Week Ending 11/25/16: Benning v. Middlesex Regional Educational Services Commission

Schorr & Associates’ Employment Case of The Week ending November 25, 2016

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Benning v. Middlesex Reg’l Educ. Servs. Comm’n, 2016 U.S. N.J. Super. Unpub.  LEXIS 2520 (App. Div., November 23, 2016) (Unpublished)

A primary distinction between this blog and many other employment law blogs is that even when a case turns on legal issues, I always take time to review the underlying facts.  Legal issues are always important, but cases are won or lost on the facts.  Facts are especially important when bringing or defending motions for summary judgment because if a plaintiff can demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact, summary judgment should be denied and the matter should be submitted to a jury for a determination of the facts.  In Benning v. Middlesex Reg’l Educ Servs. Comm’n, the trial judge overstepped the judge’s function in determining summary judgment, which resulted in the reversal by the Appellate Division.

Robert Benning was disabled, suffering from a cognitive impairment he sustained in 1984 as the result of a cardiac arrest.  He had been hired by the defendant as a teacher’s aide in 2006 but he soon afterward began working as a custodian.  For the first three years, he had uniformly acceptable evaluations.  During 2010, he was transferred to another school where he began suffering harassment by a co-worker and complained to his supervisor, at which time he advised his supervisor for the first time that he had a cognitive disability.  The supervisor testified that this was the first time he learned that Mr. Benning had a disability.

After he advised the supervisor of his disability, Mr. Benning suddenly received an unsatisfactory review in six categories.  On his own, Mr. Benning contacted the New Jersey Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which assigned a “job coach” to observe his work and help develop strategies for performing his custodial duties in a successful manner.  Over the next few years, the supervisor continued to give the plaintiff increasingly negative performance reviews, but during the same period of time, the plaintiff’s job coach continued to state that the plaintiff’s overall job performance was satisfactory.

Things continued to worsen for Mr. Benning.  He was transferred to a school with only two custodians where Mr. Benning was responsible for the entire school during his shift despite the job coach’s warning that Mr. Benning could not be expected to be responsible for the entire school.   The other custodian testified at deposition that the supervisor referred to Mr. Benning as “fucking crazy,” a “fucking nut job,” and “a pain in my ass.”   He continued to get bad evaluations even though his job coach continued to insist that his work was satisfactory.

Mr. Benning was not renewed for the 2012-2013 school year and sued, asserting disability discrimination.  After a year of litigation, the Defendant filed summary judgment, which was granted by the trial court.

The trial court weighed the evidence presented.   Despite the deposition testimony of the plaintiff, two job coaches, and the night-shift custodian, the judge found there were no genuine issues of material fact on the issue of pretext and that nothing in the record demonstrated that plaintiff "was singled out, harassed, mistreated, or discriminated against due to his disability."  The Appellate Division reversed, holding that there was sufficient factual disputes, and that the trial court erred in weighing that evidence rather than submitting it to the jury for a factual determination.

Like many summary judgment motions, this case did not turn on any legal issues at all.  To defeat summary judgment, a plaintiff needs to present a prima facie case and demonstrate that there are enough issues of disputed material fact, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, to require that the matter be submitted to a jury.  The Appellate Division affirmed that a judge may decide that a party should prevail as a matter of law only when the evidence is utterly one-sided.  The Appellate Division ruled that there were serious disputes as to the material facts on the issue of pretext, and therefore summary judgment was mistakenly granted.

Especially in New Jersey state courts, plaintiffs should always concentrate on the factual disputes when defending summary judgments.  It is generally these factual disputes that will result in the denial of summary judgment.

Appellate Judges:  Nugent, Haas, and Currier (opinion per curiam).

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