New Jersey court finds that plaintiff failed to establish a Prima Facie in case of discrimination

NEW JERSEY COURT FINDS THAT PLAINTIFF FAILED TO ESTABLISH A PRIMA FACIE CASE OF DISCRIMINATION WHERE EMPLOYER HIRED AN INDIVIDUAL IN THE SAME PROTECTED CLASS AS PLAINTIFF.

By Allison J. Vogel, Esq., on March 13, 2020

 

The Appellate Division recently affirmed the dismissal of a race discrimination claim where the plaintiff alleged that her employer discriminated against her by hiring a less qualified person in plaintiff’s protected class solely because of her race.  Foreman v. Ramapo College of New Jersey, A-2320-18T3, 2020 WL 1130332 (App. Div. Mar. 9, 2020).

The plaintiff, Deidre Foreman, alleged that her former employer, Ramapo College of New Jersey, discriminated against her based on her race (African-American) in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) and retaliated against her in violation of the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”).

Foreman, the Associate Director for the College’s Educational Opportunity Fund (“EOF”), agreed to serve as the Acting EOF Director while the College conducted a national search to find a permanent replacement for the EOF Director position.  Following a reorganization, the program was placed under the supervision of the Vice-President for Enrollment Management & Student Affairs.  After the Vice President reinitiated the search, he encouraged Foreman to apply for the position, which she did.  Although the search committee did not select Foreman to move forward after its first round of telephone interviews, the Vice President directed the search committee to interview her in-person in light of her tenure and experience.  Following the second round of interviews, the search committee selected three finalists, which did not include Foreman.  The Vice President offered the position to an African-American woman.  Upon learning of the decision, Foreman took an extended leave of absence and filed a charge of discrimination.

Foreman subsequently sued, asserting claims for discrimination based on race in violation of the LAD and retaliation in violation of CEPA.  The College moved for summary judgment, which was granted in part and denied in part.  In dismissing Foreman’s LAD claim, the court found that the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting analysis did not apply because the individual selected for the position was similarly situated to plaintiff.  The court also found that plaintiff failed to overcome the presumption of non-discrimination as her argument centered on her claim that she was more qualified than the individual selected for the position.  While the trial court initially denied summary judgment on Foreman’s CEPA claim, it granted summary judgment on reconsideration upon noting that the plaintiff failed to show a causal connection.  Foreman appealed.

On appeal, Foreman argued that motion judge erred in determining that racial discrimination could not have occurred because the College hired a person in the same protected class as her.  The Appellate Division explained that the fourth element of the prima facie test requires a showing that the challenged employment decision take place under circumstances that give rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.  In affirming the trial court’s decision on Foreman’s LAD claim, the Appellate Division found that she failed to satisfy the fourth element of the test and therefore failed to establish a prima facie case of racial discrimination.  The Appellate Division also found that Foreman’s CEPA claim failed because the record did not reveal any evidence of animus caused by plaintiff’s alleged whistleblowing.

Accordingly, this decision affirms that it is the plaintiff’s burden to demonstrate that a challenged employment decision took place under circumstances giving rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.  This is particularly relevant in situations where an employer replaces the plaintiff with an individual in the same protected class.  Employers, however, should be prepared to defend against claims that the replacement was hired solely to disguise discrimination against the plaintiff.

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