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Mercado v. Fargo

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

October 27, 2017

LUZ MERCADO; MAROLYN LA PAZ; ANNMARIE LAVINE, Plaintiffs,
v.
WELLS FARGO [and fictitious parties, Defendants.

          OPINION

          KEVIN MCNULTY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         The three plaintiffs, Luz Mercado, Maralyn La Paz, and Annmarie Lavine, were employees of a branch of Wells Fargo Bank (the "Bank") located on South Street in Morristown, New Jersey. They, as well as a fourth employee, David Bagley, were fired on May 1, 2013. The Bank told the employees it was dismissing them because they had opened accounts or issued debit cards without the customer's presence or authorization, and because Lavine and La Paz had falsified La Paz's employee time records. The plaintiffs assert that their dismissal was actually motivated by racial discrimination, and seek damages under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("NJLAD"). Now before the Court is the Bank's motion for summary judgment (ECF no. 51).

         Two factors are perhaps most critical. First, the plaintiffs were fired based on misconduct that was thoroughly investigated and contemporaneously documented as the basis for dismissal. Second, these three plaintiffs-two identified as Black, and one as Hispanic-were replaced. Three persons-two identified as Black, and one as Hispanic-were hired as their replacements. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to infer the necessary discriminatory intent. And in fact the evidence gives rise to no such inference. For the reasons stated herein, the Bank's motion for summary judgment will be granted.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs filed this state-law Complaint in New Jersey Superior Court on April 27, 2015. (ECF no. 1) Count 1 of the Complaint asserts claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("NJLAD"), N.J. Stat. Ann. § 10:5-1 et seq., that the plaintiffs were discriminatorily dismissed on the basis of race and age. Count 2 asserts that the plaintiffs' dismissal constituted a breach of contract. Count 3 asserts that the plaintiffs' dismissal breached the implied contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing.[1]

         On June 16, 2015, the Bank removed the case to federal court based on this Court's diversity jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. 1332(a). The notice of removal recites that the plaintiffs are citizens of New Jersey, that the Bank is a citizen of South Dakota, and that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000.

         The parties have engaged in fact discovery. On August 7, 2017, the Bank filed the motion for summary judgment (ECF no. 51) that is now before the Court. The plaintiffs filed a response (ECF no. 60), and the Bank filed a reply (ECF no. 65). The matter is fully briefed and ripe for decision.

         II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) provides that summary judgment should be granted "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ.P. 56(a); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Kreschollek v. S. Stevedoring Co., 223 F.3d 202, 204 (3d Cir. 2000). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, a court must construe all facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Boyle v. County of Allegheny Pennsylvania, 139 F.3d 386, 393 (3d Cir. 1998). The moving parry bears the burden of establishing that no genuine issue of material fact remains. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). "[W]ith respect to an issue on which the nonmoving party bears the burden of proof ... the burden on the moving party may be discharged by 'showing'-that is, pointing out to the district court-that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325.

         Once the moving party has met that threshold burden, the non-moving party "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). The opposing party must present actual evidence that creates a genuine issue as to a material fact for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c) (setting forth types of evidence on which nonmoving party must rely to support its assertion that genuine issues of material fact exist). "[Unsupported allegations ... and pleadings are insufficient to repel summary judgment." Schoch v. First Fid. Bancorporation, 912 F.2d 654, 657 (3d Cir. 1990); see also Gleason v. Norwest Mortg., Inc., 243 F.3d 130, 138 (3d Cir. 2001) ("A nonmoving party has created a genuine issue of material fact if it has provided sufficient evidence to allow a jury to find in its favor at trial."). If the nonmoving party has failed "to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial, ... there can be 'no genuine issue of material fact, ' since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.'' Katz v. Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co., 972 F.2d 53, 55 (3d Cir. 1992) (quoting Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23).

         In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court's role is not to evaluate the evidence and decide the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249, 106 S.Ct. 2505. Credibility determinations are the province of the fact finder. Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992).

         The summary judgment standard, however, does not operate in a vacuum. "[I]n ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the judge must view the evidence presented through the prism of the substantive evidentiary burden." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 254 (1986). That shifting "evidentiary burden" is discussed in Section III.B.1, infra.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Age Discrimination and Breach of Contract

         In response to the Bank's motion for summary judgment, the plaintiffs have consented to the dismissal of a majority of their claims. In particular, they have abandoned Count 1, insofar as it alleges an N JLAD claim of age discrimination; Count 2, which alleges breach of contract; and Count 3, which alleges breach of the implied contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing. See Pl. Brf. 8 (concluding discussion of racial/ethic discrimination and stating "C. Plaintiffs abandon all other claims in the Complaint.")).

         Those abandoned claims are therefore dismissed on consent, with prejudice.

         B. Racial or Ethnic Discrimination under the NJLAD

         A single claim remains: the portion of the Count 1 NJLAD claim that alleges discriminatory dismissal on the basis of race. The remainder of this Opinion discusses that racial discrimination claim.

         1. Standard of proof - McDonnell Douglas

         In discrimination cases, courts evaluate motions for summary judgment under the specialized burden-shifting regime set out in McDonnell Douglas v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). That framework, adopted from federal Title VII cases, applies where, as here, the plaintiff asserts an NJLAD claim that rests on circumstantial evidence of discrimination. Zive v. Stanley Roberts, Inc., 182 N.J. 436, 447, 867 A.2d 1133, 1139 (2005) (applying McDonnell Douglas test to NJLAD discrimination case); Bergen Commercial Bank v. Sisler, 157 N.J. 188, 209, 723 A.2d 944, 954 (1999) (same).

         McDonnell Douglas divides the burden of production into three steps, shuttling between the plaintiff and the defendant.

         Step 1: The Prima Facie Case.

         At die outset, the plaintiff must state a prima facie claim of discrimination. Zive, 182 N.J. at 447, 867 A.2d at 1139; see Burton v. Teleflex Inc., 707 F.3d 417, 426 (3d Cir. 2013). To make out a prima facie case "in a [N]LAD discriminatory] discharge case, a plaintiff must prove that: (1) she[2] was in tiie protected group; (2) she was performing her job at a level that met her employer's legitimate expectations;[3] (3) she nevertheless was fired; and (4) the employer sought someone to perform the same work after she left." Id. at 450, 867 A.2d at 1141 (citing Clowes v. Terminix Int'l, Inc., 109 N.J. 575, 597, 538 A.2d 794, 805 (1988)).

         Step 2: Legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the termination.

         If the plaintiff states a prima facie case, the burden of production shifts to the defendant, which must articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory basis for the adverse employment action. Zive, 182 N.J. at 449, 867 A.2d at 1140 (citing Clowes, 109 N.J. at 596, 538 A.2d at 805).

         Step ...


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