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Mohamed v. Atlantic County Special Services School District

United States District Court, D. New Jersey, Camden Vicinage

March 29, 2019

SANDRA MOHAMED, Plaintiff,
v.
ATLANTIC COUNTY SPECIAL SERVICES SCHOOL DISTRICT, ERIC FLECKEN Defendants.

          OPINION

          ROBERT B. KUGLER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendants Atlantic County Special Services School District and Eric Flecken's (referred to collectively as “Defendants”) Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 27) Plaintiff Sandra Mohamed's Amended Complaint (Doc. No. 26) under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Plaintiff's Amended Complaint alleges unlawful discrimination, harassment, and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJ LAD”), and the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“NJ CEPA”). For the reasons below, Defendants' Motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[1]

         This is a case involving alleged racial discrimination and retaliation in the workplace. Sandra Mohamed (“Plaintiff”) is a sixty-year-old African American woman. (Am. Compl. (Doc. No. 26) at ¶ 15.) Atlantic County Special Services School District (“the District”) first hired her in September 1993 to serve as a teacher's assistant for students with special needs. (Id. at ¶ 17.) Plaintiff worked for the District for over twenty-three years, until her termination in January 2017. (Id. at ¶¶ 18-19.) During the relevant period, Plaintiff reported to Eric Flecken (“Flecken” or “Supervisor Flecken”). (Id. at ¶ 25.)

         A. Racial Discrimination

         Plaintiff claims that Defendants discriminated against her because of her race. (Id. at ¶ 20.) Specifically, she asserts that Supervisor Flecken targeted Plaintiff. (Id. at ¶ 25.) For example, Flecken reassigned her nineteen times during her employment, an “unheard of” and unnecessary number of reassignments given the large number of available employees. (Id. at ¶¶ 24-25.) Flecken also purportedly passed Plaintiff over for promotion in favor of a “much less experienced and capable” Caucasian employee. (Id. at ¶ 27.) Despite Plaintiff's “stellar job performance and positive review, ” Supervisor Flecken “always made it clear . . . that he did not value [Plaintiff] and made her life difficult” and “used adverse action to make her position impossible.” (Id. at ¶¶ 26, 31.)

         Defendants' racial discrimination also extended to other African-American employees. (Id. at ¶ 28.) Plaintiff claims that Defendants disciplined African American employees far more frequently than Caucasian ones. (Id. at ¶ 21.) Defendants also had a racially biased approach to enforcing the District's hours policy because Flecken permitted many employees, including himself, to arrive late and leave work early. (Id. at ¶¶ 21, 48.) African American employees, however, faced discipline if they attempted to arrive late or leave early. (Id. at ¶ 21.) Plaintiff also claims that Flecken instituted a “a particular employment practice” to limit African American assistants and certified staff to work in the off-campus, school-to-career based program. (Id. at ¶¶ 29, 30.) Plaintiff claims that Defendants denied at least four minority students access to the program of their choice. (Id. at ¶ 36.) These students, like Plaintiff, believed that Defendants denied these students the program of their choice because of their race. (Id.) In addition, Flecken only permitted two Caucasian assistants to work in one select program, despite half of the students having diverse backgrounds. (Id. at ¶¶ 30-31.)

         In March 2016, Plaintiff wrote a letter to the District's Vice Principal to bring attention to the racist culture within the District's employment practices. (Id. at ¶ 38.) Plaintiff also spoke with Flecken's supervisor and informed the teachers' union. (Id. at ¶ 39.) Plaintiff claims that Defendants did not take her claims seriously. (Id.) In addition, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants ordered her to return to work and retaliated against her. (Id.)

         B. Pre-Termination Retaliation

         At the time of Plaintiff's letter to the District's Vice Principal, she worked for the District and assisted students in job training for the casino industry. (Id. at ¶ 34.) Following her submission of this letter, Plaintiff explained that members of the staff now refused to work with her. (Id. at ¶ 41.) Specifically, the Arc of Cumberland County Job Coach did not want Plaintiff involved in the job coach program anymore. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that Defendants excluded her from the program “because of her race” and because “she was a minority who spoke for issues that affected the long-term progress with employment in the casino.” (Id.) As such, the Job Coach, in coordination with Supervisor Flecken, began a “campaign” of excluding Plaintiff from meetings. (Id.) Plaintiff also claims that Defendants petitioned her partner to assist in removing Plaintiff from the program. (Id. at ¶ 41.)

         Plaintiff claims that “the brick wall of institutionalized prejudice” caused her several injuries. (Id. at ¶¶ 50-52.) Plaintiff alleges that she suffered from stress, anxiety, and depression. (Id.) As a result, Plaintiff took FMLA leave in September 2016. (Id. at ¶ 52.) Plaintiff's doctor provided information on Plaintiff's leave directly to Defendants. (Id. at ¶ 54.) Plaintiff's FMLA leave ran until November 26, 2017. (Id. at ¶ 53.)

         C. Retaliatory Termination

         By the end of Plaintiff's FMLA leave, Plaintiff continued to need medical treatment and requested an extension until January 3, 2017. (Id. at ¶ 56.) By January 3, however, Plaintiff remained unable to return to work. (Id. at ¶ 57.) Plaintiff called the District through its automated call-out line and informed them that she could not return despite her FMLA leave expiration. (Id. at ¶¶ 57-58.) Defendants never indicated to Plaintiff that she could not extend her FMLA leave further. (Id. at ¶ 59.)

         On January 9, 2017, Plaintiff received a letter from the District stating that the Board of Education would meet on January 23, 2017 to discuss her employment. (Id. at ¶¶ 60-61.) The letter did not mention her recent absences but stated that if Plaintiff wanted to discuss her employment, she could request the meeting be made public. (Id.) Plaintiff claimed that she began to feel “sick to [her] stomach” at the idea that the public would hear about her stress, anxiety, and depression. (Id. at ¶ 62.) Plaintiff therefore did not attend the meeting. (Id. at ¶ 65.) Plaintiff alleges that Defendants used the possibility of a public hearing as a tactic, knowing that Plaintiff would be unable to speak about her employment and mental health in a public forum. (Id. at ¶¶ 63-64.)

         Because Plaintiff did not attend the meeting, the Board of Education sent Plaintiff a letter stating that she would be discharged if she did not return to work by January 30, 2017. (Id. at ¶¶ 65-66.) The District made no effort to contact Plaintiff beyond this letter. (Id. at ¶ 66.) Moreover, Plaintiff did not receive this letter until after January 30, 2017 because a family member who had signed for the letter did not give it to her until after that date. (Id. at ¶ 67.) Plaintiff further claims that, even if she had received the letter when it reached her home, she had a mere three days' notice of the hearing. (Id. at ¶ 68.)

         In early February, Plaintiff received a letter terminating her employment. (Id. at ¶ 68.) She claims that this letter first informed her that a previous one had been sent, the one allegedly received by her family member. (Id.) Plaintiff requested her job back and informed the District that she did not know of the prior letter until after the January 30 deadline had passed. (Id. at ¶ 69.) However, the District denied Plaintiff's requests. (Id.)

         D. EEOC Charge and Right to Sue Letter

         Plaintiff filed an EEOC Charge on February 23, 2017 alleging race and retaliation discrimination. (EEOC Charge at 2 (Doc. No. 27, Exhibit B).) The Charge explains that the District retaliated against Plaintiff for writing the letter, and it details Defendants' discrimination against students. (Id.) Specifically, Plaintiff claimed that Defendants used the information she provided to the District and teachers' union against her. (Id.) The Charge concludes that “Respondent has retaliated against me for taking part in a protected activity Race (African American).” (Id.) The Charge also indicates that the discrimination took place from March 1, 2016 to January 30, 2017. (Id.) On March 1, 2017, the EEOC provided Plaintiff a Right to Sue Letter in response to the EEOC Charge. (Id. at 3.)

         E. ...


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