Schorr and Associates’ Case of the Week ending February 26, 2016

By Adam Schorr

Fujita v. Yamanashi, 2016 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 413 (App. Div., February 25, 2016)

This week we examine a plaintiff who has suffered a defeat, as losses can provide great lessons for other employees who find themselves in similar situations.

The plaintiff, Reiko Fujita, worked for Yama Seafood from 1988 until she quit in 2011.  She worked her way up the corporate ladder, becoming the manager of her department in 2006 and being offered executive position training in 2009, which she began but ultimately chose to stop participating in.  The named defendant, Kingo Yamanashi, was the founder and chairperson of the company.

The plaintiff alleged that Yamanashi made discriminatory comments towards her at various times through her employment.  In 2006, Yamanashi commented that she thinks like a man.  At times in March and July 2010, and again in May 2011, Yamanashi called her an old woman.  Her salary was reduced at various points throughout 2008-2011 due to mistakes and errors she made.  Other employees’ salaries were also decreased during this time.  Plaintiff quit in August 2011.  Yamanashi attempted to convince her to stay, but plaintiff still decided to quit.  Plaintiff filed her complaint in August 2012 alleging seven counts.

The first two counts were unlawful discharge on the basis of age and sex.  The Court invoked the McDonnell Douglas test and found that while the plaintiff met three of the four prongs, she was not fired and therefore needed to meet the burden for showing a constructive discharge to make a claim of unlawful discharge.  The Court found that a reasonable person would not have been forced to resign and therefore did not meet her burden.  In coming to this conclusion, the Court found that the comments were not too severe, that they were few and far between, that her reduction in pay was due to mistakes and errors, and that plaintiff’s decision to quit did not appear to be directly or temporally related to any comments or actions taken against her.

Counts Three and Four were for Hostile Working Environment on the basis of age and sex.  Again, the Court noted that the comments made were not so severe as to meet the necessary standard for maintaining an action.  The Court also recognized that comments made before August 2010 fell outside the statute of limitations.  Specifically, comments made four years apart and then one year apart did not sufficiently create a continual pattern of action and instead reflected discrete acts.

Counts Five and Six alleged that plaintiff was paid less than men because she was a woman.  The Court found that her salary reductions were due to her mistakes and errors and her decision not to participate in executive training.  It also found that payments were made uniformly through the company on a merit basis and that her department was the worst performing department.

Count Seven alleged retaliation.  The Court found this claim to be without merit because the plaintiff never complained, and therefore, there was nothing for the employer to retaliate against.  Plaintiff argued that there were no complaint procedures in place, but the Court found this unconvincing because it addresses a common defense to a retaliation claim – that there were procedures in place – and not the prima facie issue of needing to complain for there to be retaliation.

Sometimes, an employee finds him or herself in a workplace with a boss who makes just enough somewhat discriminatory comments to make the employee feel threatened or uncomfortable but which may not rise to the severe and pervasive level required by courts.  Employees who find themselves in this situation would do well to consult an attorney prior to quitting to preserve their legal rights.  There are many other viable options with which an attorney can assist.

While Ms. Fujita was unable to sustain any of her causes of action, her case has helped provide valuable lessons for employees and attorneys alike.

Attorney for Employee/Appellant: Raquel Romero, Esquire.

Attorneys for the Respondent Employer: Juan C. Fernandez, Esquire and Kenneth B. Goodman, Esquire, O’Toole Fernandez Weiner Van Lieu, LLC.

Appellate Judges: Reisner, Hoffman, and Leone.