Quinlan v. Curtiss-Wright Corp.

Decision Date02 December 2010
Citation8 A.3d 209,204 N.J. 239
PartiesJoyce QUINLAN, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. CURTISS-WRIGHT CORPORATION, Defendant-Respondent.
CourtNew Jersey Supreme Court

Neil M. Mullin argued the cause for appellant (Smith Mullin, attorneys, Mr. Mullin and Nancy Erika Smith, Montclair, of counsel and on the briefs).

Rosemary Alito argued the cause for respondent (K & L Gates, attorneys; Ms. Alito and George P. Barbatsuly, Newark, on the briefs).

Jerrold J. Wohlgemuth submitted a brief on behalf of amicus curiae New Jersey Defense Association (Porzio, Bromberg & Newman, attorneys; Lynne Anne Anderson and Vito A. Gagliardi, Jr., of counsel; Mr. Wohlgemuth and Raquel S. Lord, Morristown, on the brief).

Claudia A. Reis submitted a brief on behalf of amicus curiae National Employment Lawyers Association/New Jersey (Green, Savits & Lenzo, attorneys; Ms. Reis, Glen D. Savits, and Jon W. Green, Morristown, on the brief).

Marvin M. Goldstein submitted a brief on behalf of amicus curiae Employers Association of New Jersey (Proskauer Rose, attorneys; Mr. Goldstein, Mark A. Saloman, and John J. Sarno, Newark, of counsel and on the brief).

Justice HOENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Plaintiff Joyce Quinlan, then the Executive Director of Human Resources for defendant Curtiss-Wright Corporation, believed that the company had discriminatedagainst her when it promoted a man she thought was less qualified than she and made him her supervisor. In an effort to prove that her suspicions were true and that defendant was engaged in widespread sex discrimination, plaintiff gathered documents that were available to her in the ordinary course of her employment and turned copies of them over to an attorney. During discovery in her discrimination lawsuit, defendant learned that plaintiff had taken, and was continuing to take, copies of hundreds of documents it considered to be confidential. Following disclosure of one document that was particularly helpful to plaintiff's claim that she had been discriminated against when she was not selected for the promotion, defendant fired her. The letter terminating plaintiff from her employment accused her of breach of company policies and theft. Believing that defendant had fired her because of the prosecution of her discrimination claim, plaintiff added a retaliation claim to her pending lawsuit.

After a lengthy and hard-fought trial, the jury agreed with plaintiff, awarding her substantial compensatory and punitive damages. In the appeal that followed, the verdict in her favor on the retaliation claim was reversed and remanded for a new trial and the punitive award was vacated in its entirety. The reasoning of the appellate panel that undergirds those conclusions has given rise to two disputes before this Court and although they can fairly be described as discrete issues, they are matters of great public importance, with far-reaching implications for employers and employees. The arguments raised by the parties relating to the retaliation claim are framed in terms of fundamental rights of employers and employees and each of the parties has offereddiametrically opposed views of both the rights that each enjoys and the public policy implications of any decision that this Court might reach.

Plaintiff asks this Court to read the Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -42, broadly so that it provides complete protection for any employee who copies and takes company documents for the purpose of helping in the prosecution of a discrimination claim. She argues that because she was motivated by the need to assist in the prosecution of her lawsuit and because she disclosed the documents only to her attorneys, permitting defendant to fire her for her conduct would be contrary to the strong remedial purposes of the LAD.

Defendant insists that the employer's right to conduct its business and its right to demand loyalty of its employees is paramount. It argues that if this Court adopts the approach championed by plaintiff, the effect will be to insulate conduct that is a clear ground for termination merely because an employee had the sense to limit the disclosure of the company's confidential documents to a lawyer. Defendant cautions this Court not to create circumstances in which employees will be encouraged to rummage through employers' files hoping to find something to use as a shield against what would be an otherwise permissible termination of their employment.

Articulating the arguments raised by the parties makes plain that the issues before this Court are of great significance. The difficult task before this Court demands that we achieve a fair balance of the legitimate rights of employers and employees in circumstances in which those rights conflict. Our challenge is to create the appropriate framework against which courts may weigh and consider whether, and to what extent, an employee who finds, copies, and discloses an employer's otherwise confidential documents in the context of prosecuting a discrimination case was engaged in conduct protected by the LAD.That is a challenge we do not face in a vacuum, but one that arises in the real world of individual plaintiffs seeking to vindicate their rights and employerslegitimately expecting that they will not be required to tolerate acts amounting to self-help or thievery. Today we strike the balance with the essential purposes of the LAD as our guide, but in clear recognition of those very weighty concerns.


The facts that are relevant to our consideration of this appeal were developed during the lengthy trial on the merits of plaintiff's discrimination claim. Plaintiff began her employment in 1980 as a benefits analyst in defendant's Human Resources department. Before that time, she had earned both an undergraduate degree and a master's degree in business administration, and she had gained experience working at several other companies. When she was hired by defendant, she signed an acknowledgement that defendant's official code of conduct precludes employees from using the company's confidential information for private purposes.

By 1999, plaintiff had risen through the ranks to become the Executive Director of Human Resources. Plaintiff contends that her areas of responsibility increased throughout her career and that her elevation to Executive Director was a promotion. Defendant disputed those assertions, claiming that plaintiff's work was limited to employee benefit plans, that her functions and responsibilities did not change when she became the Executive Director, and that the new title was simply a way for defendant to give her a salary increase. Notwithstanding that dispute, the parties agree that, in her role as the Executive Director of Human Resources, plaintiff reported directly to Martin Benante, who was defendant's CEO and President.

In 2000, defendant hired Kenneth Lewis to work in the Human Resources department, awarding him the title of Director of Succession Planning and Management Development. Three years later, in part because of a departmental reorganization, Lewis was promoted to Corporate Director of Human Resources and Management Development. Following that promotion and reorganization, although objectively Lewis had fewer qualifications and lessexperience than plaintiff, he became her supervisor and she was required to report to him rather than to Benante. Moreover, as a result of that change, there was only one woman who reported directly to Benante, and she had been given that direct-reporting position by Benante's predecessor.

Plaintiff was disappointed when Lewis was promoted because she believed that she was in line for that job, because she thought she was better qualified than he was, and because she was greatly concerned about the small percentage of women employed by defendant. Plaintiff told Benante that she thought he had made a mistake in promoting Lewis. Benante disagreed with plaintiff's view, telling her that Lewis got the position because he had conceived of and had implemented several initiatives in the Human Resources department. He also told plaintiff that she had not been promoted because of perceived problems with her oversight of a budget for a project that had cost over-runs and because she lacked enthusiasm for her job.

Plaintiff was dissatisfied with Benante's explanation. She did not think that she was responsible for the cost over-run and she believed that Lewis was promoted because of defendant's long-standing pattern of gender discrimination. In particular, at trial she presented evidence that few women held senior managerial positions withinthe company and she testified that Benante often hosted business lunches and dinners, inviting only men, even when the discussions related to her department. She contended that Benante frequently played golf with Lewis and that he had created the Succession Planning position with Lewis in mind.

Shortly after voicing her concerns to Benante, plaintiff consulted with counsel about whether she was the victim of gender discrimination. Thereafter, without her attorneys' knowledge, she also began to review files to which she had access as part of her duties in the Human Resources department. She reviewed the files to look for and copy materials that she thought would show that defendant engaged in a pattern of widespread gender discrimination. Eventually, she compiled more than 1800 pages ofdocuments, some of which contained employees' confidential personal information, including Social Security numbers and salary information, and she delivered copies of the documents to her attorneys.

In November 2003, plaintiff filed a four-count complaint alleging that she was the victim of gender discrimination based on the failure to promote her, that defendant engaged in a pattern and practice of gender discrimination, and that defendant discriminated against her in wages and salary. During discovery, in response to defendant's notice to produce,...

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