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Anderson v. The Mercer County Sheriff's Department

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

January 17, 2018



          PETER G. SHERIDAN, U.S.D.J.

         This matter is before the Court on a motion for summary judgment brought by Defendant, The Mercer County Sheriff's Department (ECF No. 195).


         On December 30, 2011, Plaintiff filed the original Complaint in this action as a pro se Plaintiff, naming eleven defendants. (ECF No. 1).[1] On June 15, 2012, Judge Pisano entered an order dismissing the State of New Jersey. Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint on July 16, 2012, asserting claims against Mercer County Sheriff's Office, the County of Mercer, the Mercer County Administrator, and PBA Local 187. On February 28, 2013, Judge Pisano dismissed all of the Defendants, except the Mercer County Sheriff's Office and PBA Local 187. Judge Pisano thereafter dismissed all claims against the PBA Local 187 on January 29, 2015. (ECF No. 111). As such, Mercer County Sheriff's Office is the sole remaining Defendant in this action. The Sheriff's Office now moves for summary judgment on the remaining claims of: Title VII, Race Discrimination (Count I), Gender Discrimination (Count VIII); and Retaliation (Count II); and the (Conscientious Employee Protection Act CEPA), based only on alleged retaliatory events that occurred after December 30, 2010 (Count IV).

         The Amended Complaint consists of 61 paragraphs of alleged facts, followed by the eight Counts, four of which remain. Within the 61 paragraphs of alleged facts, the Amended Complaint depicts various incidences of alleged adverse treatment in connection with Plaintiff's employment. Plaintiff also contends that Officers “less senior” than her were treated more favorably[2], that she was sexually harassed, and that she was denied over-time hours and pay for retaliatory reasons.

         The Amended Complaint is not precise and it is difficult to assess how each alleged incident is related to the alleged causes of action. In addition, Plaintiff asserts more alleged incidents of discriminatory conduct in her opposition to the summary judgment motion than were originally asserted in the Amended Complaint. In light of same, each incident is reviewed separately below.


         Generally, Plaintiff began her employment with the Mercer County Sheriff's Office in 1992 and retired in 2014. She was a member of the PBA Local 187 Labor Union. Plaintiff was assigned to the Child Support Hearing Officers at the Mercer County Courthouse in Trenton, New Jersey for twelve years.

         Corbin Incident (Amended Complaint ¶¶ 9-14.)

         On September 24, 2009, Christopher Corbin allegedly insulted Plaintiff on a staff transport bus by “calling her an offensive name in a disdainful and demeaning manner in the presence of county staff and her fellow Sheriff Officers.” Discovery revealed that Plaintiff, in a memorandum to Lt. Samonski alleged that Officer Corbin said to Plaintiff, “Don't call me on the speaker phone, ” and allegedly told her that she must be “stupid”. (Kemler Cert. ¶ 32 Ex. 10).

         According to Plaintiff, the incident was initially reported to the sergeant on duty, Sergeant Harold Fowler, an African American officer. Thereafter, the investigation was assigned to Sergeant Patakula. Plaintiff was upset with this change of the investigator because according to her, Sergeant Patakula was a “white” friend of Officer Corbin. Plaintiff further alleges that Patakula did not conduct a thorough investigation. According to her Complaint, Patakula accused Anderson of being too polite, and told her that he would instruct Corbin to behave respectfully and professionally toward her. On October 13, 2009, Plaintiff wrote a memorandum to Lieutenant Patricia Samonski regarding her dissatisfaction with the investigation. She did not receive an answer. On December 4, 2009, Plaintiff wrote a letter to Kevin Larkin, then Mercer County Sheriff, regarding the Officer Corbin incident.

         Special Accommodations and Overtime (Amended Complaint ¶¶ 15-17; ¶¶ 38-40)

         Within the December 4, 2009 letter to Sheriff Kevin Larkin, Plaintiff also complained about alleged unfair distribution of overtime. Plaintiff alleges “special accommodations, ” including extra overtime, training and promotion opportunities, which Anderson claimed were special privileges, were “reserved for white officers”, and that black officers were never assigned these “special privileges.” According to Plaintiff, Larkin did not respond to the letter; but in December 2009 she was allegedly interviewed in an intimidating manner and instructed to keep her complaints on the “down low” and not hire an attorney.[3] (Andersen Cert. ¶46).

         In early 2010, Plaintiff was transferred to the Criminal Courthouse which allegedly denied her an opportunity to work overtime. She points specifically to Officer Darryl Taylor who allegedly consistently allowed “white officers” to work overtime but denied Plaintiff. Plaintiff was also allegedly denied overtime by Sergeant Charles Wert. (Amend. Compl. ¶38-40). The Amended Complaint does not explain the circumstances of how this occurred. Plaintiff was moved back to the Civil Courthouse building at 175 Broad Street in 2011 and again reassigned to the Criminal Courthouse in 2012.

         Transfer to Criminal Court (Amended Complaint ¶ 18-29).

         In December 2009, Plaintiff began hearing rumors that she would be transferred from her long-term assignment with the Child Support Hearing Officers at the courthouse. Plaintiff alleges that the transfer to the criminal courthouse was in retaliation for the complaints in her letter to Sheriff Larkin about disparate treatment of African American Sheriff Officers.

         Anderson requested to stay in her former assignment, but her request was denied. Plaintiff was transferred to the Criminal Courthouse on January 4, 2010. Allegedly, Plaintiff was replaced by a white officer who had less seniority than her. In addition, she avers that two white officers similarly requested that they not be transferred to the Criminal Courthouse, and their requests were granted.

         Defendant rebuts these accusations, noting first, that there were fifteen officers including Plaintiff who were transferred, and those officers were of diverse backgrounds. Second, Defendant explains that such re-assignments are made twice a year in January and July. Third, in a letter dated January 21, 2010, Sheriff Larkin explained that two officers (Officer Perez and Bonifazi) were continuing in their assignments in the Civil Courthouse at the request of the Superior Court Judges to whom they had been assigned. Another officer, who was not transferred, had presented a letter from a physician indicating that reallocation to the Criminal Courthouse would exacerbate his existing health condition.

         Medical Reasons for Request not to be Transferred (Amended Complaint ¶ 30).

         Plaintiff also alleges that Defendant knew that the Criminal Courthouse was “medically unsafe”, but that she was transferred there anyway. Plaintiff alleges that exposure to asbestos was causing her to have some medical issues. According to Plaintiff, in April, 2012, her physician advised her that she should not work in a building contaminated with asbestos, and Plaintiff allegedly submitted a note from her physician regarding same[4]. According to Plaintiff, after she delivered the note from her doctor, Undersheriff Ellison, an African American officer, and Defendant Richard Piotrowski asked her to surrender her weapon and report to the county's doctor to see if she was fit for duty. (Amended Complaint ¶57-59). Plaintiff alleges that she was forced to walk to the doctor's office without her weapon or uniform. She alleges that this command placed her in danger from detainees and it was mandated as a means of retaliating against her for filing her doctor's note. (Id.)

         Defendant rebuts this allegation by noting that all officers are required to store their service weapon at the Sheriff's office prior to visiting the County doctor. As a matter of policy and safety, officers are prohibited from bringing weapons into the doctor's office. (Ellison Cert. ¶6). Further, Defendant rebuts that Plaintiff was not forced to walk, or placed in danger, but was instead driven to the parking garage to obtain her personal vehicle, which she drove to the County Doctor. (Ellison Cert. ¶7).

         After being examined by the County doctor, Plaintiff did not return to work for a few days due to high blood pressure. When she returned, she had a note from her personal physician ...

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