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Baldwin v. Gramiccioni

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

May 29, 2019

DANIEL BALDWIN, Plaintiff,
v.
CHRISTOPHER GRAMICCIONI, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          FREDA L. WOLFSON UNITED STATES CHIEF DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Daniel Baldwin (“Plaintiff”), an African American male, alleges that his employer, defendant Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office (the “MCPO”), and his supervisor, Christopher Gramiccioni (“Prosecutor Gramiccioni”), the Monmouth County Prosecutor (collectively, “Defendants”) have intentionally refused to promote Plaintiff to the position of Sergeant on four separate occasions on the basis of race, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1963, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. (“Title VII”), the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. § 10:5-3, et seq. (“NJLAD”), and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 under the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. In the instant matter, the MCPO and Prosecutor Gramiccioni separately move for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motions are GRANTED in their entirety.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise noted. Plaintiff is an African American male, who had worked for the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office, the Essex County Prosecutor's Office, and the Hillside Police Department, before he ultimately joined the MCPO in October 2006. MCPO Facts, ¶¶ 1-3. From 2006 until April 2013, Plaintiff was assigned to the MCPO's Major Crimes Unit, and, during this time, Plaintiff's Performance Evaluations showed that he was a “competent detective who met or exceeded expectations” in most categories. Id. at ¶¶ 5-6. In 2009, Plaintiff served as the lead detective in the murder investigation of Jonelle Melton (the “Melton Case”), one of the MCPO's highest profile investigations, involving a schoolteacher who was killed during an attempted robbery. Id. at ¶ 7.

         In 2011, Gramiccioni joined the MCPO as the First Assistant Prosecutor, prior to becoming the Acting Prosecutor in July 2012. Id. at ¶ 8. In June 2012, Plaintiff was still the lead investigator on the Melton Case, which remained unsolved; however, he requested to be transferred from the Major Crimes Unit to the Financial Crimes Unit. Id. at ¶ 9. In April 2013, the MCPO granted Plaintiff's request, but he continued to be involved in the Melton Case; in addition, for an unspecified period of time after his transfer, Plaintiff was detailed to the Organized Crime Unit in order to assist on a wiretap investigation, the target of which included a suspect in the Melton Case. Id. at ¶¶ 10-11.

         In July 2013, the MCPO hired Kevin Mahoney as a detective (“Mahoney”). Id. at ¶ 12. Mahoney did not possess any prior law enforcement experience, but he was a United States Army Veteran who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, during which he received multiple accolades, including an “Army Commendation Medal” and “Combat Infantry Badge.” Id. He also held two Masters Degrees, one of which was in Business Administration, and he had more than 20 years of experience in the private sector, at companies such as Boeing, where he oversaw and managed “personnel and significantly large budgets.” Id. In addition, Mahoney had previously attended the Criminal Justice Academy, where he earned the “Merit Award” because of his leadership abilities. Id. at ¶ 13.

         Based on his financial background and experience, Prosecutor Gramiccioni and Chief Pasterchick, a former Special Agent for the IRS and DEA who was appointed as the Chief for the MCPO in 2006, assigned Mahoney to the Financial Crimes Unit. Id. at ¶¶ 13, 42. Subsequently, as a result of his “unremarkable performance, ” Plaintiff was transferred from the Financial Crimes Unit to the Trial Support Section, where his responsibilities included handling investigations and mentoring new or junior detectives. Id. at ¶¶ 14-15. Although Plaintiff characterized his reassignment as “punishment detail, ” intended to “minimize his work productivity and severely reduce his ability to be promoted[, ]” Prosecutor Gramiccioni viewed the Trial Support Unit as an important “training ground” for newly hired detectives. Id. at ¶¶ 16-17. In fact, Prosecutor Gramiccioni previously promoted a Sergeant from the Trial Support Unit to the Major Crimes Bureau as a Lieutenant, on the basis of his exemplary performance in the Trial Support Unit. Id. at ¶ 17.

         In 2014, Detective Samis was designated as the lead detective in the Melton Case, following which, in November 2015, suspects were arrested in connection with the ongoing murder investigation of Ms. Melton. Id. at ¶¶ 18-19.

         In March 2015, while in an elevator, Plaintiff and Prosecutor Gramiccioni discussed Plaintiff's assignment to the Trial Support Unit, and Plaintiff opined that his talents were being underutilized. Id. at ¶¶ 20-21. Following their conversation, Plaintiff received an email from Prosecutor Gramiccioni, inviting Plaintiff to meet with him and the Chief of Detectives to discuss Plaintiff's “career path.” Id. at ¶ 23. However, on the advice of counsel, Plaintiff declined Prosecutor Gramiccioni's invitation; instead, on May 29, 2015, Plaintiff filed an internal complaint with Kevin Burke, the Monmouth County Deputy Administrator. Id. at ¶¶ 24-26. In the complaint, Plaintiff alleged that he had been denied several promotions within the MCPO, on the basis of his race. Id. at ¶ 25.

         As the former Director of Human Resources, Mr. Burke was familiar with the County's Employee Guide Prohibiting Workplace Discrimination and Harassment (the “Discrimination Policy”). Id. at ¶ 28. The Discrimination Policy was distributed throughout the MCPO, and it precluded employees from engaging in discrimination and/or harassment based on the enumerated NJLAD protected classes; in addition, it established a procedure for employees to file complaints of discrimination with the County. Id. at ¶¶ 29-30. According to the Discrimination Policy, the County would investigate complaints of discrimination and render remedial action, if appropriate. Id. at ¶ 31.

         Plaintiff preferred Mr. Burke to investigate his discrimination complaint because of his unique background. Id. at ¶¶ 33, 35. In addition to his lengthy experience in Human Resources, Mr. Burke was formerly employed by the New Jersey State Police for 25 years, until he retired as a Major/Troop Commander. Id. at ¶ 34. After Mr. Burke agreed to conduct the investigation, he interviewed Plaintiff for 30 to 45 minutes. Id. at ¶ 37. During the interview, Mr. Burke explained that the Prosecutor held a Constitutional Office and neither he, nor Human Resources, possessed the authority to overturn the Prosecutor's promotional decisions. Id. at ¶ 37. Plaintiff indicated that he understood, and Mr. Burke subsequently contacted the following parties, in order to advise them of Plaintiff's complaint: (a) Andrea Bazer, County Counsel; (b) Teri O'Connor, County Administrator; and (c) Frank Tragno, Jr., the former Monmouth County Human Resources Director. Id. at ¶ 38.

         Prosecutor Gramiccioni expressed his approval of Mr. Burke's investigation, and the County designated Steve Kleinman, the Special Monmouth County Counsel who handled labor and employment matters, to provide technical and legal advice to Mr. Burke during the course of the investigation. Id. at ¶ 39. Prosecutor Gramiccioni also provided the following materials to assist with Mr. Burke's investigation: (a) information relating to the demographic makeup of the office and promotions of African Americans within the MCPO; and (b) a copy of the MCPO's promotional policies and procedures. Id. at ¶ 40.

         The MCPO's promotional policies and procedures, which were in place before Prosecutor Gramiccioni was appointed, explicitly state that: “[w]hile there are no standardized lists of criteria that will be used in this process, promotions may be based upon a wide range of factors, ” including “past performance, evaluations, law enforcement experience, unique abilities or expertise needed for the position, training, displayed leadership qualities, and the overall assessment of the candidate's skills and abilities.” Prosecutor Gramiccioni's Statement of Material Facts (“Prosecutor's Facts”), ¶¶ at 14, 18. Ultimately, however, a promotional decision is based on “the Prosecutor's discretion.” Shortly after his appointment, Prosecutor Gramiccioni emailed his Executive Staff, in which he set forth a specific list of promotional criteria and emphasized that, “although seniority was an important factor, ” the MCPO would benefit from “candidates that won't just rest on their laurels with the promotion and treat it as an expectation, but who will work to better themselves and the operation as a whole.” Id. at ¶ 19.[1]

         Chief Pasterchick oversaw the MCPO's promotional process, along with his Staff, which included one Deputy Chief of Detectives and three Captains. Id. at ¶ 43. In addition, Chief Pasterchick supervised and directed more than eighty law enforcement officers and the criminal investigations which they performed. Id. at ¶¶ 41, 43. In that connection, Chief Pasterchick recommended law enforcement officers for promotion to Prosecutor Gramiccioni and his Executive Staff, which is comprised of the First Assistant Prosecutor, two Deputy First Assistant Prosecutors, and the Chief of Staff. Id. at ¶ 43.

         When a supervisory position became available within the MCPO, interested detectives submitted promotional memoranda; after the expiration of a ten-day period, the Chief of Detectives would first review the applications with his deputy chief and captains, in order to provide recommendations. MCPO Facts, at ¶¶ 44-45. The promotional memoranda and recommendations of the Chief of Detectives were then provided to, and reviewed by, the Prosecutor over deliberations with his own Executive Staff. Id. at ¶¶ 46-47. Moreover, during those meetings, Chief Pasterchick would reiterate his recommendations, which he based on the following considerations: discussions with his deputy chief and captains; the particular needs of the vacant supervisory position; and the candidates' performance, evaluations, and seniority, as well as their ability to lead and motivate. Id. at ¶¶ 49, 51.

         Chief Pasterchick also purportedly considered the MCPO's preference for a diverse command structure; during his tenure as the Chief of Detectives, two African American females and one African American male were promoted to supervisory positions, on the basis of Chief Pasterchick's recommendations to the Prosecutor and the Executive Staff. Id. at ¶¶ 49, 50. More specifically, Karen Odom was promoted from the position of Lieutenant to Chief Pasterchick's Deputy Chief of Detectives, skipping over the position of Captain, and Natalie Zuppa, as well as Doug Johnson, were both promoted from the position of Sergeant to Lieutenant, and then from Lieutenant to Captain. Id. In fact, during his tenure, over sixty percent of Chief Pasterchick's Executive Staff consisted of minorities. Id.

         Over the course of his investigation, Mr. Burke reviewed the MCPO's promotional policies and procedures, and he interviewed Plaintiff, MCPO senior staff members, and Prosecutor Gramiccioni. Id. at ¶ 52. Ultimately, Mr. Burke concluded that Prosecutor Gramiccioni and his Executive Staff made promotional decisions which were solely based on legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons. Id. In other words, Mr. Burke found no evidence to support that Prosecutor Gramiccioni and his Executive Staff either engaged in a general discriminatory practice towards African Americans, or that Plaintiff was transferred to the Trial Support Unit for an improper reason. Id. at ¶¶ 53-54. Rather, Mr. Burke determined that the MCPO acted with the intention of “promoting the best-qualified candidate[s] in keeping with the needs of the” department. Id. at ¶ 55.

         On July 24, 2015, Mr. Burke summarized his findings in a letter to Plaintiff. Id. at ¶ 57. In his final remarks, Mr. Burke stated: “[b]ased upon my careful assessment of the situation, as set forth above, there is no basis at this time for me to conclude that you have been subject to racial discrimination in violation of the NJLAD or County policy. However, if you have any further information you wish to bring to my attention now or in the future, I am prepared to review it.” Id. at ¶ 58. Plaintiff did not provide Mr. Burke with any additional information; rather, on November 25, 2015, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Id. at ¶¶ 59-60. On January 29, 2016, Plaintiff received a “Right to Sue Letter.” Id. at ¶ 60.

         During the period in dispute, [2] Plaintiff applied to be promoted to the position of Sergeant on May 13, 2014, December 1, 2014, July 28, 2015, and December 9, 2015. On each of those occasions, promotional memoranda from approximately thirty other applicants were submitted for consideration, of which a total of eight candidates were selected to be promoted to the Sergeant position. Id. at ¶ 64.

         The May 2014 promotions were awarded to George Snowden, to the position of Sergeant in the Narcotics Unit, and Michael Clancy, to the position of Sergeant in the Major Crimes Unit. Id.

         The MCPO hired Snowden in January 2007, three months after Plaintiff, and he initially was assigned to the Narcotics and Criminal Enterprise Investigation Unit. Id. at ¶ 67. Snowden had previously served in a supervisory capacity as a Sergeant at the Newark Police Department. In that regard, he had experience in conducting narcotics and wire intercept investigations, and he provided testimony in various State and Federal Court proceedings, resulting in numerous convictions and the imposition of three life sentences. Id. ¶ 68. Snowden's MCPO supervisors were impressed with his abilities, and his chain of command highly recommended him for a promotion. Id. Indeed, he developed a reputation as a “go-to person, ” particularly in narcotics investigations which required “wiretapping expertise.” Id.

         The MCPO hired Clancy in 2009. Id. at ¶ 70. Although Clancy was less senior than Plaintiff, he had previously served as a detective in the Ocean County Police Department, where he supervised dayshift operations. Id. He received training from the FBI as a Hostage/Crisis Negotiator, a role which he assumed for the Monmouth County Emergency Response Team, until he eventually became the Chief Negotiator; in that capacity, he supervised a six-member team that handled suspect negotiations on all suicidal, barricaded, and hostage situations throughout the entire County of Monmouth. Id. Detective Snowden also received training in “homicide investigations, hostage/crises negotiations and arson investigations” from the New Jersey State Police, the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice, the New York City Police, as well as the FBI. Id. At the MCPO, Clancy handled several “complex” homicide/robbery and arson cases, as he developed a reputation for utilizing “innovative and different” techniques for solving major crimes, and his peers and supervisors spoke “very highly” of his leadership abilities and work ethic. Id.

         The December 2014 promotions were awarded to Ryan Muller, to the position of Sergeant in the Forensics Unit, and Walter Mazariegos, to the position of Sergeant in the Narcotics Unit. Id. ¶¶ 72-73, 77.

         Muller joined the MCPO in July 2006, and, as such, he was several months more senior than Plaintiff. Muller was assigned to the Forensics Unit-a “specialized unit, ” in which Plaintiff never worked. Id. ¶¶ 73-74. Indeed, a significant amount of training was required in order to become a “skilled forensics detective.” Id. at 74. Before the MCPO employed Muller, he acquired experience in forensic investigations, he obtained two Bachelor Degrees from Rutgers University, and was qualified as a Fingerprint Expert, Firearms Expert, and Crime Scene Investigation Expert. Id. at ¶ 75. Muller ultimately became the “go to person” within the Forensic and Technical Bureau at the MCPO, the section within which he was promoted. Id.

         Mazariegos is a bilingual Hispanic American who is Plaintiff's senior by approximately four months at the MCPO. Id. at ¶¶ 77, 79. Before joining the MCPO, Detective Mazariegos was employed by the New Jersey Attorney General's Division of Criminal Justice, and, in cooperation with the DEA, the Attorney General's Diversion Unit, and the New Jersey Department of Consumer Affairs, he conducted sensitive prescription narcotics investigations involving medical professionals who illegally or improperly prescribed and distributed narcotics. Id. at ¶ 78. Detective Mazariegos had experience in investigating sophisticated criminal enterprises, including organized crime, sex trafficking networks, and narcotics traffickers, and his “financial expertise” allowed him to investigate and seize monies from the illegal sale of narcotics. Id. at ¶ 79.

         The July 2015 promotions were awarded to Erich Schmidt, to the position of Sergeant in the Financial Crimes Unit, and Richard Chapman, to the position of Sergeant in the Major Crimes Bureau. Id. at ¶¶ 82, 85.

         The MCPO hired Schmidt in May 2000, and he was assigned to the Special Investigations Section, Financial Crimes and Public Corruption Bureau, Financial Crimes/Special Prosecution Unit. Id. at ¶ 83. As a “very senior” detective, he had experience in the investigation of financial crimes; he was on special assignment to the IRS for over five years, where he participated in the Financial Fraud Task Force Pilot Program and in matters where “millions of dollars had been seized.” Id. Schmidt's supervisors at the IRS described him as an “excellent detective, ” and they opined that he “well represented” the MCPO during his special assignment. Id. At the time of his promotion, Schmidt had, without dispute, more experience than Plaintiff in the area of financial crimes. Id. at ¶ 84.

         Chapman is an African American male who joined the MCPO in March 2003, and he is Plaintiff's senior by three and a half years. Id. at ¶ 85. He was assigned to the Criminal Investigation Section, Major Crimes Bureau, Homicide/Property Crimes Unit, and he served as the lead detective in a significant amount of high-profile murder and sexual assault cases. Id. As a former detective in the Asbury Park Police Department, Chapman was trained in the following areas: internal affairs investigations; bias crime investigations; child abuse investigations; sexual assault investigations; and homicide investigations. Id. He was “well respected” by his peers and supervisors at the MCPO, who viewed him as a “dedicated solid major crimes Detective.” Id.

         Finally, the December 2015 promotions were awarded to Richard Brocculiere, to the position of Sergeant in the Special Investigations Section, Prosecution Support Bureau, Computer Crimes Unit, and Scott Samis, to the position of Sergeant in the Special Investigations Section, Trial and Administrative Support Bureau, Trial Support/Fugitives/Juvenile Crime Unit. Id. at ¶¶ 87, 89.

         Before the MCPO hired Broccoliere, he was employed by the United States Secret Service, where he developed a background in computer crimes. Id. at ¶ 88. Bruccoliere was ultimately promoted to the position of Sergeant in the Computer Crimes Section, because of his “specialized skills” and expertise which were required to qualify for that “highly technical” position. Id.

         The MCPO hired Samis in 2003, more than three years before Plaintiff. Id. at ¶ 90. Samis primarily served in the Narcotics Unit during the course of his tenure at the MCPO, during which worked on loan to the DEA for a three-year period. Id. at ¶ 91. Detective Samis was viewed favorably by his peers, and he was considered to be a “very senior, dedicated and high-energy detective” who developed a reputation for mentoring younger and less experiences colleagues. Id. at ΒΆ 92. ...


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