Hargrave v. County of Atlantic, Civil Action No. 00-2568(SSB).

Citation262 F.Supp.2d 393
Decision Date12 May 2003
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 00-2568(SSB).
PartiesLaurie Ann HARGRAVE, Plaintiff, v. COUNTY OF ATLANTIC, Sal Martello, Joyce Ross, Wilt Bennet, Geri Oaks, and John Doe 1 through 10, Defendants.
CourtUnited States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey

Frank L. Corrado, Esq., Joseph C. Grassi, Esq., Rossi, Barry, Corrado & Grassi, P.C., Wildwood, NJ, for Plaintiff Laurie Ann Hargrave.

Donna M. Taylor, Esq., Assistant County Counsel, Atlantic County Department of Law, Atlantic City, NJ, for Defendants County of Atlantic and Wilt Bennet.

Arthur J. Murray, Esq., Jacobs & Barbone, P.A., Atlantic City, NJ, for Defendant Salvatore Martello.

Katherine D. Hartman, Esq., Attorneys Hartman, Chartered, Moorestown, NJ, for Defendant Joyce Ross.

Karen M. Williams, Esq., Jasinski and Paranac, P.C., Atlantic City, NJ, for Defendant Jeri Oaks.

BROTMAN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Laurie Hargrave, an African-American female, instituted this action against Defendant Atlantic County, her former employer, and several of her former supervisors on May 26, 2000, alleging that she was subjected to a racially and sexually hostile work environment and unlawful retaliation in violation of Title VII (Count I) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("NJLAD") (Count III). Plaintiff also asserts claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on the alleged violation of rights guaranteed her under the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment (Count II). The Court has jurisdiction over Plaintiffs federal civil rights claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiffs state law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367. Presently before the Court are Defendants' motions for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motions will be granted in part and denied in part.


Plaintiff Laurie Hargrave, an African-American female, was hired by Defendant Atlantic County in 1986 to work as food service worker in the Dietary Unit of the Meadowview Nursing Home ("Meadowview") in Northfield, New Jersey, a position she occupied until her discharge in August of 2001. (Hargrave Dep. at 12:17-22). Meadowview provides assisted living quarters for the elderly and is operated through the County's Department of Human Services. The facility's Dietary Unit is a "satellite unit" which receives food cooked elsewhere on the premises and arranges it on "steamtables" for distribution to the facility's elderly residents, many of whom have special dietary and nutritional needs. (Id. at 14:2-16:5). The Unit's staff of approximately ten to twelve food service employees work in two shifts, a morning and an afternoon shift, under the direct supervision of a Food Service Manager ("FSM") and, occasionally, an assistant FSM. (Id. at 16:6-16; 18:17-19:7). The precise composition of the Unit's staff varied over the course of Plaintiffs employment, but has generally consisted predominantly of African American female food service workers and a mostly non-minority staff of managers and supervisors. (Purelli Dep. at 19:25-20:10; Maurer Dep. at 18:8-14; Hopkins Dep. at 21:3-21:6). Plaintiff's Allegations of Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment and Retaliation:

In 1995, Atlantic County hired Defendant Salvatore Martello ("Martello"), a Caucasian male with private sector experience in food service management, to fill the position of Food Service Manager. (Martello Dep. at 8:10-10:3). Martello's tenure was, according to Plaintiff, marked almost from the start by inappropriate conduct toward the Unit's female employees. On March 1, 1996, Plaintiff memorialized her complaints about Martello's conduct in a memorandum which she directed to Susan DeMos, the Director of Support Services at the County's Human Services Department, and distributed to various members of the Unit's managerial staff, including Martello himself. (See Memorandum dated March 1, 1996, attached as Ex. D to Def.'s Joint Stmt, of Facts). In her memo, Plaintiff accused Martello of making several offensive and sexually suggestive comments and jokes to her and her female co-workers. The memo specifically identified four statements Martello had allegedly made over a period of approximately five and one-half months. What follows is a series of excerpts from that memorandum:


This memo is to apprise you of the conditions and the environment that we must endure working under the supervision of Sal Martello. Below are various incidents that were either told to me or I have witnessed in regards to the conduct unbecoming a supervisor.

September 14, 1995

Approximately 11:30 or 12:30, Mrs. Wanda Harris came to me and repeated a disgusting comment Sal had made. In the office of the Dietician, Diane Frakas had cooked Sushi. They were tasting it. Sal made the statement that "the Sushi tasted better than a woman he had."

In my presence, during the month of September at 11:00 a.m., an employee entered Sal's office. Sal stated to the employee "You look so good, baby, I could put you on a plate and slop you up with a biscuit."

December 29, 1995

A Friday, at 12:40 I had completed serving lunch and was emptying the steam table.

Barbara Bennet entered the kitchen and asked for Sal. I told her he was out to lunch. She asked if we (Wayne Leggett and myself) would taste some shrimp because they smelled bad. Wayne went to check on the shrimp. When Sal returned from lunch around 1:30, I informed him that Barbara wanted him to smell and taste some shrimp because they had smelled bad. Sal left. Sal returned within 10 minutes. As I was cleaning off my steam table, washing it down, Sal came in laughing, he stopped right in front of our starting station, and stated (laughing) "Barbara Bennet wanted me to taste shrimp, if anyone knows what fish taste like she should know, she eats more fish than I do."1

February 21, 1996

About 7:00 a.m. Martha McCusker brought to my attention a very degrading and disgusting statement Sal made in her presence. She stated that he said "I always hit that "G" spot." . . .

I'm sure you can appreciate the seriousness of this situation and it is time for a change. No one should have to work under these conditions.

I am requesting a meeting with you and Sal along with my representative to discuss this matter. A suit for sexual harassment has not yet been filed, however, it will depend upon the outcome of this meeting with you.

You immediate attention to this matter will be most appreciated. (Id.) (emphasis in original). Plaintiffs memo also identified at least two other female employees who had allegedly voiced similar complaints about Martello's "sexual [sic] offensive jokes and statements," though it did not provide any details with regard to the specific nature and substance of those comments. (Id.).2

At her deposition testimony, Plaintiff related three additional incidents in which Martello made sexually offensive remarks, comments she had not specifically included in her March 1st memorandum. For instance, Plaintiff testified that Martello had once explained to her that the reason a woman sits with her legs open on the back of a motorcycle is "because when she hits bumps along her ride, there is like a sensation or vibration that she gets." (Hargrave Dep. at 44:17-45:13). Plaintiff also discussed an incident in which Martello boasted about a party he had attended in Philadelphia where he could have "laid" or "screwed" all the women he wanted. (Id. at 435:4-9). Finally, Plaintiff testified that Martello "often" told jokes about a blind man who passes a fish market, the point of which was that female genitalia smells like raw fish. (Id. at 43:7-25).3 On March 5, 1996, shortly after circulating copies of her memorandum, Plaintiff filed a formal complaint of sexual harassment with the Atlantic County Department of Law. (See EEO Report dated March 21, 1996, attached as Ex. 8 to Pl.'s Stmt, of Facts). Plaintiffs complaints prompted an investigation by Donna Nelson, an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) officer employed by the Atlantic County Department of Law. As part of the investigation, Martello was suspended for two weeks and instructed not to speak with anyone regarding the allegations against him until the County had completed its investigation. (Martello Dep. at 16:25-17:4). Nelson investigated Plaintiffs allegations and interviewed several members of the Meadowview staff, including several of the food service workers identified in Plaintiffs letter, as well as employees outside the dietary unit who had had some contact with Mr. Martello. (Pl.'s Stmt, of Facts, Ex. 8). In a letter dated March 21, 1996, Nelson reported that her investigation had uncovered "insufficient evidence to support a finding of frequent and severe or pervasive activity giving rise to hostile environment sexual harassment." (Id).

Plaintiffs allegations did not result in any formal disciplinary action against Martello. He did, however, receive a letter from DeMos reminding him that, as supervisory employee, he was expected to "make a conscious effort to act in a professional manner" and to "ensure that [his] behavior and actions are never questionable." (See internal memorandum dated March 14, 1996, attached as Ex. 10 to Pl's Stmt, of Facts). DeMos's letter also emphasized that inappropriate "jokes, innuendos, profanity, and foolishness must not be tolerated in the workplace" and recommended that Martello use the "episode [involving Hargrave's allegations and the subsequent investigation] as a very valuable learning experience." (Id.).

Plaintiff alleges that, in the months...

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