Whose Burden is it Anyway? NJ Appellate Division Holds Employee Fails to Meet the Burden of Persuasion of Showing Discriminatory Intent
January 18, 2022
Despite surviving summary judgment, securing a favorable verdict at the second trial, and being awarded counsel fees, Plaintiff’s gender discrimination case was abruptly dismissed by the Appellate Division. On January 3, 2022, the three-judge panel held that an employee in a discrimination case bears the burden of persuasion at all stages. This employee’s argument fell short of that burden, and her case was, therefore, dismissed.
In the City of Plainfield, the sitting Mayor is vested with the power to appoint individuals to serve as Municipal Public Defenders, subject to the City Council’s confirmation. As is typical in the political realm, the inauguration of a new Mayor is often accompanied by a changing of the guard. This case illustrates that paradigm and thwarts the notion that a changing of the guard, accompanied by nothing more, is violative of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD).
When adjudicating an NJLAD claim, New Jersey courts follow the familiar framework articulated in the U.S. Supreme Court case of McDonnell-Douglas Corp. v. Green. The three-step analysis first requires that the employee demonstrate that: the employee is a member of a protected class (in this case, gender); they adequately performed their job; they were discharged from their position; and their replacement was, in this case, of a different gender. If the employee can demonstrate those elements, the employer must then show a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the termination. Doing so shifts the focus back to the employee to illustrate that the legitimate reason was merely a façade or pretext for an underlying discriminatory intent.
In 2001, the City of Plainfield appointed Joy Spriggs to serve as a Municipal Public Defender – a one-year position. When she was reappointed in 2007, she was named the Chief Municipal Public Defender, which was also subject to annual reappointment. She was reappointed year after year from 2001 through 2016, but knew that her position was conditioned upon annual reappointment.
In 2013, Plainfield elected Adrian Mapp its new Mayor. As is his prerogative, Mayor Mapp sought to appoint individuals who, he believed, would best advance his goals for the City. Spriggs did not make the cut. Nevertheless, prerogative alone does not secure Council votes, thus Spriggs was reappointed the first three years of Mayor Mapp’s term. The tides changed in 2017, and Mayor Mapp successfully appointed Spriggs’s replacement – a male attorney.
Based solely on the appointment of a male replacement, Spriggs filed a lawsuit primarily under the NJLAD. As discovery unfolded, certain undisputed facts peered through the weeds which would later shape the analysis at the appellate level. First, Spriggs performed her job well. Second, Mayor Mapp did not make any gender insensitive comments to Spriggs. Third, Mayor Mapp replaced Spriggs so he could appoint someone he believed was a better fit for his administration. Lastly, in the same year that Mayor Mapp replaced Spriggs, he also reappointed multiple females.
Trial Court Proceedings
At the trial level, however, those facts did not win the day. The Court denied the City’s summary judgment motion finding that the City failed to show a non-discriminatory reason for termination. Based on that, the Court ended its analysis forgoing any consideration of the pretext element. On reconsideration, the City argued that it need only produce a legitimate reason for her termination, not persuade the Court of its credibility. The Trial Court disagreed, but held that the result would be the same as there were questions of fact as to the Mayor’s intent.
Trials then ensued. A hung jury rendered the first trial a mistrial. For Spriggs, the second time was the charm which resulted in a verdict in Spriggs’ favor awarding her $500,000.00 in damages and approximately $225,000.00 in attorneys’ fees. Both parties then appealed.
Appellate Division Decision
Every case entails the burden of production and the burden of persuasion. Here, the Appellate Division outlined the interplay between those burdens and the McDonnell-Douglas test. Specifically, the panel explained that at all stages of the analysis, the plaintiff bears the burden of persuasion. At first blush, that seems antithetical to the McDonnell-Douglas analysis, which shifts the burden to the employer to demonstrate a non-discriminatory reason for termination. However, a closer examination of the case law reveals that the burden that shifts to the employer is one of production, not persuasion. In other words, the employer need only proffer a legitimate reason for the termination to shift the focus back to the employee – whether the court finds the reason to be credible is immaterial.
When applied here, the Appellate Division found that the City produced a legitimate reason for the termination – Mayor Mapp sought someone who would further his goals. The ball was then back in Spriggs’ court to prove pretext, but she had nothing to offer. Mayor Mapp never made any gender insensitive comments and appointed women in other comparable positions within his administration the same year he replaced Spriggs. As a result, the Appellate Division granted the City’s motion for summary judgment, and vacated the award of damages and attorneys’ fees.
There are two takeaways from this case. First, being replaced by someone of a different gender, race, religion, etc., does not, on its own, vest an employee with a viable claim worthy of damages under the NJLAD. It was enacted to eradicate the cancer of discrimination, thus absent a genuine showing of discriminatory intent, which is the employee’s burden to demonstrate, the employee will be left empty-handed.
The second takeaway is one of caution. Albeit a victory for the employer, this case is not a perfect pathway to success against an NJLAD claim. The political world is unlike that of any other, thus legitimate reasons for termination in its atmosphere may be viewed differently than those in the private realm. Certainly that was the case for the jury that awarded Spriggs almost $750,000.00. That is not to say that this case is of no benefit to private sector employers, as the legal standard is the same, rather, it is to say that the same facts, in a different context may produce a different result.
For more information regarding this decision and best practices to implement effective policies for your workforce, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Law & Litigation Practice Group via email here or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the Human Resources Counseling & Compliance Practice Group via email here, or 973.533.0777.