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  • May 2, 2011

    Hill Wallack Partner Suzanne Marasco successfully defends discrimination suit brought against school district; Supreme Court declines to review suit dismissal

    Princeton, NJ -- The Supreme Court of New Jersey has declined to review the earlier dismissal of a discrimination suit brought against the Hopewell Valley Regional School District. Hill Wallack LLP Partner Suzanne M. Marasco successfully defended the school district and other defendants in the underlying suit before the lower court and on appeal.

    The Supreme Court of New Jersey denied a petition for certification of the case, Gerald v. Hopewell Valley Regional School District, et. al., allowing the lower court’s earlier dismissal of the suit to stand.

    In a written opinion issued June 30, 2010, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, had affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff Lori Gerald’s complaint, noting that the lower court judge had issued a “cogent and thorough oral opinion” granting the defendants’ summary judgment motion on June 12, 2009. (See Gerald v. Hopewell Valley Regional School District, No. A-578308T1.)

    Gerald brought her complaint against the district, the District Superintendent, the District Director of Human Services, and the Principal of the Hopewell Elementary School after Gerald was not chosen for a promotion. A full-time elementary school teacher in the district since 1997, Gerald had obtained a masters degree in Educational Leadership and subsequently applied for the position of Vice Principal/Math Supervisor at Hopewell Elementary School.

    The district screened approximately 100 candidates for the position and chose to interview eight candidates, including Gerald and one other internal candidate. A search committee, which included teachers, parents and a school administrator from another school, developed interview criteria, interviewed the candidates and ultimately recommended two candidates, neither of whom were Gerald.

    Gerald’s husband alleged the hiring process had been “discriminatory, prejudicial and fatally flawed,” and a formal investigation was ordered by the Board of Education and conducted by an independent consulting firm. The report revealed that Gerald was not chosen as a finalist for the position because of her performance during the interview process. When asked whether she thought it would be difficult to supervise staff who were currently her peers, she responded that moving from a teacher’s position to an administrative position would not be problematic. She also became emotional during the interview, while relating certain anecdotes.

    The report concluded there was no evidence of discrimination in the selection process. According to the report, the committee’s decision not to recommend Gerald resulted from various concerns, including that she was not realistic about the difficulties inherent in supervising former peers, and that Gerald’s emotional displays raised doubt as to whether she could handle the pressures of the position, given the high level of interaction with the public.

    Gerald then brought her complaint against the defendants, alleging violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to 49, because of the district’s failure to hire her as the Vice Principal/Math Supervisor, as well as to notify her of a similar opening at another school.

    The trial court found that the plaintiff was not recommended for the Vice Principal/Math Supervisor position because of her poor interview. The judge determined that the defendants clearly had established nondiscriminatory motives for not selecting the plaintiff; that the search committee found other candidates to be more qualified; and that Gerald’s failure to be recommended for the job was due to her lack of qualifications, not her race.

    On appeal, the Superior Court, Appellate Division, examined conversations between the Director of Human Services and Gerald after her interview, in which the Director stated that plaintiff’s interview went well, and that she was not chosen because of her lack of administrative experience. The court addressed whether these comments were so contradictory to the search committee’s official reasons for rejecting her candidacy that her rejection thereby was made suspect.

    Importantly, the appellate court determined that these casual comments by the Director of Human Services did not undercut the search committee’s stated reasons for rejecting Gerald’s candidacy, but rather were an attempt to be cordial. “In our view … they reflect the natural human instinct not to offend or injure another person,” stated the court.

    The appellate court concluded that the committee’s stated reasons for rejecting Gerald’s candidacy seemed legitimate and not pretextual.

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