NJ Supreme Court Allows Former Town Manager to Pursue NJLAD Claim

In Meade v. Township of Livingston (A-52-20/085176) (Decided December 30, 2021), the Supreme Court of New Jersey addressed whether discriminatory conduct toward an employee by that employee’s subordinate can result in liability on the part of the employer under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). The court held that Plaintiff Michele Meade provided sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that what Livingston Township Councilmembers perceived to be Police Chief Craig Handschuch’s discriminatory attitude toward the former Township Manager influenced the Council’s decision to terminate her, in violation of the NJLAD.

Facts of Meade v. Township of Livingston

Plaintiff Michele Meade served as Township Manager for Livingston Township for eleven years, from 2005 until her termination in 2016 by Resolution of the Township Council. The Council alleges that it terminated Meade because of her poor job performance. Meade, however, maintains that the Council terminated her to appoint a male replacement due to the gender bias of her male subordinate, Police Chief Craig Handschuch, contrary to the NJLAD.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the Township of Livingston, and the Appellate Division affirmed. The Appellate Division found that Meade failed to discipline or correct the Chief’s behavior and rejected her argument that “she was impeded by the Council in taking action against the Chief because the Council did not authorize an expenditure for an independent investigation of the Chief’s performance.”

The appellate court also found that Meade’s theory of liability under the NJLAD was “upside down,” noting that Meade failed to allege that the Chief created a hostile work environment or that the Council failed to address such a situation. In the court’s view, “any discrimination here came from below plaintiff, not above her. She had the authority to eliminate the problem herself.” Accordingly, the Appellate Division held that under the circumstances presented, “the trial judge appropriately found Meade’s LAD claim unviable.”

NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in Meade v. Township of Livingston

The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed. “[W]e hold that sufficient evidence was present for a reasonable jury to find that what Councilmembers perceived to be Handschuch’s discriminatory attitude toward Meade influenced the Council’s decision to terminate her, in violation of the LAD,” Justice Faustino J. Fernandez-Vina wrote. “Accordingly, we reverse the grant of summary judgment and remand this matter for trial.”

The New Jersey Supreme Court first found that Meade established a prima facie case of gender discrimination. “As a woman, Meade is a member of a protected group; she performed her job as the Township Manager for eleven years; and she was fired by Livingston and replaced with a male Township Manager,” Justice Fernandez-Vina explained. Under the burden-shifting test set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-04 (1973), Livingston was then required to show legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for its decision to terminate Meade.

As Justice Feranandez-Vina went on to explain, Livingston asserted that its decision to terminate Meade was rooted in her poor performance in a number of areas for which she was responsible, including but not limited to her failure to supervise or discipline the Chief. In response, to survive defendant’s motion for summary judgment, Meade was then required to show sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that Livingston’s asserted reasons for terminating her were mere pretext.

According to the New Jersey Supreme Court, Meade presented sufficient evidence to enable a reasonable jury to reach such a finding. “Although the Councilmembers alleged a number of areas of dissatisfaction with Meade’s performance, a reasonable jury could conclude that Meade’s gender played a role in the Council’s termination of her employment,” Justice Fernandez-Vina wrote, citing that two of the four Councilmembers who voted to terminate her had expressed the view that the Chief refused to accept a woman as his supervisor.

The New Jersey Supreme Court declined to adopt the cat’s paw theory of liability, which applies when a biased subordinate uses the formal decisionmaker as a dupe in a deliberate scheme to trigger a discriminatory employment action. Rather, the court applied guidance from Spencer v. Bristol-Meyers Squibb Co., 156 N.J. 455 (1998), and Battaglia v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 214 N.J. 518 (2013), which reveal that actions taken to accommodate the discriminatory views of non-decisionmakers can support liability to the same extent as actions taken based on discriminatory views personally held by decisionmakers.

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