Supreme Court Finds That Employer May Be Liable Under The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination For Subordinate Non-Decisionmaker’s Gender Bias

by | Mar 2, 2022 | Employment Law, Sexual Discrimination |

In the recent decision of Meade v. Township of Livingston (A-52-20, 085176 decided on December 30, 2021), the New Jersey Supreme Court held that an employer may be liable for gender discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) due to its decision to terminate an employee based on the perceived discriminatory bias and attitude of a subordinate non-decision making employee.

Plaintiff Michele Meade was the Township Manager for Livingston Township. In that capacity, Ms. Meade supervised Police Chief Craig Handschuch. In April 2013, pre-school teachers at the Livingston Community Center observed a man in camouflage carrying a rifle bag in their parking lot. The classes subsequently went into lockdown and patrol cars were dispatched. In response, Chief Handschuch and Sergeant Kenneth Hanna alerted the responders that the alleged incident was an officer training exercise. In her capacity as Township Manager, Ms. Meade disciplined the officers for their failure to notify the Community Center. Sergeant Hanna subsequently filed a criminal complaint against Ms. Meade, alleging that she used “unreasonably loud and offensive coarse or abusive language” in addressing him. Sergeant Hanna filed a second complaint against Ms. Meade, alleging that she had “purposely com[e] into physical contact with officers and civilians in an attempt to obstruct and stop an authorized ESU [Emergency Services Unit] exercise.” Ms. Meade was subsequently acquitted of all charges.

Between the filing of Sergeant Hanna’s second complaint and Ms. Meade’s acquittal, Ms. Meade issued a disciplinary memo to Chief Handschuch for “delinquent work” and “unresolved work issues.” Chief Handschuch acknowledged the memo but did not respond to it.

During an Executive Committee meeting shortly thereafter, Councilman Michael Silverman stated “Michele [Meade] would not have this problem if her name was Michael.” Ms. Meade subsequently informed the Township Council about her concerns regarding Chief Handschuch’s job performance, and the Township’s labor attorney concluded that discipline was appropriate but not termination of employment. The labor attorney further advised that Ms. Meade should “try to strengthen a termination case” with an independent, outside investigation. However, Ms. Meade testified that the Council did not authorize the hiring of an investigator. In addition, Ms. Meade certified that “Councilman Al Anthony . . . suggested to me that maybe Chief Handschuch did not like reporting to a woman and should report to him as the Mayor instead.”

The Township Council subsequently passed a resolution removing Ms. Meade for alleged performance-related issues. Ms. Meade subsequently filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination under the LAD, alleging that the Council terminated her and replaced her with a male Manager “to appease the sexist male Police Chief.” The trial court dismissed the lawsuit by granting the Township’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that Ms. Meade was terminated for poor performance and that there was no record of gender discrimination. The Appellate Division affirmed the decision. The Supreme Court, however, reversed the decision and remanded the matter to the trial court. In so doing, the Supreme Court held that there was sufficient evidence “for a reasonable jury to find that what Livingston Township Councilmembers perceived to be Police Chief Handschuch’s discriminatory attitude toward Township Manager Meade influenced the Council’s decision to terminate her, in violation of the LAD.”  Specifically, the Supreme Court held that “a reasonable jury could conclude – in the combined light of Meade’s evidence challenging the legitimacy of the other areas of dissatisfaction and the Council’s focus on the difficulties with Handschuch – that Meade’s gender played a role in the termination.”

This opinion reiterates that employers may be held liable for the alleged discriminatory actions of non-decisionmakers. If you have any questions about this decision and/or need any assistance with employment law issues, please contact Curcio Mirzaian Sirot LLC.

*Frank A. Custode is a Partner of Curcio Mirzaian Sirot LLC and the Chair of the firm’s Employment Practice.