COATES v. COOPER HEALTH SYSTEM COOPER UNIVERSITY HEALTH CARE
OPINION. Signed by Judge Joseph E. Irenas on 4/7/2014. (tf, )
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
VALARIE D. COATES,
COOPER HEALTH SYSTEM / COOPER :
UNIVERSITY HEALTH CARE,
Civil No. 13-4442 (JEI/AMD)
OFFICE OF GERALD POMERANTZ
By: Barak Kassutto, Esq.
Stephen Girard Building
21 South 12th Street, 7th Floor
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19107
Counsel for Plaintiff
BROWN & CONNERY LLP
By: Christine P. O’Hearn, Esq.
Eric D. Milavsky, Esq.
360 Haddon Avenue
P.O. Box 539
Westmont, New Jersey 08108
Counsel for Defendant
IRENAS, Senior United States District Judge:
Plaintiff Valarie Coates, a nurse, brings this wrongful
termination suit against her former employer, Defendant Cooper Health
Cooper presently moves to dismiss the Amended Complaint
pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim
upon which relief may be granted.
For the reasons stated herein, the
Motion will be granted in part and denied in part.
The Amended Complaint alleges the following facts.
In February, 2011, Coates applied for a senior management
Obstetrical Clinical Educator position at Cooper.
through three rounds of interviews but Cooper selected another
applicant already employed by Cooper.
When Cooper’s Human Resources
Specialist, Bernadette Collins called Coates to inform her of the
decision, Collins stated that Coates was a very strong candidate and
that “they had wanted her on their team.”
(Amend. Compl. ¶ 18)
In June, 2011, Coates accepted a different position with the
Philadelphia Department of Public Health.
Close to a year later, in May, 2012, Collins called Coates to
inquire whether Coates was still interested in the position at
Collins explained that “there had been an unexpected illness
. . . that had resulted on the Clinical Educator’s position vacancy.”
(Amend. Compl. ¶ 23)
Collins asked whether Coates “would consider
leaving her current position if she were offered” the position with
(Amend. Compl. ¶ 24)
Coates said yes, and shortly
thereafter, Coates interviewed once again at Cooper.
On May 17, 2012 Coates “was offered and verbally accepted” the
Clinical Educator position.
Cooper then sent Coates the following
I am delighted that you have chosen
to join us at Cooper University Hospital.
joined a highly committed and talented team . . . .
Our commitment extends to you as well; Cooper is proud
to offer abundant opportunities for development and
career growth, and we are confident that you will
enjoy a very rewarding career with us.
As discussed, you have accepted our offer to join the
Clinical Educators Department as a full-time Clinical
Your compensation will be $45.67 per
hour, and your start date is anticipated to be July
23, 2012. Our offer of employment is contingent upon
your passing a pre-placement medical examination,
including drug/alcohol screening, background check and
Continuation of employment will
be based on the successful completion of the standard
three-month probationary period. . . . Your employment
is at-will, which means you or Cooper may terminate
the employment relationship at any time for any
reason, or no reason at all. This offer is contingent
upon you receiving your [New Jersey Registered Nurse]
To welcome you to Cooper, you have been scheduled to
attend Cooper’s two-day New Employee Orientation . . .
Immediately following New Employee Orientation, you
Orientation . . . .
Attendance at both New Employee
Services orientation is mandatory.
Please accept my sincere congratulations and best
wishes for a rewarding career with Cooper University
acknowledgement and acceptance of the foregoing, and
return a signed copy to Human Resources on or before
your start date.
Bernadette M. Collins
HR Employment Consultant
(Amend. Compl. Ex. B)
After Coates received the letter, she advised Cooper that she
needed additional time before her first day of work.
Cooper sent her
an identical letter with the start date changed to August 8, 2012.
(Amend. Compl. Ex. C)
Coates signed the letter and returned it to
Over several days in August, 2012, Coates participated in the
orientation seminars identified in the letter.
“During this time
[Coates] held personal meetings with at least 16 of [Cooper’s]
employees, including the Director of Maternal Fetal Medicine, the
NICU Clinical Director and Medical Director of Labor and Delivery.
These meetings generally lasted for a minimum of one hour.
time was there any feedback regarding dissatisfaction or concern
regarding [Coates’s] performance, interest, or enthusiasm in
performing the position for which she has been hired.”
Compl. ¶ 38)
Coates then began her normal duties, except that she complied
with the relevant state regulations which prevented her from
performing certain tasks because she was not yet licensed in New
Around this same time, in connection with Cooper’s normal preplacement medical screening, Cooper became aware that Coates had
previously suffered two “myocardial infarcts” (heart attacks)-- one
sometime in 2009 or 2010, and one on February 29, 2012.
also aware that Coates is African American, and that African
Americans are at “increased medical risk [for] heart related
(Amend. Compl. ¶ 59) 1
On September 11, 2012, Cooper fired Coates “due to an alleged
‘lack of enthusiasm and leadership.’”
(Amend. Compl. ¶ 44)
The Amended Complaint contains four counts: (1) discrimination
based on race and perceived physical disability in violation of the
New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 et seq.; (2)
“racial profiling” discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981;
(3) promissory estoppel; and (4) breach of contract / breach of the
implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.
Cooper moves to dismiss all claims.
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides that a court
may dismiss a complaint “for failure to state a claim upon which
relief can be granted.”
In order to survive a motion to dismiss, a
complaint must allege facts that raise a right to relief above the
Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555
(2007); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2).
While a court must accept
as true all factual allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint, and
view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, Phillips v.
County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008), a court is not
The Amended Complaint cites a New England Journal of Medicine
article which Coates alleges provides support for a conclusion that
African Americans are at higher risk for cardiovascular illnesses.
Additional scientific research is cited in Coates’s opposition brief.
required to accept sweeping legal conclusions cast in the form of
factual allegations, unwarranted inferences, or unsupported
Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d
The complaint must state sufficient facts to show that
the legal allegations are not simply possible, but plausible.
Phillips, 515 F.3d at 234.
“A claim has facial plausibility when the
plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the
reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct
Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).
The Court first addresses the common law contract claims before
turning to the statutory discrimination claims.
Cooper argues that it cannot be liable for breach of contract /
breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing 2 because even
assuming arguendo that the letter it sent Coates was a contract, the
express terms of the contract state that: (1) “[y]our employment is
at-will, which means you or Cooper may terminate the employment
relationship at any time for any reason, or no reason at all;” and
(2) “[c]ontinuation of employment will be based on the successful
Both Coates’s Amended Complaint and her opposition brief make no
distinction between her breach of contract claim and her breach of
the duty of good faith and fair dealing claim, therefore the Court
addresses them together.
completion of the standard three-month probationary period.”
Compl. Ex. B, C)
In opposition, Coates concedes that the letter provided for
employment at-will, but argues that the letter required Cooper “to
fairly and reasonably notify [Coates] of their alleged
dissatisfaction with her job performance and their intention to
(Opposition Brief, p. 5)
Coates maintains that
the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing “mandated Cooper to
offer [Coates] honest feedback on her job performance” before firing
(Id., p. 6)
Coates argues that this duty to evaluate and provide feedback is
implied in the probationary period clause.
She reasons that
“probationary periods of employment include additional scrutiny and
feedback on job performance.”
(Opposition Brief, p. 7)
The Court rejects Coates’s argument.
As a matter of law, the
Court cannot interpret a contract to include an implied term that
directly undermines the contract’s express terms.
See Kas Oriental
Rugs, Inc. v. Ellman, 394 N.J. Super. 278, 287 (App. Div. 2007) (“Of
course, it is true that implied provisions may be deemed included
within an express contract, but these implied terms do not override
express, inconsistent terms; they are imposed to fulfill the
intentions of the parties.”). 3
To accept Coates’s argument would
Cf. Wade v. Kessler Inst., 172 N.J. 327, 339 (2002) (“An effective
disclaimer by the employer may overcome the implication that its
employment manual constitutes an enforceable contract of employment
[under Woolley v. Hoffmann-La Roche, 99 N.J. 284 (1985)].”); see
contradict the parties’ intentions as clearly articulated in the
express at-will employment term.
Under Coates’s interpretation,
Cooper’s express unconditional right to terminate Coates during her
probationary period, for any reason or no reason, becomes
According to Coates, Cooper could fire her, but only
after they gave her honest feedback on her performance.
The letter states that Cooper has an unconditional right to
with that right.
Her proposed implied term irreconcilably conflicts
Accordingly, the breach of contract / breach of
duty of good faith and fair dealing claim fails as a matter of law.
Cooper’s Motion to Dismiss will be granted as to Count IV of the
In support of her promissory estoppel claim, Coates alleges that
she “left a job in reliance upon [Cooper’s] promise for employment
for a reasonable period of time for [Coates] to show she was capable
of performing to necessary standards.”
(Amend. Compl. ¶ 10)
generally, Keene v. Sears Roebuck & Co., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 66624
at *13-14 (D.N.J. Sept. 7, 2007) (“In New Jersey, the relationship
between an employer and its employees is presumed to be for an
indefinite amount of time and terminable at the will of either party.
The general rule is especially true when the employee expressly
acknowledges his at-will status and/or has an individual written
employment contract which expressly states that his employment is atwill. Plaintiff’s breach of an implied contract claim is defeated
when there is a clear at-will disclaimer.”) (internal citations
“Promissory estoppel is made up of four elements: (1) a clear
and definite promise; (2) made with the expectation that the promisee
will rely on it; (3) reasonable reliance; and (4) definite and
Toll Bros., Inc. v. Board of Chosen
Freeholders of Burlington, 194 N.J. 223, 253 (2008).
In light of the two letters expressly stating that Coates was
subject to a three-month probationary period and that her employment
was at-will (Amend. Compl. Ex. B, C), her reliance on the alleged
“promise of employment for a reasonable period of time” is
unreasonable as a matter of law.
Accordingly, her promissory
estoppel claim fails.
Cooper’s Motion to Dismiss will be granted as to Count III of
the Amended Complaint.
As to both statutory discrimination claims, Cooper argues that
the Amended Complaint fails to allege sufficient facts from which a
reasonable factfinder could plausibly infer a causal connection
between her termination and her race or perceived disability.
According to Cooper, “Coates has done no more than alleged she is a
member of protected classes whom Cooper terminated without a valid
(Moving Brief, p. 12)
The Court disagrees.
First, Coates has pled facts that plausibly call into question
Cooper’s proffered reason for firing Coates.
Cf. Fuentes v. Perskie,
32 F.3d 759, 765 (3d Cir. 1994) (“plaintiff must demonstrate such
weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies, or
contradictions in the employer’s proffered legitimate reasons for its
action that a reasonable factfinder could rationally find them
unworthy of credence.”).
There are at least superficial
inconsistencies in Cooper’s alleged treatment of Coates.
rounds of interviews, Cooper allegedly told Coates she was a very
Then, almost a year later, Cooper initiated
contact with Coates, and interviewed Coates once again.
fourth interview, Cooper offered Coates the job.
These facts are plausibly inconsistent with Cooper’s assertion
that Coates demonstrated a lack of enthusiasm and leadership less
than four weeks into her employment.
A reasonable factfinder could
plausibly infer that Cooper had ample opportunity to assess Coates’s
enthusiasm and leadership abilities over the course of four separate
interviews-- indeed, Cooper would not have approached her for a
fourth interview, and then hired her-- if it concluded she lacked
Second, the timing of Coates’s termination so early in her
employment, and against the backdrop of Cooper’s alleged initial
enthusiasm about Coates, is plausibly suggestive of pretext.
According to the facts alleged and the plausible inferences drawn
therefrom, Cooper was enthusiastic about Coates joining its team, and
only changed its tune once it had concluded, based on her race, and
recently disclosed heart attacks, that she was at high risk for
Further, Coates argues that Cooper was
especially sensitive to illness-related absences because Coates’s
predecessor resigned due to illness.
At the pleadings stage, Coates has alleged sufficient facts
plausibly supporting a conclusion that Cooper fired her because of
her race and perceived disability.
Cooper’s Motion to Dismiss Counts
I and II of the Amended Complaint will be denied.
In light of the foregoing, Cooper’s Motion to Dismiss will be
granted as to the common law claims and denied as to the statutory
An appropriate Order accompanies this Opinion.
April 7, 2014
___s/ Joseph E. Irenas______
JOSEPH E. IRENAS, S.U.S.D.J.
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