The Appellate Division recently reversed the dismissal of a plaintiff’s hostile work environment and discriminatory termination claims in which the plaintiff alleged that his supervisor subjected him to abusive conduct during a four to five month period. Toys “R” Us hired Michael Farrell in 2005. In 2006, he became an assistant store manager. In 2007, the Company transferred him to its Livingston, New Jersey store. He received exceptional performance reviews from 2005 until early 2008.
Cary Regnenye became Farrell’s immediate supervisor in late 2007. He often referred to Farrell as “the old man.” At that time, Farrell was 46 years old. On March 14, 2008, Regnenye threatened to punch Farrell in the face and “kick his a**.” During this confrontation, which was witnessed by a co-worker, Regnenye shook a clipboard at Farrell and blocked him from walking away. Regnenye later acknowledged that he “may have used the term ‘kick your a**’ from a motivational point of view.”
Farrell filed an internal complaint about Regnenye’s conduct that the Company’s Human Resources Department investigated. During the investigation, the co-worker witness corroborated Farrell’s allegations. Regnenye subsequently disciplined Farrell for performance problems that allegedly began before the March 14, 2008 incident.
Upon completion of the investigation, HR recommended that the Company transfer Regnenye and give him a warning. HR also suggested reassigning Farrell due to his performance issues. On March 31, 2008, Toys “R” Us transferred Farrell. Two years later, the Company discharged him during a reduction in force.
Farrell filed a lawsuit in New Jersey state court. He claimed that Toys “R” Us subjected him to a hostile work environment, discriminated against him based on his age, and retaliated against him for filing an internal complaint. The Company filed a motion to dismiss Farrell’s lawsuit which the trial court granted. Farrell appealed that decision.
The New Jersey Appellate Division reversed several aspects of the lower court’s decision. The court reinstated Farrell’s hostile work environment and discriminatory termination claims. The Appellate Division found that Regnenye’s comments and abusive conduct, which occurred over a four to five month period during Farrell’s five-year career, were sufficient to create a hostile work environment.
This case demonstrates the importance of conducting regular harassment and discrimination training for employees to alleviate problematic behavior from the workplace. New Jersey has not set the bar particularly high for pleading a hostile work environment claim, demonstrating the importance of educating employees on proper workplace conduct.