On April 12, 2021, the New Jersey District Court for the District of New Jersey in Spence v. New Jersey, et al., granted in part and denied in part a motion to dismiss an employee’s sexual harassment and retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). The employee claimed she was sexually harassed by her co-worker and that her supervisors took retaliatory action against her for reporting the alleged sexual harassment. The District Court found that the employee failed to sufficiently plead her sexual harassment claim for lack of pervasive harassment, and in part failed to sufficiently plead her retaliation claim for lack of temporal proximity.
On June 26, 2017, Natalie Spence was hired as a Judiciary Clerk in the Camden Vicinage Child Support Division of the Camden County Probation Department. Spence claims that within a few days of beginning her job, her co-worker, John Callender, began to sexually harass her. The alleged conduct included pressing his groin into her, asking inappropriate and personal questions, attempted inappropriate physical contact, blowing kisses, sexually offensive gestures using a hot dog, and sexually offensive gestures while straddling a chair and making sexual noises.
Spence reported this behavior to her supervisor but was told that Callender was not a threat and that she should be patient with him. Spence claims that over the next few weeks, the behavior continued. When Spence confronted Callender about his behavior, he told her that no one would believe her complaints because she was new in the position.
Spence once again reported Callender’s behavior to her supervisor, who again failed to take any action. Shortly after the report, Spence received a negative career progression report, stating she did not meet expectations in various areas. After the negative report, Spence reported Callender’s behavior to another supervisor, who subsequently transferred her to two separate units.
Spence filed a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who provided her with a right to sue letter. Spence later proceeded to file a complaint with the District Court against the State of New Jersey, the New Jersey Judiciary, Callender, and her two supervisors for sexual harassment and retaliation in violation of Title VII and the NJLAD. After the State filed a motion to dismiss, Spence filed an Amended Complaint and the Court denied the State’s motion as moot.
DISTRICT COURT DECISION
Title VII Claims
At the outset, the District Court noted that the inquiry into discrimination claims are the same for Title VII and NJLAD as both are governed by the burden-shifting McDonnell Douglas framework. Although a detailed pleading is generally not required to defeat a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff bringing an employment discrimination claim must demonstrate a reasonable expectation that she will ultimately be able to prove her case.
The District Court dismissed Spence’s Title VII claims against the individual defendants with prejudice as Title VII does not subject individual supervisory employees to liability. However, since the NJLAD does impose individual liability under certain circumstances, the District Court granted leave for Spence to file an Amended Complaint and dismissed her NJLAD claims without prejudice.
Spence’s Sexual Harassment Claims
Spence alleged that Callender’s actions constituted sexual harassment and created a hostile work environment in violation of the NJLAD. The State maintained that the discrimination allegedly suffered by Spence was not severe or pervasive and Callender’s conduct only consisted of minor isolated events, not giving rise to a hostile work environment. Spence conceded that the events were not severe, but argued that the ongoing and regular comments and physical contact rose to the level of pervasive.
The District Court found that Spence did not meet her burden of demonstrating that she would be able to prove that the harassment was sufficiently pervasive because she relied largely on generalized allegations without sufficient details to assess the actual pervasiveness of the conduct in question. The Amended Complaint made no attempt to describe how often the conduct occurred nor the time frame over which the harassment took place, nor how Callender’s conduct impacted her ability to do her job.
Spence’s allegations were found by the Court to be insufficient to prove pervasiveness. Without further details of the events, Spence could not demonstrate a reasonable expectation that she would be able to prove the existence of a hostile work environment. Thus, the District Court granted the State’s motion to dismiss the hostile work environment claims without prejudice. The Court further granted Spence leave to file an amended complaint, since she may provide additional details to meet her burden.
To withstand a motion to dismiss on her retaliation claims, Spence only needed to demonstrate that she acted under a good faith, reasonable belief that a violation existed when she made the complaint. The Court found that Spence’s allegations supported an objectively reasonable belief that Callender’s behavior was unlawful when she made the complaint.
In addition, the District Court found that Spence sufficiently raised a reasonable expectation that she will be able to prove adverse employment action, since a reasonable person in her position in a new job may be dissuaded from making further complaints after receiving a negative performance review and being transferred twice.
Spence relied entirely on temporal proximity between her reports and the two adverse actions to show a causal connection. First, Spence received the negative performance review within a couple weeks of making her initial complaints to her supervisor. The Court found that such a close temporal proximity may be unduly suggestive of a causal connection. As such, the Court found that Spence adequately pled her retaliation claims regarding her negative performance review.
Second, Spence was transferred to a new unit a few months after her complaints to a second supervisor. Since she could not provide exact dates of her reports or the transfers, the Court found that temporal proximity could not be precisely measured. Without knowing the specific amount of time between the reports and transfers, the District Court could not find that Spence sufficiently pled temporal proximity for the transfers. As such, the Court granted the motion to dismiss without prejudice on Spence’s retaliation claim regarding her transfers. Third, Spence’s retaliation claim based on her negative career progression report was allowed to proceed and Spence was granted leave to further amend her complaint.
This decision further emphasizes the level of detail required to sufficiently plead sexual harassment and retaliation claims. The standards for pervasiveness and temporal proximity are further defined. Courts are empowered to exercise a gatekeeping function of deciding the element of severity or pervasiveness for sexual harassment claims in a motion to dismiss analysis. Employers should provide adequate outlets for employee complaints regarding sexual harassment and avoid any retaliatory action against those that complain, so as to avoid liability in similar suits.
For more information regarding this decision and best practices on how to implement a complaint Anti-Harassment Policy and Anti-Harassment training program 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 call 973.533.0777.
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