The Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division recently issued a non-precedential decision, Ramirez v. Board of Education of the Township of Orange, et al., A-5286-15T2 (App. Div. Oct. 26, 2018), affirming summary judgment in favor of Orange Township’s Board of Education and dismissing a former teacher’s pregnancy discrimination lawsuit.

The Facts. Ramirez involved a former teacher who filed an employment pregnancy discrimination and retaliation case, pursuant to New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 et seq., against her former employer, the Board of Education. The teacher began working for the Board as a non-tenured high school teacher for the 2009-2010 school year and was thereafter offered her a one-year contract for the following school year. After working for the Board for two years, in June 2011, the teacher learned she was pregnant. Even though she was offered a third contract for the 2011-2012 school year, she commenced a leave of absence at the end of October 2011 due to her high risk pregnancy. The Board granted her leave of absence request even though the medical documentation did not indicate it was “high risk”. In February 2012, the teacher gave birth and requested an extension of her leave to care for her new baby, who needed medical care, and returned to work in April of that same year. In May 2012, the Board notified the teacher that it would not be extending her contract for a fourth year, and it did not offer the teacher a tenured position. The Court granted the Board’s motion for summary judgment, and this appeal followed.

On Appeal. On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed summary judgment, explaining that Plaintiff failed to establish that the Board’s decision not to renew her contract or offer her tenure was pretext for pregnancy discrimination. 

First, as to Plaintiff’s prima facie case, insofar as Plaintiff was required to show that she suffered “adverse action” or termination, the Appellate Division noted that the Board did not fire her. Rather, the Board elected not to offer her a tenured position—a choice entirely within its discretion. 

Additionally, the panel focused on the fact that the Board had a legitimate, non-discriminatory purpose for not renewing the teacher’s contract when it concluded that the teacher performed substandard teaching work. The panel noted that over the approximately two years of her work history, the Board had provided her with articles on writing learning objectives for students, critiqued her for only having students complete two or three problems in an entire class period, told her on numerous occasions the physical environment of her classroom was inadequate, and even instituted a performance improvement plan to assist the teacher in using cooperative learning. The teacher also had excessive absenteeism, which demonstrated a pattern around weekends or “recess” periods. On two occasions, the teacher failed to inform the substitute service of her absence, and she also overused her allotted amount of sick days for the year. As a result of her performance, her salary increase was withheld for 2010-2011 school year. 

While Plaintiff disagreed about her performance issues and argued the Board’s reasons for not offering her a tenured position were pretextual, the panel noted that many of her problems occurred prior to her pregnancy and before she ever requested a maternity leave extension. The panel noted that a disagreement about performance is not proof of discrimination, and it went on to examine numerous instances by the Board offering other similarly situated teachers tenured positions—even teachers that had taken maternity leave the same year as the Plaintiff. The Board also explained that Plaintiff’s retaliation was equally implausible because there was no causal link between her pregnancy or taking maternity leave and the Board’s decision not to renew her contract or offer her tenure. Indeed, the panel recognized that of the seventy-eight teachers that went on maternity leave between 2001 and 2015, 94% were thereafter granted tenure. 

In the end, by affirming the trial court’s grant of summary judgment, the panel concluded that the Board had acted within its discretion to hire and fire teachers—especially non-tenured teachers—as it saw fit in order to create an optimal learning environment for students. 

The Bottom Line. There are several takeaways from Ramirez. First, an employer’s business decision not to renew an employee’s contract does not constitute “termination” within the meaning of the NJLAD for purposes of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination. Second, it is imperative for employers to document an employee’s poor performance since, in this case, it served as the Board’s legitimate, non-discriminatory justification for not renewing Plaintiff’s contract or offering her tenure after she returned from medical leave. Without documentation, the Board may have had more difficulty defending this claim. Finally, timing matters. The Court noted that the majority of Plaintiff’s documented problems occurred prior to her pregnancy and request for leave.


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