. Per the Settlement Agreement, Plaintiff served only 10 suspension days. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 45; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 45.

Plaintiff's Claim Notice

On November 20, 2010, Plaintiff filed a Notice of Tort Claim (the "Claim Notice"). D.'s Stmt. ¶ 46; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 46. The Claim Notice states that Plaintiff "was subjected to excessive and unwarranted punishment and was given excess time off from work per an alleged charge of insubordination" and has been "subjected to mental abuse, discrimination, hostile work environment, and loss of wages." D.'s Stmt. ¶ 47; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 47. In her Claim Notice, Plaintiff provided her home address, social security number, birth date, and telephone number. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 48; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 48.

In a January 10, 2010 letter, Defendant Kuhn, the EED Director, sent a Notice to Preserve Documents to individuals within the Northern State Prison. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 49; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 49. The Claim Notice was attached to the Notice to Preserve Documents. First Trasi Cert. Ex F 24:4-10. The Notice to Preserve Documents is addressed to seven individuals: Defendant Lagana, Litigation Liaison Mario Viera, Human Resource Manager LaShanta Evans, Defendant Brown, Officer Tashana Baldwin, Officer Dennis Robinson, and Officer Omar Martin. Stribling Cert. Ex. 11. Kuhn testified that the EED office disseminated, pursuant to office policy, copies of the Claim Notice to individuals at Northern State Prison with knowledge of the issues raised in the Claim Notice. D.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 52-53; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶¶ 52-53. Plaintiff argues that disseminating her Claim Notice violated the DOC's Identify Theft Prevention Policy (the "Identity Theft Policy") and Employee Personnel Records: Employee Mailing Addresses Policy (the "Employee Records Policy").

Plaintiff's Allegations of Gender Discrimination

Plaintiff claims that Defendant Brown spoke to female officers differently than male officers and that he was disrespectful to her on August 10, 2010 because she is a woman. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 64; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 64. Plaintiff testified that she has heard Brown use the word "bitches" and refer to his ex-wife as a "bitch." D.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 65, 67; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶¶ 65, 67. However, she admits that Brown has never called her a "bitch." D.'s Stmt. ¶ 66; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 66. Plaintiff also testified that she overheard Brown refer to another female officer as a "bitch" while he was speaking with two other officers. D.'s Stmt. ¶ 70; Pl.'s Resp. Stmt. ¶ 70. Plaintiff admitted that other than that one occasion, she has never heard Brown refer to a female ...


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