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Baran v. ASRC Federal

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

July 9, 2019

ANNA BARAN, Plaintiff,
v.
ASRC FEDERAL, MISSION SOLUTIONS, ROSE WELLS, FRANCIS MCKENNA, SUSAN GOLDBERG, Defendants.

          HAGERTY & BLAND-TULL LAW LLC By: LaTonya Bland-Tull, Esq.; Robert J. Hagerty, Esq. Counsel for Plaintiff Anna Baran

          LITTLER MENDELSON P.C. By: William J. Leahy, Esq.; Alexa J. Laborda Nelson, Esq. Counsel for Defendant Mission Solutions, LLC

          OPINION

          RENÉE MARIE BUMB, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Following four years of litigation - which included almost three years in state court, removal to federal court, and a four-day trial before this Court - the jury spoke: Defendant Mission Solutions, LLC (“MSE” or “Defendant”), owed its former employee, Plaintiff Anna Baran, $3.5 million in compensatory damages for defaming her by falsely reporting that she had threatened workplace violence. It is a verdict that Defendant contends must be set aside because Plaintiff's defamation claim was time-barred long before she ever commenced suit.

         As odd as it seems, it was not until the close of Plaintiff's case that the Court learned about the parties' longstanding disagreement over the statute of limitations for the defamation claim. Defendant argues that neither Plaintiff's pleadings nor the evidence presented at trial support a finding that any defamatory conduct occurred within the statute of limitations. Plaintiff disagrees, contending that a prior state court ruling, which applied the “discovery rule” and ordered Plaintiff's defamation claim to proceed to trial, binds this Court as “law of the case.”

         With the benefit of post-trial briefing, this Court agrees with Defendant: the defamation claim should have never proceeded to trial. Plaintiff clearly misstated the law to the state court, precipitating the state court's erroneous application of the discovery rule to a defamation claim. Thus, the state court's unfortunate and incorrect ruling that Plaintiff could present her defamation claim to a jury, which extended the case for years and resulted in the verdict in Plaintiff's favor, was a direct result of Plaintiff's misstatements.

         This Court holds that a verdict caused by a legal calamity of Plaintiff's own creation cannot stand. For that reason, Defendant's Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b), or in the alternative a New Trial pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1) [Dkt. Nos. 59, 60, 67], will be GRANTED, and the jury verdict on the defamation claim will be set aside. The Court will direct the entry of judgment on the jury's verdict on the retaliation claim and judgment as a matter of law in favor of Defendant on the defamation claim.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Anna Baran is a former employee of MSE, a military defense contractor that supplies systems engineering, software engineering, integration services and products for mission-critical defense systems. Plaintiff worked for MSE as a Senior Quality Assurance Engineer, a position that required security clearances, until she was terminated for allegedly threatening to shoot three of her supervisors at MSE.

         According to Plaintiff's co-workers, Rosemarie Wells and Gaynelle Johnson, Plaintiff had long complained that she was the victim of “bullying” by one of her supervisors, Sue Goldberg. On January 7, 2013, Plaintiff allegedly told Wells, “don't be surprised if this place goes up.” Plaintiff allegedly stated that “if [she] had a gun, ” she would shoot Goldberg, Pat Brencher, and Paul Nocito (her other supervisors). Given Plaintiff's history of complaining about “bullying, ” Wells became concerned and “very, very upset” about Plaintiff's statements. That same day, Wells reported Plaintiff's comments to MSE's Facility Security Officer Francis McKenna. Soon thereafter, Plaintiff was suspended pending an investigation into her alleged threats. During the investigation, Plaintiff denied making any such threats. Despite Plaintiff's denials, she was arrested and charged with making a terroristic threat on January 9, 2013. A few days later, January 14, 2013, Defendant terminated Plaintiff's employment.

         On January 15, 2013, McKenna updated Plaintiff's incident history in the Joint Personnel Adjudication System (“JPAS” or the “JPAS system”) to reflect the circumstances surrounding Plaintiff's termination. JPAS functions as the Department of Defense (“DoD”) personnel database of record for security clearance processing. According to MSE, McKenna entered this information because federal regulations, reflected in the National Industrial Security Program Operating Manual (“NISPOM”), require MSE to update JPAS with any “adverse information coming to their attention concerning any of their cleared employees.” See NISPOM, Section 3, at 1-302(a). On May 1, 2013, McKenna finalized his earlier incident report about Plaintiff's termination in JPAS (hereinafter referred to as the “JPAS Report”). In its entirety, the JPAS Report submitted by McKenna states:

“On 1/7/13 MSE employee [Rosemarie Wells] advised FSO [Francis McKenna] that MSE employee Anna Baran allegedly made statements to [Rose] that she intended to go get a rifle and return to MSE and shoot 3 employees. This was partly due to a human resources issue in which Baran alleged workplace bullying by her supervisor. On 1/8/13 Baran was sent home on administrative leave while the allegations were investigated. The Moorestown, N.J. Police were notified (incident # 2003-000002810 and they interviewed [Rose] as part of their investigation. Burlington County Judge Lois Downey charged Baran with terroristic threats and as a bail condition ordered that Baran be evaluated by the Screening Crisis Intervention Program. This was done at 1AM on 1/9/13. She was released at 6AM and taken to the Burlington County Jail on the above charge. MSE HR investigation was done from 1/9-14/13 and the decision to terminate Baran was made on 1/14/13.”

MSE Trial Ex. 27.

         Although the criminal charges against Plaintiff were eventually dropped, and her record was expunged, the JPAS Report does not reflect the final disposition of that matter. In this action, Plaintiff contended that MSE's comments about the nature of her termination in the JPAS Report prevented her from obtaining a comparable job.[1] In at least one instance, Plaintiff claimed that a job offer was rescinded because she was unable to secure a security clearance due to the description of events in the JPAS Report. Consequently, Plaintiff alleged that Defendant's actions continued to negatively impact her professional, financial, and emotional well-being.

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The procedural history of this case is long and complicated. It began over four years ago, on January 6, 2015, when Plaintiff filed her original pro se Complaint against Defendant in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Burlington County (No. BUR-L-53-15). Throughout the course of those years, the case had been dismissed, reinstated, proceeded through discovery, and finally set for trial in state court - all before it was removed to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1442 (the “Federal Officer Removal Statute”) on the eve of trial in state court.

         A. Early Stages in New Jersey State Court

         In her initial pro se Complaint, Plaintiff alleged causes of action that she described as negligence, malicious prosecution, intentional and negligence infliction of emotional distress, defamation, slander, tortious interference, and retaliation. On April 24, 2015, the Superior Court granted Defendant's Motion to Dismiss and dismissed Plaintiff's pro se Complaint without prejudice, but ordered that: (1) Plaintiff was required to retain legal counsel by July 1, 2015; (2) Defendant was required to issue a neutral employment reference; and (3) Defendant was required to use its best efforts to assist Plaintiff in obtaining a security clearance. [Dkt. No. 1-2, at 69].

         Almost seven months passed before Plaintiff's current attorneys first entered an appearance on her behalf on November 16, 2015. Another eight months passed before Plaintiff filed a Motion to Correct a Clerical Error and Amend Complaint on July 26, 2016, seeking to reinstate the case. On October 6, 2016, the Superior Court granted Plaintiff's motion, reinstating the case and permitting Plaintiff to file an Amended Complaint. [Dkt. No. 1-2, at 72].

         Plaintiff, at this point represented by counsel, filed her Amended Complaint on October 18, 2016, almost two years after she originally commenced the case. Plaintiff's Amended Complaint asserted four counts against Defendant: (1) Defamation, Libel and Slander (Count One); (2) Defamation, Libel and Slander per se (Count Two); (3) Hostile Environment in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”) (Count Three); and (4) Retaliatory Discharge in Violation of the NJLAD (Count Four). See Pl.'s Am. Compl. [Dkt. No. 1-2, at 81-90].

         On March 6, 2017, the Superior Court dismissed Counts One, Two, and Three of Plaintiff's Amended Complaint, leaving only Plaintiff's retaliation claim under the NJLAD (Count Four) as the parties proceeded to discovery. [Dkt. No. 1-2, at 73-80]. After the parties conducted depositions and other discovery on Plaintiff's lone remaining retaliation claim, Defendant moved for summary judgment. In response, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Reconsideration of the Superior Court's prior order dismissing the defamation claims.

         B. Motion for Reconsideration

         At oral argument before Superior Court Judge John E. Harrington on September 8, 2017, one month before the scheduled trial, Plaintiff's counsel argued for the first time that her defamation claims should be reinstated because they were premised upon McKenna's statements in the JPAS Report. During oral argument, counsel for Plaintiff conceded that the statements in the JPAS Report were made in 2013 and, thus, would normally be time-barred under New Jersey's one-year statute of limitations for defamation claims. See Superior Court Hearing Transcript, September 8, 2017 (“Superior Court Transcript”)[Dkt. No. 59-1, Ex. E], at 13:14-23. However, Plaintiff argued, her claims should be tolled under the “discovery rule, ” because Plaintiff did not learn of the existence of the JPAS Report until August 2014, when it impacted her ability to obtain a security clearance. See id., at 13:23-17:16. In relevant part, Plaintiff's counsel had the following exchange with Judge Harrington:

THE COURT: Okay. From your perspective, what is the operative date that is within the one year? Because it's a hard and fast rule unless you can tell me discovery or some other exception. So, go.
MS. BLAND-TULL: Simply put, what Your Honor just said is exactly true. Ms. Baran did not discover this JPAS entry until she began to search for employment.
THE COURT: When was that?
MS. BLAND-TULL: She was on unemployment for a few months and, then, once she interviewed with L3 in August of 2015, they -
MR. HAGERTY: '14.
MS. BLAND-TULL: I'm sorry. 2014, excuse me, Your Honor. That is when she discovered and they alerted her to the fact that they were unable to continue or they had to rescind the offer that was forthcoming to her -
THE COURT: Because -
MS.BLAND-TULL: -- because of this information in the JPAS system. So, that is when she first -
THE COURT: August of
MS. BLAND-TULL: -- learned of it.
THE COURT: All right. So, discovery is August '14. We'll get into all whether it's true or not. August '14. So, if that's the operative -that's the discovery date, it relates back to all these other circumstances. So the defamation, even though it occurred some time ago, would have been filed within time. Does the discovery rule apply to defamation? I mean, I know it does -
MS. BLAND-TULL: Yes, I'm -- I'm sorry.
THE COURT: -- with neg -- with negligence and -
MS. BLAND-TULL: I -- I was -- my partner was just alerting me to the fact that, because I'm getting my dates mixed up. If it occurred in August of 2014, she was ...

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