HADDONFIELD, NJ — A state appeals court ruled Thursday in favor of a woman who claims that a Haddonfield business pushed her out of her job for refusing to perform discriminatory practices. The court determined that Hope Moser must receive a trial to determine whether the apartment-leasing company violated whistleblower-protection laws.

Moser worked for The Streamwood Company as the property manager for the Madison Court apartments in Williamstown — one of several rental complexes the company manages. The former employee claims that her supervisor effectively forced her to discriminate against prospective tenants who would pay rent using Section 8 vouchers.

State law prohibits housing discrimination based on a tenant’s lawful source of rent payment, including people receiving rental assistance from the Housing Choice Voucher Program — formerly known as Section 8.

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Moser’s supervisor was Scott Leonard — Streamwood’s regional manager and the son of the company’s owner and founder. In early 2021, Leonard told Moser to check “no” on all housing screening form questions asking whether the form was being completed as a Section 8 application, according to court documents.

The plaintiff told Leonard she wouldn’t comply, believing that the directive was illegal. When she again refused to follow the directive on Jan. 14, 2021, Leonard became angry and said, “Things don’t look good for you,” court documents state.

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Moser interpreted Leonard’s statement as a threat for her to either resign or violate the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. As a result of the interaction, she experienced acute anxiety and was placed on medical leave. She quit when her leave ended a month later.

In May 2021, Moser filed a complaint against Leonard and the company, claiming she was constructively discharged — when an employee resigns because their employer created a hostile work environment.

The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment the following November. A judge in the state Superior Court of Camden County granted their motion on Jan. 12, 2022.

The judge’s ruling stated that Moser didn’t take sufficient steps to remain employed, as she neither spoke with upper management nor discussed the issue with Leonard again after his comment. Therefore, a reasonable jury wouldn’t conclude that the defendants violated the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) — a state law meant to protect whistleblowers from employer retaliation.

The appeals court’s two-judge panel disagreed, ruling that the lower court must conduct a trial.

The 12-page appeals ruling cites the state Supreme Court’s explanation that the CEPA is “remedial legislation.” Thus, the law “should be construed liberally to effectuate its important social goal … to encourage, not thwart, legitimate employee complaints.”

Contrary to the superior-court judge’s assessment, Moser didn’t resign because of a “single comment,” the appellate ruling said. Rather, Leonard repeatedly insisted that she engage in behavior that she believed to be unlawful, despite Moser’s stated objections, according to the court opinion.

The appeals judges also found it significant that Leonard is the son of Streamwood’s owner. So any “reasonable step” to remain employed would’ve required Moser to report Leonard’s “things don’t look good for you” comment to Leonard’s father, who is next in the chain of command.

Moser’s attorney, Patricia A. Barasch, said they’re “very pleased” with the appeals court’s ruling.

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“The decision is important because it provides contours to what constitutes a constructive discharge in the CEPA context and provides some parameters as to when a Court can reject a constructive discharge,” Barasch told Patch via email. “We look forward to proceeding with a trial in this matter and anticipate that a jury will conclude that our client was subjected to unlawful retaliation after reporting conduct of the company that she reasonably believed to be unlawful.”

Walter F. Kawalec, III — the attorney representing Leonard and Streamwood — told Patch the following: “My client has not authorized any statements for the press.”

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