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Walters v. Safelite Fulfillment, Inc.

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

December 31, 2019

NICHOLAS WALTERS, Plaintiff,
v.
SAFELITE FULFILLMENT, INC., et al., Defendants.

          SMITH EIBELER, LLC By: Robert W. Smith, Esq.; Christopher J. Eibeler, Esq. Counsel for Plaintiff Nicholas Walters

          PORZIO, BROMBERG & NEWMAN, P.C. By: Kerri A. Wright, Esq. VORYS, SATER, SEYMOUR AND PEASE LLP By: Daniel J. Clark, Esq. By: Liana R. Hollingsworth, Esq. Counsel for Defendant Safelite Fulfillment, Inc.

          OPINION [DKT. NO. 35]

          RENÉE MARIE BUMB, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE:

         Plaintiff Nicholas Walters (“Plaintiff”) brings this action against Defendant Safelite Fulfillment, Inc. (“Defendant” or “Safelite”), alleging retaliation and associational discrimination/wrongful discharge in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1, et seq. (“NJLAD”) and retaliation in violation of the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, N.J.S.A. 34:19-1, et seq. (“CEPA”). This Court previously issued an Opinion and Order [Dkt. Nos. 28, 29] dismissing Plaintiff's initial complaint, without prejudice, but permitted Plaintiff to file an Amended Complaint, which he did on April 23, 2019 [Dkt. No. 30]. Now, this matter comes before this Court upon Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint in its entirety, or alternatively, for Summary Judgment or a Change of Venue (the “Second MTD”)[Dkt. No. 35].[1]At this stage of the litigation, without substantive discovery and clear disputes of material fact, the Court declines to convert the Second MTD into a motion for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth herein, Defendant's Second MTD will be DENIED.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Nicholas Walters is a resident of Connecticut and was employed by Safelite for about twelve years, until his termination in 2017. Plaintiff worked for Safelite at a location in Cherry Hill, New Jersey from 2005 until March 2015, when he was transferred to a location in Connecticut. See Am. Compl., at ¶¶ 8-10, 27-28. During his employment, Plaintiff states that he was promoted twice, first to Assistant Store Manager in 2011 and then to Store Manager in September 2015. Id., at ¶¶ 9-10, 25. In April 2017, approximately two years after his transfer to Connecticut, Plaintiff's employment was terminated.

         In the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that he requested the transfer to Connecticut because of his moral objections to local management's efforts to discriminate against a female employee on pregnancy/maternity leave. According to Plaintiff, in late 2014 or early 2015, Kennan McCafferty (District Manager) and Sam Lok (Operations Manager) approached Plaintiff and offered him a promotion to replace Shelby Klein as Store Manager of the Absecon, New Jersey location. See Am. Compl., at ¶ 17-18. Mr. McCafferty and Mr. Lok allegedly told Plaintiff that Ms. Klein would be terminated upon her return from pregnancy leave, but that they would be waiting to fire her until she returned to work, “so it would not seem as if she was being fired for taking maternity leave.” Id. Plaintiff claims that he told management that what they were doing as “unethical” and that he would not accept the promotion under those circumstances. Id. at 19. Instead, Plaintiff states that he requested the transfer to Connecticut “so that he could get out of the Philadelphia region, and away from its management team and the Regional Business Partner Greg Byrd.”. Id. at ¶ 24.

         In July 2016, over a year after transferring to Connecticut, Plaintiff alleges that he learned that managers in the Philadelphia region had been discriminating against Greg Manning, a technician at the Cherry Hill location. According to Plaintiff, Mr. Manning, who had recently returned to work from a medical leave for ankle surgery, was being ridiculed and mistreated by management based on his disabilities, which included diabetes and obesity. See Am. Compl., at ¶¶ 35-41. In Plaintiff's opinion, Mr. Manning's disabilities were a motivating factor in management's decision to place Mr. Manning on administrative leave on December 2, 2016. Id. at ¶¶ 110-112.

         After Mr. Manning informed Plaintiff about the discriminatory conduct he was facing at work, Plaintiff sent an email to Dale Sweigart (East Region Quality and Training Manager), stating that Plaintiff was “very concerned” about the situation with Mr. Manning. Am. Compl., at ¶ 112. In that email, Plaintiff noted that Mr. Manning “had complained of unfair treatment due to his diabetes and weight.” Plaintiff asked Mr. Sweigart to investigate the issue. Mr. Sweigart responded that he was “aware of the situation in Philly, ” and that he “would let Philadelphia and Greg Byrd deal with the situation.” Id. at ¶ 117. Safelite ultimately terminated Mr. Manning's employment on December 7, 2016. Id. at ¶ 163.

         Plaintiff alleges that his email regarding Mr. Manning was subsequently forwarded to Philadelphia-area managers and to Plaintiff's own Connecticut-based managers, including the local HR representative in Connecticut. See Am. Compl., at ¶¶ 133-139. According to Plaintiff, the Philadelphia-area management team “had no legitimate non-discriminatory business reason to forward Plaintiff Walters's email” to Plaintiff's manager in Connecticut. Id. at ¶ 134. Plaintiff alleges that his email was shared with his Connecticut managers “to further the Company's plan to retaliate against Plaintiff Walters in his own employment for complaining about and opposing the unlawful conduct directed at Mr. Manning and for encouraging Mr. Manning to exercise his rights under the law.” Id. at ¶ 135. Plaintiff also alleges that “[i]f it were not for Plaintiff's prior complaints about Shelby Klein, Defendant [] would not have implemented the plan of retaliation that resulted in his termination.” Id. at ¶ 136

         Following his complaint about Mr. Manning's treatment, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant retaliated against him through “an unwarranted and pretextual discipline warning on February 10, 2017 and putting him on a Personal Development Plan (“PDP”) on February 20, 2017.” See Am. Compl., at ¶ 191. Additionally, Plaintiff claims that he was scolded by management for reporting the discriminatory conduct towards Mr. Manning, because Plaintiff “was going to get the Company sued as a result of sending the email.” Id. at ¶¶ 183-185. On April 10, 2017, Plaintiff was terminated from his employment with the Safelite. Id. at ¶ 198.

         On June 27, 2018, Plaintiff filed his initial Complaint [Dkt. No. 1], alleging that Defendant violated NJLAD (1) by retaliating against Plaintiff for complaining about and objecting to discriminatory conduct towards Mr. Manning; and (2) for terminating Plaintiff for associating with Mr. Manning. On March 28, 2019, this Court dismissed Plaintiff's initial Complaint, without prejudice, finding that Plaintiff had failed to sufficiently allege facts to support standing under NJLAD. Subsequently, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint on April 23, 2019 [Dkt. No. 30], in which he alleged additional facts related to his NJLAD claims and added a CEPA retaliation claim. Now, Defendant moves to dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint, or in the alternative for summary judgment or a transfer of venue to U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         To withstand a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)(quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. at 662. “[A]n unadorned, the defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation” does not suffice to survive a motion to dismiss. Id. at 678. “[A] plaintiff's obligation to provide the ‘grounds' of his ‘entitle[ment] to ...


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