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Johnson v. Camden City School District

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 31, 2017

BARBARA JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
CAMDEN CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.

          ARI R. KARPF JULIA W. CLARK KATIE ANN PILGREN TIMOTHY STEVEN SEILER KARPF, KARPF & CERUTTI, P.C. On behalf of Plaintiff

          RICHARD L. GOLDSTEIN ASHLEY L. TOTH MARSHALL, DENNEHEY, WARNER, COLEMAN & GOGGIN, PA WOODLAND FALLS CORPORATE PARK On behalf of Defendant.

          OPINION

          NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

         Presently before the Court is the motion of Defendant for summary judgment on Plaintiff's claims that Defendant violated her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act. For the reasons expressed below, Defendant's motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff, Barbara Johnson, was employed by Defendant, Camden City School District, as a head custodian from 1996 until August 30, 2013. As head custodian, Plaintiff was responsible for supervising four adult custodians and, during the summer, four student custodians who were employed through a work program. Even though Plaintiff worked at different schools in Camden over the years, she was stationed at the Cramer School from 2009 through her termination in August 2013.

         On June 20, 2013, Plaintiff requested leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq., to care for her mother who was diagnosed with cancer. Plaintiff requested that the leave would be taken intermittently from June 2013 through December 2013. The District approved Plaintiff's request.

         Plaintiff claims that when she informed the Cramer School's principal, Andrea Surratt, that the District had granted Plaintiff's intermittent FMLA leave request, Surratt became extremely hostile to her. Plaintiff claims that when she began to take time off to care for her mother, Surratt became even more hostile.

         On July 18, 2013, a few weeks after Plaintiff began her intermittent FMLA leave, the Cramer School was broken into by two teenage males. The perpetrators stole a flat screen television, X-Box, K-Nect System, DVD player, Dell laptop and a number of games and other items. Video surveillance showed that the boys used a ladder to enter the school through a window which was unlocked and without an alarm.

         On July 22, 2013, Surratt met with Plaintiff and requested that she not provide her keys to the student custodians or permit them to work without supervision because it had been reported to her by staff that they had seen students with keys, and it appeared that the teenage burglars knew their way around the school and where to go to get what they wanted. The next day, a student used Plaintiff's keys and did not return them to her.[1] The following morning, July 24, 2013, the student's aunt returned Plaintiff's keys to the front office.

         Later that day, Surratt wrote a letter to the District's Director of Facilities, Steve Nicolella. Surratt detailed the circumstances of the break-in, and noted that a day after she told Plaintiff not to allow students to use her keys, a student had possession of her keys unsupervised. Surratt deemed Plaintiff's conduct to be insubordinate and endangered the safety and security of the students and staff of the building. Surratt requested a meeting with Plaintiff's union representative and asked that action be taken against Plaintiff. Surratt also informed Nicolella that she was holding Plaintiff's keys until the meeting took place.

         On July 24, 2013, Plaintiff met with the Supervisor of Facilities, LaVon Tatem, Plaintiff's union representative, Leon Blackwell, and Surratt. Following the meeting, Tatem wrote a letter to Plaintiff, informing her that her conduct constituted insubordination and caused an unsafe work environment in violation of School Board policy. Tatem recommended termination for this offence, explaining: “You were told not to give your keys to students and did so anyway, then forgot to retrieve them from the student to which the aunt of the student brought the keys back to the building the next day. This also happened days after a break-in at your building which is still being investigated.” (Docket No. 27-4 at 8.) Plaintiff was suspended at the end of July 2013, and on August 27, 2013, the District Superintendent and Advisory Board's meeting approved Plaintiff's termination effective August 30, 2013.

         Plaintiff claims that the District's action violated her FMLA rights in two ways.[2] First, Plaintiff contends that the District interfered with her FMLA rights when Surratt started to become hostile to her when she informed Surratt of her intention to take intermittent FMLA to care for her ill mother, and then increased her hostility when Plaintiff began taking time off. Second, Plaintiff claims that her termination for the keys issue was a pretext and the true motivation for her termination was her use of FMLA leave.

         The District has moved for summary judgment on both Plaintiff's interference and retaliation claims. Plaintiff has opposed the District's motion, arguing that material disputed facts require that the matter must go to a jury.

         DISCUSSION

         A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         This Court has jurisdiction over Plaintiff's federal claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, and supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's state law claim pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

         B. Standard for Summary Judgment

         Summary judgment is appropriate where the Court is satisfied that the materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations, admissions, or interrogatory answers, demonstrate that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a ...


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