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What You Do — and Don’t — Need to Overcome Your Employer’s Motion for Summary Judgment in Your New Jersey Employment Discrimination Case

Success in an employment discrimination lawsuit in New Jersey is a series of steps that you have to navigate successfully, one at a time, to get to a successful outcome. Before you can have your day in court at a trial, you probably will need to defeat your employer’s motion for summary judgment. One of the key things to know about your case at the summary judgment stage is that you don’t have to present definitive proof that illegal conduct undoubtedly occurred. You simply have to offer enough to demonstrate that legitimate “questions of fact” exist regarding why your employer took its adverse action against you. As long as you have enough for a “rational factfinder” (a/k/a a jury in a jury trial or a judge in a bench trial) to find that the employer’s stated reasons were mere pretexts for discrimination, then your employer loses its motion and you get to proceed toward trial. Whatever phase your case is in, advice and advocacy from an experienced New Jersey employment discrimination lawyer can help you enhance your odds of success.

For an example of what you do — and don’t — need, there’s this recent national origin discrimination case from North Jersey.

N.O., a Nigerian woman living in New Jersey, taught elementary school in an Essex County school district from 2014 to 2017. N.O.’s job was a non-tenured one and, at the end of the 2016-17 school year, the district elected not to renew her contract, thus terminating her employment in June 2017.

As part of that decision-making process, the teacher’s principal filled out a “Non-Renewal Form,” which listed all the reasons why the principal believed that the school board should not retain the teacher. On that form, the principal listed multiple reasons, including “continuous discord and conflict with members of the staff,” “attempt[ing] to engage in inappropriate and unprofessional conversations with the principal,” asking parents to give her money for school supplies (which was a violation of district policy,) failing to “work cohesively” with others, failure to adhere to protocol and timelines, excessive tardiness, and “overall unprofessional attitude.”

One of the examples of “discord and conflict” the principal cited on the form was N.O.’s “placing the flag of Nigeria on the steps outside her classroom.” Using that evidence, N.O. pursued a lawsuit against the school board based upon national origin discrimination in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

Direct Versus Circumstantial Evidence of Discrimination

When you, as a worker, are pursuing an NJLAD case, there are two ways you can prove your claims and succeed. One is through “direct evidence” of discrimination. If your supervisor emails you and states, “I saw your Nigerian flag outside your classroom. We hate Nigerians here. You’re fired,” then that’s an example of direct proof of national origin discrimination.

As the Appellate Division court correctly pointed out, though, that kind of proof is very rare and very hard to come by. For most workers harmed by employment discrimination, their path to success involves “circumstantial evidence” of discrimination. A circumstantial evidence case involves utilizing the burden-shifting framework established by the U.S. Supreme Court in its McDonnell Douglas v. Green ruling.

That standard says that you, as the plaintiff, have the initial burden of showing that a potential instance of illegal discrimination occurred, which is called the “prima facie” case. After you clear that hurdle, the burden shifts to your employer to show that its reasons for doing what it did were legitimate and non-discriminatory. If the employer does this, the burden shifts back to you to show that those stated reasons the employer gave were really just pretexts for engaging in illegal discrimination.

Defeating an employer’s motion for summary judgment is a huge element of success in most employment discrimination cases. For one, losing this motion means the court throws out your case before you even get to trial. Two, many employers may become more reasonable in engaging in settlement negotiations after losing this motion.

In N.O.’s case, the employer had a large number of legitimate reasons it asserted for refusing to renew the teacher’s contract. However, sandwiched amidst all those was the teacher’s displaying the Nigerian flag. And that was enough, according to the Appellate Divison court. The principal’s mention of the Nigerian flag was enough to allow a “reasonable factfinder” to conclude that all the other stated reasons were bogus pretexts and N.O. really lost her job because of her Nigerian origin.

No one should lose their job, or suffer any kind of adverse reprisal at work, solely because of their ethnicity or national origin. This is both wrong and illegal in New Jersey. If it’s happened to you, reach out to the knowledgeable New Jersey national origin discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates. We’ve amassed many victories on behalf of New Jersey workers harmed by discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and national origin, and we’re eager to discuss your case with you. Contact us online or at (833) 529-3476 today to set up a free and confidential consultation.

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