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Parker v. Atlantic City Board of Education

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 19, 2018

DEWANE PARKER, Plaintiff,
v.
ATLANTIC CITY BOARD OF EDUCATION, BARRY CALDWELL, JOHN DEVLIN, DONNA HAYE, AND PAUL SPAVENTA, Defendants.

          OPINION

          JOSEPH H. RODRIGUEZ U.S.D.J.

         Honorable Joseph H. Rodriguez This matter is before the Court on Defendants' motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. Oral argument on the motion was heard December 4, 2017 and the record of that proceeding is incorporated here. For the reasons placed on the record that day, and those articulated here, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

         Background

         Plaintiff DeWane Parker held the position of Atlantic City's School District's Supervisor of Security from May 9, 2001 to June 30, 2015. By all accounts, Plaintiff was a competent and qualified supervisor with no performance issues. He alleges he was terminated for refusing to participate in School Board politics and for repeatedly objecting to violations of law and policy within the District. Beside the Atlantic City Board of Education, Plaintiff named as Defendants his direct supervisor Barry Caldwell, Assistant Superintendent of the Atlantic City School District, John Devlin, School Board President, Donna Haye, Superintendent until May 2015, and Paul Spaventa, [1] Interim Superintendent beginning July 1, 2015.

         Defendants maintain that Plaintiff's termination was part of a reduction in force. On February 19, 2015, the State of New Jersey appointed a Monitor to oversee the District's operations. (McCartney Dep. 17:20-18:12.) He served in this role for a year, until February 2016. (McCartney Dep. 17:20-18:12.) The Monitor was directed to “[r]educe the budget [for the District] and make [it] fiscally responsible. Analyze every fiscal decision that's made there and don't approve any event [ ] not in keeping with responsible actions.” (McCartney Dep. 33:1-10.) The District required $20 million in State assistance to meet its minimum tax levy for the upcoming school year. (McCartney Dep. 27:13-28:24; 72:1-16.) He did not focus exclusively on a reduction in force to reduce costs; rather, he looked at the utility of every operation within the District including, but not limited to, scrutinizing all of the District's expenses; reviewing all purchase orders; looking at all District buildings to see if consolidation was possible; working with real estate agents to explore the possibility of selling vacant buildings; exploring the possibility of moving the Board's office to a new, less expensive space; investigating moving the location of the alternative school; scrutinizing the cost of food services for the students as well as the Board; examining transportation to determine whether busing could be handled more efficiently; and exploring whether the deployment of District personnel could be altered to cut costs. (McCartney Dep. 33:11-34:20.) However, his analysis of the Board's operations and fiscal situation led him to conclude that non-personnel related cuts alone would be insufficient to stem the Board's financial crisis. (McCartney Dep. 39:12-18.)

         Plaintiff requested a Donaldson Hearing before the Board to discuss the decision to eliminate his position in the RIF. (Perla Decl., ¶18, Exh. J.) The Board granted Plaintiff's request. (Id.) On June 29, 2015, at a Special Meeting of the Board, seven Donaldson Hearings were conducted for non-tenured employees that had previously been non-renewed. (Perla Decl., ¶18, Exh. J.) Plaintiff attended this hearing. (Perla Decl., ¶18, Exh. J.) The Board, with then-President Devlin and Board members who Plaintiff claims Caldwell supported, voted to reinstate Plaintiff along with six other employees. (Pl. Dep. 273:4-274:18; Perla Decl., ¶18, Exh. J.) Only July 1, 2015, the State Monitor overruled the Board's June 29, 2015 decision to reinstate Plaintiff and the six other employees. (Pl. Dep. 273:4-274:18; McCartney Dep. 144:10-145:24; Perla Decl., ¶18, Exh. J.) As a result, none of these employees were reinstated. (Id.)

         Spaventa was in the first week of his employment with the District when Plaintiff took the District's vehicle from District grounds after he had been terminated. (Caldwell Dep. 124:2-21; Spaventa Dep. 50:9-51:7; 51:22-52:4; 52:10-19; 54:5-10; 64:6-11; 71:4-23; 74:3-75:16; 83:3-7.) According to Caldwell, he met with Spaventa and the Monitor and, “in a show of restraint, ” they agreed to call the Atlantic City Police Department so an officer who knew Plaintiff could contact him and ask him to return the District property still in his possession. (Caldwell Dep. 119:24-120:25; Spaventa Dep. 53:4-54:10; 54:24-56:24; 59:23-60:7; 61:3-8.)

         Only July 9, 2015, Spaventa filed a complaint with the ACPD to insure Plaintiff returned the District's property. (Spaventa Dep. 65:7-22; 69:18-71:3; 72:25-73:7; 75:10-18; 93:8-23; 99:4-100:19; 167:16-24.) While at the ACPD, Spaventa informed the police officer taking the information that he would dismiss the Complaint once Plaintiff returned the items. (Spaventa Dep. 70:15-71:3.) Deputy Chief Tim Friel left Plaintiff a message on July 9, 2015; told him the District was filing a complaint against him for theft; and told him to return “keys” and “anything” to the State Monitor. (Pl. Dep. 285:15-286:4; 352:18-25.) Spaventa was not aware at the time he filed the Complaint that one of the items listed (an iPad) had been returned by Plaintiff two days earlier. (Spaventa Dep. 73:20-74:2; Perla Decl., ¶27, Exh. S.) The complaint was dismissed two weeks after Plaintiff returned all of the items. (Id.)

         The State Monitor relied on the District's administrators, such as the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendents, to determine how the District would solve any issues raised by the decreased level of personnel. (McCartney Dep. 69:6-70:4; 119:24-120:16; 121:7-122:19.) He left it to the District to determine how it would supervise ground-level security personnel in the absence of the Supervisor of Security and Truancy position. (Id.)

         Shortly after Plaintiff was terminated, Defendants advertised for a new position, Coordinator of Public Safety (“Coordinator”) to oversee security in the District. (Pl. Dep. 296:12-23; Caldwell Dep. 147:25-148:22.) Plaintiff felt that the Coordinator position was essentially the same job as the Supervisor of Security position he formerly held. Accordingly, Plaintiff argues that the reinstatement of this supervisory position supports his claim that he was “lumped in” with an otherwise valid RIF to cover his allegedly unlawful termination. Plaintiff applied to the Coordinator of Public Safety position, listing the RIF as the reason he left his prior position. (Pl. Dep. 296:24-297:2; Perla Decl., ¶29, Exh. U.) Caldwell was solely responsible for screening all applicants for the Coordinator of Public Safety position and made the decision not to interview Plaintiff for the job. (Caldwell Dep. 161:22-162:12.) Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on December 17, 2015, alleging he was terminated and not re-hired because of discrimination and retaliation.

         Summary Judgment Standard \

         “Summary judgment is proper if there is no genuine issue of material fact and if, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Pearson v. Component Tech. Corp., 247 F.3d 471, 482 n.1 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)); accord Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 (a). Thus, the Court will enter summary judgment in favor of a movant who shows that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, and supports the showing that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations . . . admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 (c)(1)(A).

         An issue is “genuine” if supported by evidence such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in the nonmoving party's favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is “material” if, under the governing substantive law, a dispute about the fact might affect the outcome of the suit. Id. In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court must view the facts and all reasonable inferences drawn from those facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

         Initially, the moving party has the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the moving party has met this burden, the nonmoving party must identify, by affidavits or otherwise, specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id.; Maidenbaum v. Bally's Park Place, Inc., 870 F.Supp. 1254, 1258 (D.N.J. 1994). Thus, to withstand a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must identify specific facts and affirmative evidence that contradict those offered by the moving party. Andersen, 477 U.S. at 256-57. “A nonmoving party may not ‘rest upon mere allegations, general denials or . . . vague statements . . ...


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