The New Jersey Appellate Division recently reversed a trial court’s decision dismissing an employee’s claims for sexual orientation discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. In remanding the case for trial, the Appellate Division found that the school employer’s motivation for forcing the employee teacher to resign is a question of fact for the jury to decide at trial.
In the case, Savoie v. The Lawrenceville School, Michael S. Cary and Catherine Boczkowski, Mr. Savoie, a homosexual, was employed as a teacher at The Lawrenceville School in 1982 until June 2003. During his approximate twenty (20) year career, Mr. Savoie received many awards and even held the position of Department Chair at one point. In 1991, Mr. Savoie’s domestic partner, Richard Bierman, moved into his on-campus housing with him. At this point, the two of them began an openly gay lifestyle. Thereafter, Mr. Bierman began perceiving that he was being discriminated against by three male faculty members and one female administrator. For example, Mr. Bierman, testified that these individuals were “very nasty” to him and the administrator told him that “[she] did not approve of [their] lifestyle.”
In June, 2002, the school’s grounds crew entered Mr. Savoie and Mr. Bierman’s on-campus housing to repair a water main break outside the home. Because it was emergent, the grounds crew entered the house despite neither Mr. Savoie nor Mr. Bierman being home. When grounds crew entered the house, they discovered certain sexually explicit objects in the basement, such as four pieces of apparatus hanging from the ceiling on chains, videotapes, a computer of the shelf, a tripod without a camera and KY brand lotion. A year later, in June 2003, the new Buildings and Grounds Director began replacing old condensing units. Two employees of the ground crew advised that they were uncomfortable about returning to the home as a result of what they saw the previous year. Ultimately, one of the employees went in the house and reported that he saw similar sexual objects that he had seen the year prior.
The school’s trustees began investigating whether something egregious may be occurring in Mr. Savoie and Mr. Bierman’s on-campus house. During questioning, Mr. Savoie acknowledged that he and his partner had sexual relations in the basement, owned a camera and had taken sexual images, but emphatically denied that any students or other faculty members had participated in any sexual activity. When asked whether he sent the pictures “out there”, Mr. Savoie did not answer because he did not know what was meant by “out there”. The school ultimately determined that although Mr. Savoie living with his partner on-campus was not a violation of school code, it was a clear violation for a faculty member to send explicit messages or images over the internet. Therefore, Defendants determined that they could no longer employ Plaintiff and he was forced to resign on June 6, 2003.
The trial court granted Defendants’ Summary Judgment based on the notion that the school “…had good faith belief void of ill will towards homosexuality at the moment of his confrontation with Mr. Savoie that the reports were credible, that the basement served as a photograph or film studio for sexual activity and there were internet transmissions of that activity.” The trial court further noted that Mr. Savoie did not produce enough evidence that school’s actions were specifically based on discrimination. Mr. Savoie and his New Jersey employment attorney appealed the trial court’s decision.
The Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s decision dismissing Mr. Savoie’s claims of sexual orientation discrimination. The Appellate Division held that the school’s proffered reason for forcing Mr. Savoie to resign (i.e. that they believed he was sending sexually explicit images over the Internet) was not a legitimate non-discriminatory business reason as a matter of law and instead, an issue for the jury to decide. As such, the employment discrimination case was remanded for trial.