Williams v. Verizon N.J., Inc., Civ. No. 2:19-09350 (KM-SCM)

CourtUnited States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
Writing for the CourtMCNULTY, U.S.D.J.
PartiesMYRNA WILLIAMS Plaintiff, v. VERIZON NEW JERSEY, INC., et al, Defendants.
Docket NumberCiv. No. 2:19-09350 (KM-SCM)
Decision Date12 March 2020

MYRNA WILLIAMS Plaintiff,
v.
VERIZON NEW JERSEY, INC., et al, Defendants.

Civ. No. 2:19-09350 (KM-SCM)

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY

March 12, 2020


OPINION

MCNULTY, U.S.D.J.:

Plaintiff Myrna Williams is an employee of Defendant Verizon New Jersey ("Verizon"). (1AC ¶ 4 (DE 1)).1 She has raised a variety of statutory and common law claims against her employer relating to alleged discrimination on the basis of her race, which is African-American. Currently before the Court is the motion of Defendant Verizon to dismiss Plaintiff's first amended complaint in its entirety. (DE 17).

I make a few observations at the outset.

First, the court strongly discourages "kitchen-sink" or "form book" pleading. The amended complaint purports to assert some twenty-two separate claims. Some are not causes of action at all; many plaintiff's counsel has not even attempted to defend in response to defendant's motion. The same held true for an amended complaint in another case filed by the same counsel

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against Verizon. Powell v. Verizon, Civ. No. 19-4818 (D.N.J.).2 My reasoning is set forth in somewhat more detail in an opinion filed in that action as Docket Entry 43.

Second, for the most part the federal laws invoked here do not address general unpleasantness, even perpetrated by management, let alone by co-workers. What is generally required is an allegation of discrimination by the employer on a prohibited basis, such as race or gender.

Third, I note that many of the grounds for dismissal relate to the statute of limitations or failure to exhaust administrative remedies. These are legal bars to the assertion of certain claims, no matter how meritorious. The discussion herein, therefore, should not be taken to express any opinion on the theoretical viability of certain factual allegations regarding events, however serious, that took place as long as eleven years ago.

For the reasons set forth in more detail below, Verizon's motion is granted in part and denied in part.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

In considering a motion to dismiss, the Court is required to treat the facts alleged in the complaint as true and to draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiffs' favor. I summarize those allegations as follows:

Plaintiff Myrna Williams is a woman of African descent, originally from St. Lucia. (1AC ¶ 1). She has been a full-time employee of Defendant Verizon since 1989, holding a variety of job titles and responsibilities. (Id. ¶ 4). Williams's career at Verizon was productive and fulfilling until 2007. (Id. ¶ 6). At that point, however, Williams began to experience ongoing and pervasive harassment. (Id. ¶ 8).

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The first incident occurred in 2008, eleven years before the filing of the complaint. At that time, Williams was allegedly denied a personal day off for Martin Luther King Day by her new supervisor, LaVerne Francis. (Id. ¶¶ 7, 10). She brought the issue up to her manager, Salvatore Lobue. (Id. ¶ 11). Lobue, however, did not assist her, and in fact would often overlook complaints from workers in Verizon's predominantly African American Newark office, while promptly assisting workers in Verizon's predominantly Caucasian Mt. Laurel office. (Id.). Williams sought intervention from her union. (Id. ¶ 12). Afterwards, Ms. Francis retaliated against Williams by acting in a spiteful and petty manner, for example by requesting she resubmit previously completed assignments. (Id. ¶ 12).

In an effort to obtain mediation of the dispute, Williams began copying her manager, Lobue, on correspondence between herself and Ms. Francis. (Id. ¶ 13). Rather than taking action to solve the problem, Lobue compounded the harassment by passing over Williams's department for overtime work. (Id.). Plaintiff ultimately sought and received redress through union arbitration. (Id. ¶ 14). Nonetheless, the problem of harassment continued. (Id. ¶ 15).

In 2009, Plaintiff was transferred to Verizon's East Brunswick office along with three other African American employees. (Id. ¶¶ 16-17). Williams and other African American employees were treated differently from the Caucasian employees in East Brunswick. (Id. ¶ 17). One example of such disparate treatment was that Plaintiff was denied a personal day to attend the funeral of her deceased aunt, while Caucasian employees were granted leave under similar circumstances. (Id. ¶ 18). Another is that an African American co-worker was punished for often arriving to work late in East Brunswick because she did not own a vehicle. Later, when the whole office was transferred to Newark, Caucasian workers traveling to Newark were granted accommodations for their disrupted travel. (Id. ¶ 19).

At the East Brunswick office, Williams also had a tense relationship with her new supervisor, Cherisse Rheubottom-Wilson. (Id. ¶ 20). This supervisor,

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along with a subordinate, Judith Britt, teamed up to harass Williams. (Id. ¶ 23). Harassment included threatening Plaintiff with suspension for stepping away from her desk to deal with a medical condition; barging into the restroom to demand she immediately join a meeting; yelling at Plaintiff from across the office in order to humiliate her; and using Plaintiff's annual review as an excuse to antagonize her and accuse her of attacking Britt. (Id. ¶¶ 23-24).

Williams's attempts to seek help from Verizon's human resources department were ignored. (Id. ¶ 24). Indeed, her reports earned her a reputation as a troublemaker, and she continued to be denied overtime opportunities and time off. (Id. ¶ 25).

Rheubottom-Wilson and Britt left the company at some unspecified time. Williams's circumstances did not improve, however, since two new coworkers arrived and continued to harass her. Defendants Tina Kalfin and Tara Finnegan were placed in workstations next to that of Williams. (Id. ¶ 27). These individuals were generally antagonistic to everyone in the office—for example, they referred to the new manager as "That Bitch." Their insults, however, often took a racial form. (Id. ¶ 28). The two would openly comment on racially charged current affairs; they made light of police shootings involving African Americans; they expressed satisfaction that Bill Cosby, an African American, had been arrested; and they wore "hoodie" sweatshirts to work shortly after a fatal shooting of an African American boy who had been wearing a hoodie at the time. (Id. ¶¶ 29, 30).

On one occasion, after Williams asked Kalfin to lower the volume on her radio, Kalfin and Finnegan refused to speak to her. (Id. ¶ 31). Another time, Finnegan hovered behind Williams while she was working, and when Williams noticed what she was doing, Finnegan started an argument which ended with her screaming at Williams and calling her a "witch." (Id. ¶ 32). Following this incident, the two continued harassing Williams with witch-themed insults; they placed a witch doll on their work desk facing Williams, and Finnegan came to work in a t-shirt labeled "You Witch." (Id. ¶ 33). While this antagonism was not

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explicitly racial in content, Plaintiff alleges that it came about because Kalfin and Finnegan disliked Williams for racial reasons. (Id.).

Williams's pleas to Verizon's human resources to remedy this harassment went unanswered. (Id. ¶ 35). After overhearing Kalfin and Finnegan planning to get her fired, Williams attempted to complain to the "Verizon Vice President." (Id. ¶ 36). Upon her return from a sick day, Williams found on her a desk a picture of a rat with its hands up. (Id. ¶ 37). Kalfin and Finnegan began referring to Williams as a "rat" and reminded her to "keep your hands up," which she took as a reference to the contemporaneous police shooting of Michael Brown, an African American. (Id. ¶ 37). Then, during the holidays, Kalfin and Finnegan placed a partially inflated reindeer with a wreath around its neck among the Christmas decorations. (Id. ¶ 38). The reindeer was kept partially deflated, which made it appear as if it were choking on the wreath, similar to hanging by a noose. (Id.). Additionally, the pair used tape to create an outline of a dead rat on the ground, evoking a chalk outline at a murder scene. (Id. ¶ 38).

Eventually, the Verizon Human Resources department responded to Williams regarding these "decorations," reporting that it had discovered no evidence of any violations of Verizon's code of business conduct. (Id. ¶ 39). That determination upset Williams to the point that she was unable to sleep that night and suffered from migraine headaches the next day, resulting in the paramedics arriving and taking her to the hospital. (Id. ¶ 40). The workplace stress and harassment led to additional health issues which required her to take off from work from April to June 2015. (Id. ¶ 41).

Upon returning to work in June 2015, Williams was moved to a different workspace and given a new assignment. (Id. ¶ 42). A Verizon "Department President" came to the office during this time and, during a meeting, commended Williams for dealing with such difficult co-workers. (Id.). The Department President stated during this meeting that Verizon's "employee

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screening" around 1998 was "insufficient due to conducting a mass hire." (Id.). (The co-workers hostile to Williams had been hired around that time.) (Id.).

In October of 2016, Williams was transferred to the Livingston call center. (Id. ¶ 43). In December of 2016, she was rewarded for excellent work by being transferred to a dispatch center. (Id. ¶ 43). Here, Williams endured harassment by two co-workers named "Missy" and "Debbie." (Id. ¶ 44). They constantly informed Williams of their dislike of "foreigners taking Americans' jobs and accused her of 'sending money back to your home country.'" (Id.). Williams's attempts to bring up these issues to a supervisor were ignored. (Id.). Williams also attempted to raise concerns during staff meetings, but was criticized by Missy as being the only one complaining. (Id.). Williams again tried to...

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