260 F.3d 265 (3rd Cir. 2001), 00-5026, Abramson v. William Paterson College of NJ

Docket Nº:00-5026
Citation:260 F.3d 265
Case Date:August 03, 2001
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

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260 F.3d 265 (3rd Cir. 2001)




No. 00-5026

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

August 3, 2001

Argued January 25, 2001

On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey (D.C. Civil No. 95-CV-04353) District Judge: Honorable Katharine S. Hayden

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Phyllis Gelman Lindsay N. Feinberg [argued] Gelman & Feinberg 60 East 42nd Street, Suite 1060 New York, NY 10165 Counsel for Appellant Gertrude W. Abramson

Nathan Lewin [argued] Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewis 2555 M Street, NW, Suite 500 Washington, DC 20037 Counsel for Amicus-Appellant National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs ("colpa")

Bruce J. Solomon [argued] Office of Attorney General of New Jersey Division of Law Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex Trenton, NJ 08625 Counsel for Appellee William Paterson College of New Jersey

Before: Nygaard, Alito, and Rendell, Circuit Judges,


Rendell, Circuit Judge

Gertrude Abramson appeals the summary judgment granted to her former employer, William Paterson College ("WPC"),1 against whom she filed hostile work environment, religious discrimination, and unlawful retaliation claims under Title VII and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("NJLAD"). Abramson, former tenure-track Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction ("C&I") of the School of Education at WPC, claimed she was subjected to harassment and ultimately terminated, both because of her Orthodox Jewish beliefs and practices, and because she complained of WPC's religious discrimination against her. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of WPC on all claims, and Abramson now appeals. We conclude that Abramson established a prima facie case for all three causes of action, and that the District Court erred in the way that it considered the evidence and applied certain legal principles. We will therefore reverse the grant of summary judgment and remand for further proceedings.


A. Facts

Most of the underlying facts are undisputed. Where there is a dispute, we view the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Drinkwater v. Union Carbide Corp. , 904 F.2d 853, 854 n.1 (3d Cir. 1990). WPC hired Abramson, an Orthodox Jew, for one year as a tenure-track Associate Professor, effective September 1, 1990.

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Abramson has a Doctor of Education degree in Communications, Computing and Technology from Columbia University, and New York State teacher certifications in elementary education and early childhood education. In 1990, she had been teaching for ten years at the college level, had published in peer- reviewed academic publications, and had a national reputation in education technology. At the time WPC hired her until her termination, Abramson was the only Orthodox Jew employed in the School of Education at WPC.

At the start of her first year at WPC, Abramson informed her Department Chair, Jim Peer, that she would not be able to teach on Jewish holidays. He suggested that she work out her schedule with her students, which she did, and the days she missed on account of Jewish holidays were not counted as sick days. App. at 134-35.

The Review Process

As part of WPC's written policies and procedures regarding retention and tenure, an untenured professor's academic performance was to be reviewed on an annual basis. New Jersey state law does not allow a state college to offer tenure to a faculty member upon appointment, but does permit it to offer tenure to a professor after two years of employment upon a showing of extraordinary circumstances. N.J. Stat. Ann. S 18A:60-9 (West 1993). Barring exceptional circumstances, an untenured faculty member must serve five years before being considered in the fifth year for an award of tenure made effective in his or her sixth year of employment. Id. at S 18A:60-8.

Retention and tenure decisions in Abramson's department are first considered by the Curriculum and Instruction Retention Committee ("the Committee"). The criteria used to determine retention and tenure, as set forth in WPC's written retention policy, are as follows: (1) professional performance; (2) professional growth; and (3) potential contributions to the academic department and the University in terms of present and future programs. The Department Chair is an ex-officio member of the Committee. Though not a voting member, the Chair does choose whether or not to sign the Committee's recommendation. App. at 707. By not signing a recommendation, the Chair indicates a lack of support for the Committee's evaluation. App. at 708. The Dean then makes a recommendation to the Provost. Finally, the President of WPC makes a determination whether or not to recommend retention (or tenure, where applicable) to the Board of Trustees. The WPC Board of Trustees then decides whether to retain and/or grant tenure based on the recommendation of the President.

Abramson's First Two Years at WPC

Abramson's first "annual" review occurred shortly after she began teaching at WPC, and on November 7, 1990, the Committee "strongly" recommended the retention of Abramson for the 1991-92 academic year. App. at 203. The Committee applauded her teaching, scholarly achievement and service, and noted Abramson's ability to teach many C&I courses, opining that "[t]his flexibility makes her most valuable for future planning." Id. It went on to say that the C&I Department "has long been in need of just such expertise as Professor Abramson brings . . . [WPC] stand[s] to benefit from her work as a teacher and scholar." Id.

In the fall of 1991, during Abramson's second year at WPC, Nancy Seminoff became the Dean of WPC's School of Education, and in October 1991, she appointed Shelley Wepner to chair the C&I Department.

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On October 29, 1991, the Committee recommended the retention of Abramson for the 1992-93 academic year, and Dean Seminoff concurred. The Committee noted Abramson's significant service, top teaching ratings by her peer evaluators, and exemplary scholarship. It stated that "Professor Abramson exemplifies WPC's direction for the future." App. at 207. Once again, it strongly recommended her retention, and Wepner signed the recommendation. President Speert then recommended Abramson's reappointment to the Board of Trustees. App. at 204.

Abramson's Third Year at WPC

During Abramson's third year, she began to experience difficulties. First, Abramson was charged for sick days for each day of work she missed due to Jewish holidays, despite the fact that WPC was closed on several Christian holidays. App. at 13, 135, 159. In June 1992, after Abramson submitted routine forms in connection with a professional conference she would be attending during that summer, Seminoff required Abramson to meet with her to account for the number of conferences and absences in the prior year. Linda Dye, the head of the faculty union, stated that this was "unprecedented" in a situation where a professor's absences had not exceeded the standards set by Human Resources. App. at 157-58.

In addition, Abramson was charged a day of sick leave for a Jewish holiday on October 20, 1992, when she was not even scheduled to teach. App. at 250, 677. After protesting orally and in writing, this error was corrected six months later. App. at 685. Then, in November 1992, during a C&I Department meeting called to plan the 1993-94 class schedules, Abramson stated her intention to schedule her classes so that they did not conflict with the fall Jewish holidays. According to Abramson, "Wepner started to scream that she was tired of hearing about [Abramson] and [her] holidays; when [Abramson] quietly tried to explain [her]self, Chair Wepner yelled that [Abramson's] holidays were . . . personal private issues and that she did not want them mentioned at the scheduling meetings." App. at 137.

During the fall of 1992, at a Technology Committee meeting chaired by Seminoff, Wepner suggested that Abramson, along with others, come in on a Saturday to prepare a technology room. Wepner, who is Jewish herself, made this suggestion while fully aware that Abramson does not work on Saturdays. Abramson told the group that she could not attend because of the Jewish Sabbath. 2 Thereafter, Wepner continually questioned Abramson about her lack of availability on Friday nights and Saturdays. App. at 137-38.

On October 12, 1992, the Committee once again recommended Abramson for retention for the 1993-94 school year. The evaluation highlighted the "dynamic" nature of Abramson's discipline, described her as a "caring educator" and "reflective teacher," noted she engaged in a "wide range of scholarly activity" and was "active in several national conferences in her field." App. at 225-28. This time, however, the Committee's evaluation noted some "minor concern about her teaching performance and her contribution to department activities . . . ." App. at 231. However, it also "recognized her numerous scholarly pursuits and professional contributions" and recommended her retention "in light

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of the department's present and future needs for a technology educator." Id. Wepner signed the recommendation. Seminoff, noting "an imbalance in productivity" due to Abramson's focus on scholarly activity, expressed that she had "serious concerns about Dr. Abramson's reappointment," and recommended Abramson "with some reservation." App. at 929-30.

On October 22, 1992, Abramson wrote a seven-page letter to President Speert, stating that she took "strong exception to the negative tenor and substance of the recommendations made for [her] retention by[her] department and Dean...

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