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Coleman v. Delaney's Cape May, LLC

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 17, 2019

JUSTIN COLEMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
DELANEYS' CAPE MAY, LLC Defendants.

          OPINION

          HON. JOSEPH H. RODRIGUEZ, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on Motion for Summary Judgment of Defendant Miquon, Inc. who is the owner and operator of Delaney's restaurant in Cape May, New Jersey. Plaintiff Justin Coleman was a seasonal employee at Delaney's during part of the Summer in 2015. Coleman worked as both a server and a bartender during the weeks between July 15, 2015 and September 21, 2015. As is its alleged custom, Delaney's terminated 55 employees, including Coleman, at the end of the Summer season in 2015.

         Coleman, who is African-American, claims his termination was motivated by racial animus and he asserts several claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1, et seq. and Title VII of the United States Code, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3. Specifically, Coleman alleges (1) that he was terminated solely because of his race, (2) that he was the subject of disparate treatment at Delaney's, (3) that he was subjected to a racially offensive and hostile work environment, and (4) that he was terminated in retaliation for having complained about racially offensive conduct at the restaurant. Defendant Miquon moves for summary judgment as to all of Coleman's claims.

         The Court has considered the written submissions of the parties as well as the arguments advanced at the hearing on April 16, 2019. For the reasons expressed on the record that day, as well as those set forth below, Defendant Miquon's motion is granted.

         I. Background

         Miquon hired Coleman as a part-time, seasonal employee at Delaney's on July 15, 2015. (Slawek Decl. ¶ 9). In terms of seniority, Coleman was one of the last staff members brought on at Delaney's for the 2015 summer season; joining the team in midSummer, he was last on the seniority scale. (Id.) Coleman claims that he was hired as a bartender, but was quickly replaced with non-African American bartenders. SOF at ¶ 35. Miquon agrees that Coleman was shifted away from the bar and into a server position, a transition Coleman agreed to make. According to Miquon, the manager at the restaurant decided to expand the number of bartenders on a single shift from two to three bartenders when Coleman was hired. (Slawek Decl. ¶ 12.) That staffing model proved unnecessary because of slow business and a change was made to the number of bartenders staffed on a single shift. (Id. at ¶ 13.) Under this new staffing model, Coleman was re-purposed and agreed to work as a server; he often received the most lucrative assignment station on the floor and his compensation was not impacted by his change of duties. (Slawek Decl. ¶ 13.)

         During Coleman's eleven-week tenure, he worked part-time, approximately two to four days per week between Wednesday and Saturday. (Slawek Decl. ¶ 14.) Miquon states that Coleman had some performance problems, but his work was satisfactory and, while he was spoken to about some issues, he was never written up for any missteps. (Id. at ¶¶ 15- 16.)

         According to Coleman, he endured a hostile work environment in which many Delaney's employees frequently hurled racial epithets when referring to customers and to each other. Although Coleman himself was never referred to in a racially insensitive manner, his presence during the use of racially charged and inappropriate comments and banter caused him undue stress. Coleman sets forth the following litany of events in his brief in opposition, which captures the allegations made during his deposition:

-Co-Worker Tracy Venturini commented to Mr. Coleman, “What are you doing here? They don't hire black bartenders. The last one didn't work out. This is an Irish pub.” SOF at ¶ 25 (Coleman Dep. Tr., Ex. H at 37:22-38:14);
-Caucasian co-workers, including Tracy Venturini, Eric Bednar, and Vadim Bondarenko used the phrases, “don't make me get Black on you”, “yo nigga”, and “my nigga” in Mr. Coleman's presence. SOF at ¶ 26;
-Caucasian co-workers, and Mr. Coleman's immediate supervisor Ed Nielsen referred to African Americans as “They” and “You People”. SOF at ¶ 27;
-When rap or hip-hop music was played on the jukebox, Mr. Nielsen would turn it off or turn it down and scold Mr. Coleman and other staff, telling them, “Don't play that type of music. No. black music.” SOF at ¶ 28;
-Mr. Nielsen threatened that “if anybody else plays black music, then they'll get fired.” SOF at ¶ 28;
-Ms. Venturini, Mr. Bednar, and Mr. Bondarenko used the word “Nigger” “quite frequently” at the Miquon workplace, in Mr. Coleman's presence. SOF at ¶ 29;
-Eric Bednar specifically, “used it often...in all types of contexts. Like when he was frustrated, when he wasn't, he would just use it all the time” including during conversations with Mr. Coleman or while standing right next to him. SOF at ¶ 29;
-This use of the word “Nigger” all the time is corroborated by Mr. Bednar and Mr. Bondarenko's social media postings. SOF at ¶ 30;
-There is evidence that other employees at Miquon also find it to be a racially hostile environment like Mr. Coleman alleges. SOF at ¶ 32;
-Defendant admits that an employee complained that there was a racial slur made at Delaney's in the Summer of 2015 during Mr. Coleman's employment, and that Miquon suspected it may have been Mr. Coleman who complained. SOF at ¶ 33;
-When asked whether the individual who made the racial slur was identified, Mr. Nielsen, Miquon's General Manager, testified that he “never looked into it. There was no need. ... I didn't research who, what, why, or when.” SOF at ¶ 34; and
-Mr. Coleman was subjected to differential treatment in the form of unwarranted criticism or discipline his Caucasian counterparts were not subjected to. For example, Mr. Coleman was disciplined for using his cell phone while at work, while a non-African American employee who was also using her phone directly next to him was not similarly criticized or disciplined.

         Miquon claims that Delaney's has had multiple African-American bartenders during its existence, including Anna Moore, who worked as the head bartender at Delaney's before accepting a position as an executive at Resorts International, Serafina Moore, and Coleman's cousin Ashley Coleman. (Id. at ¶ 27.) It also claims that Coleman was never subjected to racial comments by staff, a fact Coleman appears to agree with, stating in deposition that the racial comments he complains of were never directed toward him personally, but notes he “was in the area” and heard it. (Coleman Dep. Tr., Ex. H. at 41:23-44:2.)

         In deposition, Coleman had trouble placing almost all of the alleged comments “his ears heard” into context. (Id. at 47:16-51:5; 44:1-2.) He stated that employees Tracy, Eric, Vadim, and Tyler made racial comments “all the time.” Id. at 42:17-19. He recounts Tracy stating “don't make me get black on you” meaning that she was frustrated with a customer and was going to get hostile and angry. Id. 43:1-17. Although not directed at Coleman, because he heard the comment, he claims he reported it to “Bob.” Id. at 44:21-25.

Q. To Bob? What's his last name?
A. I don't recall his last name.
Q. And was it that specific comment that you were complaining about?
A. Yes, because at this time it was enough.
Q. And what was his response?
A. He didn't - he just kind of brushed it off. He didn't really say anything at that point.
Q. Did you ever report that statement to Ed Nielsen?
A. Not right away, no.
Q. How long did you wait?
A. I don't recall, but it wasn't the same night because Bob was on duty that night.
Q. Well, how soon into your appointment did you hear that comment?
A. Which comment?
Q. The comment “don't make me go black on ...

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