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Skoorka v. Kean University

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 11, 2019

BRUCE M. SKOORKA, Plaintiff,
KEAN UNIVERSITY et al., Defendants.


          KEVIN MCNULTY, U.S.D.J.

         Pro se plaintiff Dr. Bruce M. Skoorka brings this action, one of several asserting claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act against two groups of defendants. The first group (referred to as the "Kean Defendants") consists of Kean University, the Board of Trustees of Kean University (together, "Kean"), and the State of New Jersey. The second group (referred to as the "Union Defendants") consists of the Kean Federation of Teachers, the Council of New Jersey State Locals ("CNJSL"), and the American Federation of Teachers. Now before this Court is the motion of the Kean Defendants to partially dismiss the complaint and the motion of the Union Defendants to dismiss all claims. For the reasons set forth in this Opinion, the motions are granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Background[1]

         Dr. Skoorka has been a professor at Kean University since 1996. (EEOC Charge ¶ 1). Around 2000, he was granted tenure. (Id.). Dr. Skoorka is a member of the Jewish faith, a fact relevant to his claims. (EEOC Charge ¶ 2). Dr. Skoorka asserts that he engaged in protected Title VII activities during his time at Kean University. (Id.). In particular, he has filed numerous EEOC charges, discrimination claims, and internal complaints against the defendants. (Id. ¶¶ 1-10). Before reviewing the facts of this action, I will survey the history of Dr. Skoorka's claims.[2]

         a. Procedural History

         i. 2001 New Jersey state court action

         In November 2001, Dr. Skoorka brought a state court action against Kean, his union, and several individual defendants (the "2001 State Court Action". (Opinion A at *3 (affirming trial court's dismissal of the amended complaint after a jury trial); see also Opinion B (affirming in part and reversing in part the trial court's pretrial discovery orders, summary judgment opinion, and order regarding the plaintiffs motion to amend).)

         In the 2001 State Court Action, Dr. Skoorka alleged retaliation and discrimination on the basis of religion. (Opinion A at *3). He also alleged retaliation for reporting discrimination and other allegedly illegal conduct. (Id.). He pursued claims under the First Amendment, Equal Protection Clause, the Conscientious Employee Protection Act ("CEPA"), the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("NJLAD"), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act ("Title VII"), and Section 1983. (Id.).

         The suit took some ten years, two jury trials, and at least two written opinions from the Appellate Division to fully resolve itself-although the Appellate Division observed that Dr. Skoorka's case was "always weak." (Id. at *1). In the end, Dr. Skoorka was unsuccessful on all counts. (Id. at *11). The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's rulings, as well as the jury's verdict, in August 2011. (Id.).

         ii. 2006 EEOC charge and 2007 federal court action, refiled as 2009 action, subsequently consolidated with 2014 action

         On July 24, 2006, while his New Jersey state court suit was pending, Dr. Skoorka filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. (See No. 09-cv-3428, DE 123-5, p. 10-21.)

         On April 6, 2007, Dr. Skoorka brought an action in this federal court (the "2007 Action"). (See No. 07-cv-1629, DE 1.) On March 20, 2009, the parties entered into a consent order wherein the judge dismissed Dr. Skoorka's case and granted him leave to refile his complaint within 120 days. (See No. 07-cv-1629, DE 32.) The order stipulated that if Dr. Skoorka refiled his complaint, the date of filing would relate back to the original filing date of April 6, 2007. (Id.)

         Near the end of that 120-day period, Dr. Skoorka refiled his complaint (the "2009 Action"). (Opinion C). The 2009 Action attempted to relitigate some of the matters on which Skoorka had failed to prevail in the New Jersey state court action. (Opinion C at *3). The 2009 complaint also incorporated the 2007 complaint's allegations, with the addition of a few incidents that had allegedly occurred in the interim. (Id.).

         In a June 2, 2015 opinion, this Court, addressing the 2009 Action, granted summary judgment for defendants on the CEPA, NJLAD, and Title VII discrimination claims. (Opinion C). The Union Defendants were granted summary judgment in their favor. (Opinion C at *24). I surveyed some 15 allegations, many of which had been updated since the filing of the 2009 complaint. (Opinion C). Twelve of them, I found, were unsupported by any evidence at all. (Id.). Three, I found, had some minimal record support, and those three I discussed in light of the governing summary judgment standard. [Id.). The only claim to survive summary judgment was Dr. Skoorka's Title VII claim of retaliation, asserted against Kean. (Id.).

         In a February 25, 2016 opinion, this Court consolidated the 2009 Action with a later action, filed on June 27, 2014 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York but transferred here, (the "2014 Action", 14cv4561; see Opinion D). See also Skoorka v. Kean Univ., No. 14-cv-4561 KM MAH, 2015 WL 3561610, at *1 (D.N.J. June 5, 2015) (denying plaintiffs motion for leave to appeal the interlocutory transfer order and finding that the transfer was proper). The allegations in the 2014 Action virtually duplicated those in the 2009 Action. Dr. Skoorka frankly acknowledged that he was forum-shopping, filing the same action again in a different federal court because "to date, it has not been possible for Plaintiff to obtain a fair hearing of his claims against Defendants in New Jersey." (See No. 14-cv-4561, DE 11 at 21.) Because the 2009 and 2014 Actions appeared to be essentially identical, I consolidated them. (Opinion D). After doing so, however, I granted Dr. Skoorka leave to file a supplemental and amended complaint alleging that there were facts in the 2014 Action that post-dated (and therefore did not duplicate) the 2009 Action. (Id.). The Court further instructed that the supplemental and amended complaint should not rehash claims already disposed of on summary judgment opinion in the 2009 action. (Id.). On April 22, 2016, Dr. Skoorka filed the "Supplemental Amended Complaint," No. 09-cv-3428, DE 145. Despite the Court's instructions, much duplication nevertheless remained.

         In a June 30, 2017 opinion, this Court, considering the supplemental amended complaint in the consolidated 2009 and 2014 Actions, granted a motion to dismiss, with one exception: supplemental allegations of retaliatory deprivation of office equipment and supplies would be permitted to go forward in the context of the Title VII retaliation claim that had already survived summary judgment in the 2009 Action. (Opinion E). The Court also permitted limited additional discovery on the subject of the equipment and supplies. (Opinion E at *7). As of the date of this opinion, discovery in the consolidated 2009 and 2014 Actions has not yet closed.

         iii. 2015 EEOC charge and 2016 federal court action

         Dr. Skoorka filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC on February 16, 2015. After several amendments, Dr. Skoorka received a right to sue letter, and filed a second complaint in the Southern District of New York on June 2, 2016 (the "2016 Action"). (See No. 16-cv-3842, DE 1 ("2016 Action Complaint").) Venue of that case was transferred to this District on June 28, 2016. (See No. 16-cv-3842, DE 3.)

         In a June 26, 2018 opinion, this Court, considering the 2016 Action, granted motions to dismiss with the exception of a Title VII retaliation claim. (Opinion F at *3). The complaint in that 2016 SDNY Action, like the 2014 SDNY Action, seemed to raise or refer to allegations already disposed of in the Court's summary judgment opinion in the 2009 Action, but it also asserted more recent factual allegations. (Id.). The claims were for the most part dismissed. (Id. at *15). The surviving claims are Title VII retaliation, as against the Kean Defendants for transferring him to a nonteaching position, and as against the Union Defendants for failure to press grievances.

         The opinion concluded with the following note:

The Court is not unaware that Dr. Skoorka continues to reassert similar allegations in new actions, nor can it be blind to a history in which very few of his prior allegations were found to have even minimal evidentiary support. A fact finder may also be skeptical of a litigant's endless daisy chaining of "retaliation" claims, each time claiming that workplace grievances occurred in retaliation for prior, unsuccessful claims. That determination, however, is for another day.

(Opinion F at *15). (See also Opinion G at *6 (Skoorka v. Kean Univ., No. CV 16-3842 (KM), 2017 WL 6539449 (D.N.J. Dec. 21, 2017) (denying a motion for an injunction and sanctions against plaintiff under Fed.R.Civ.P. 11, but warning plaintiff that "[t]here comes a point beyond which a litigant cannot simply daisy-chain claims ad infinitum, each time claiming that the defendant is 'retaliating' for the unsuccessful claim immediately preceding")).

         iv. The 2016 EEOC charge and this 2017 federal court action

         On July 20, 2016, Dr. Skoorka again filed charges with the EEOC. (Cplt. p. 6). The EEOC issued a Notice of Right to Sue letter on January 23 and January 31, 2017. (Id. p. 6).

         On April 10, 2017, Dr. Skoorka filed the Complaint in this action (the "2017 Action") in yet a fourth[3] forum: the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, where it was assigned to Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall. On July 21, 2017, Judge Hall transferred the case to the District of New Jersey, where it was assigned to me. (DE 4) Post-transfer, on August 23, 2017, Dr.

         Skoorka filed an application for reconsideration of the transfer order (as he had done, unsuccessfully, with respect to the 2014 SDNY action). (DE 10).

         On September 29, 2017, Magistrate Judge Michael A. Hammer filed an order (DE 20) staying this case pending the outcome of dispositive motions in the 2016 Action. On October 24, 2017, Dr. Skoorka filed a motion for reconsideration regarding the order to stay (DE 23), which I denied. (DE 26). On July 10, 2018, Magistrate Judge Hammer lifted the stay. (DE 28).

         On July 31, 2018, the Kean Defendants filed the motion to dismiss (DE 29) that is now before this Court. The Kean Defendants move the Court to dismiss Dr. Skoorka's religious discrimination claim, discussed infra, and also his claims based on failure to promote and scheduling interference with Dr. Skoorka's secondary employment at NYU. (DE 29). On August 1, 2018, the Union Defendants filed a motion, also now before this Court, to dismiss the Complaint in its entirety. (DE 30). On October 22, 2018, Dr. Skoorka filed an opposition to both motions. (DE 37). On October 20, 2018, the Kean Defendants filed their reply to Dr. Skoorka's opposition. (DE 35).[4] On October 23, 2018, the Union Defendants submitted their reply. (DE 36).

         b. Factual Allegations of this Complaint

          With some exceptions, the factual allegations raised in Dr. Skoorka's current 2017 Complaint and the underlying EEOC charges are updates of his 2016 Action-i.e., they are similar in nature but are alleged to begin after the factual allegations of the 2016 Action end.[5] I note generally that the Complaint and EEOC Charges often fail to specify the dates on which alleged events occurred. (See e.g., EEOC Charge ¶ 19) ("Kean interfered with my religious observance by . . . attempting to deliver mail to me, late Friday afternoon, and by certified mail requiring signature confirming receipt on Yom Kippur and the Sabbath."). I will assume, however, that the claims in the complaint correspond to those in the EEOC charge, and that Dr. Skoorka therefore intends for this 2017 Action to cover the period from the end of September 2015 through July 2016. (See id. ¶ 14) (claiming in the EEOC Charge that "examples of unlawful conduct against me during the past 300 days . . . [are] set forth below") (emphasis added).)[6]

         i. Teaching duties[7]

         Dr. Skoorka alleges that Kean prevented him from teaching during the Spring 2016 and Fall 2016 semesters. (EEOC Charge ¶¶ 21, 26). Kean, he says, requires him to "sign in" and "sign out" of work every week day. As a result, he is required to sit in his office from 9am to 5pm. (Id. ¶¶ 15, 21, 26).

         ii. NYU teaching position[8]

         Dr. Skoorka makes the sweeping allegation that the defendants have interfered with his secondary employment at NYU. (EEOC Charge ¶ 31).

         iii. Disciplinary actions[9]

         Kean demanded that Dr. Skoorka attend a disciplinary interview. On or about September 24, 2015, Dr. Skoorka sent Kean an e-mail requesting that Kean provide "certain information prior to any 'disciplinary hearing.'" (EEOC Charge ¶ 16). On or about October 8, 2015, Dr. Skoorka sent Kean another e-mail with a similar request. (Id.). The information is not specified. Kean did not provide Dr. Skoorka with the information he requested, and allegedly denied Dr. Skoorka representation. (Id.).

         On September 30, 2015, and October 1, 6, 14, 20, and 23, 2015, Kean allegedly sent Dr. Skoorka e-mails, memos, and letters raising false accusations and criticisms against him. (EEOC Charge ¶ 17). Dr. Skoorka does not allege what accusations or criticisms were raised. (Id.). Broadly, he avers that "Kean has been stuffing my personnel file with these false and defamatory materials to coerce my resignation, set me up for adverse action and cause me to suffer damagers including damages to my reputation." [Id.). In October 2015, Kean issued an "Official Written Reprimand" to Dr. Skoorka and placed it in his file. [Id. ¶ 21). Dr. Skoorka alleges that the reprimand was baseless. (Id.).

         On September 30 and October 14, 2015, Kean forced Dr. Skoorka to attend "frivolous meetings with the administration, during which [he] was subject to discrimination, harassment and retaliations." (EEOC Charge ¶ 18). Dr. Skoorka alleges that similar meetings occurred at other unspecified times. (Id.). He does not allege what specifically occurred during any of these meetings. (Id.).

         In December 2015, Kean issued "Tenure Charges" against Dr. Skoorka. (EEOC Charge ¶ 22). Dr. Skoorka does not allege what specifically the charges asserted, but broadly characterizes them as "false, discriminatory and retaliatory." (Id.). Dr. Skoorka also avers that the charges did not allege any actual tenure violations. (Id.). This statement is conclusory and based on facts and agreements not before me. Dr. Skoorka also argues that his collective bargaining agreement does not permit Kean's actions. (Id.).

         Dr. Skoorka's response to the Tenure Charges was due on February 17, 2016. (Id. ¶ 23). Dr. Skoorka does not allege that he filed a response. (EEOC Charge).

         On January 26, 2016, Kean sent a letter to Dr. Skoorka implementing a three-day unpaid suspension for the period of February 3-5, 2016. (Id. ¶ 25).

         In July 2016, Kean sent Dr. Skoorka another set of Tenure Charges, which raise the same accusations and criticisms contained in the December 2015 Tenure Charges. (Id. ¶ 28). Through those charges, Kean seeks to suspend Dr. Skoorka for ten days and, allegedly, to coerce Dr. Skoorka's resignation "and/or set [him] up for further adverse employment action." (Id.).

         iv. Religious holidays /sabbath[10]

         Dr. Skoorka alleges that, during the fall of 2015, Kean sought to schedule a meeting with Dr. Skoorka on Rosh Hashanah and the evening of Yom Kippur. (EEOC Charge ¶ 19). Also on Yom Kippur, Kean sent mail to Dr. Skoorka that would have required a signature to confirm receipt. (Id.). Dr.

         Skoorka also alleges that Kean attempted to deliver mail late on Friday, or mail that would have required a signature confirming receipt on the Sabbath. (Id.).[11]Dr. Skoorka does not allege the specific dates on which these Friday or Sabbath delivery "attempts" occurred, or even allege how many times these events occurred. He does not state that he actually did receive these letters or sign for them. After these events occurred, but at some unidentified time, an unidentified Kean representative allegedly stated to some unidentified person that Dr. Skoorka had failed to attend meetings and accept mail. (Id.).

         v. Failure to promote[12]

         Dr. Skoorka alleges that, at some unspecified time, the position of Department Coordinator became available in his department. (EEOC Charge ¶ 27). The incumbent Coordinator, who was the only other tenured faculty member in the department, became ill. (Id.). At that point, Dr. Skoorka had been "on the job" for more than 20 years and was the most senior professor remaining in the department. (Id.). He does not allege that he applied for the position, but rather asserts that under "seniority" and his Collective Bargaining Agreement ("CBA") he was "next ...

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