Suit Alleges Car Dealer Fired Manager for Refusing to Pray

Suit Alleges Car Dealer Fired Manager for Refusing to Pray

A civil rights suit filed in Camden, N.J., federal court alleges a former manager of used car dealership CarSense was fired after objecting to the owners’ demands that he participate in Bible study, prayer meetings and other outwardly religious activities in the workplace.

The complaint alleges plaintiff Joseph Haughey was fired from his post as general manager of the CarSense dealership in Mount Holly, N.J., despite having received glowing reviews and having improved profit levels at the dealership.

Haughey’s dismissal came after he told his bosses he could not participate in their religious activities, according to the complaint.

Haughey was told he was being fired for raising his voice at employees, but that was a pretext for religious discrimination, the suit claims.

Haughey’s suit brings claims under New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. He seeks past and future unpaid wages and damages for pain and suffering. The suit was filed in Burlington County, N.J., Superior Court on Aug. 14 and removed to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey on Aug. 29.

The suit names CarSense; Eugene Niconovich, company president; and Francis McGowan, owner and chief executive officer, as defendants.

Besides the Mount Holly location, CarSense has four dealerships in Pennsylvania.

Haughey says in his complaint that Niconovich, McGowan and other general managers kept Bibles on their desks and would spend part of the work day reading the Bible. And on Tuesday nights, Niconovich would lead a Bible study group at the Mount Holly dealership, the suit claims. Employee meetings were routinely opened with a prayer and general managers were expected to take turns saying a prayer to open each management meeting.

Haughey claims that in one meeting McGowan began crying uncontrollably and telling Haughey he “could not wait for that glorious day” when he would die and “spend eternity in heaven with Jesus.” Haughey, stunned, said nothing, which seemed to disturb McGowan. Three weeks after that meeting, Niconovich fired Haughey, the suit claims.

Haughey worked for another CarSense location in Uwchland, Pa., for three months in 2006, according to the complaint. When he was hired, he was recruited by company employee Kirk Schrader and told that McGowan was “a very religious man” and who ensured that a Bible was placed in the glove box of every car that is sold. According to the complaint, Schrader informed Haughey that prayers were occasionally said at company functions but that nothing would be pushed on him.

Haughey left to become general manager of a General Motors dealership. That dealership closed when General Motors declared bankruptcy in 2009, the suit said. He then was hired as general manager of the CarSense dealership in Mount Holly, but was not told he was expected to engage in religious activity, the suit said.

On Oct. 1, 2010, the suit alleges, Niconovich told Haughey his performance and management of employees was outstanding but he was not acting in the leadership capacity expected of him because he needed to be more outwardly religious. Haughey told Niconovich he could not lead a prayer session at an upcoming meeting and that he was not comfortable with expressing religious sentiments publicly. Haughey is a Roman Catholic but told Niconovich he did not attend church regularly, could not quote the Bible and felt uneasy discussing religion with co-workers.

From that point forward, Niconovich began to publicly berate Haughey and rarely spoke to him, the suit claims. On Jan. 15, 2011, Niconovich fired Haughey, citing two instances when he had yelled at employees as the reason for the firing.

In one of the instances, according to the suit, Haughey yelled at an employee after being angered by his conduct. Haughey apologized to the worker the next day. In the other instance, Haughey shouted across the showroom at a salesman who had been bitten by a customer’s dog.

According to the suit, the customer had brought two large, growling dogs to the dealership and wanted to bring them along on a test drive. While Haughey was calling the local police to report the dog bite incident, he called out to the injured salesman to instruct him to tell the customer to wait for the police to arrive.

Haughey alleges in the complaint that the real reason for his firing was his refusal to participate in religious activities at work, to keep a Bible and read it in his office and his unwillingness to participate in and lead prayer meetings.

Haughey’s attorney, Regina Poserina of Begelman, Orlow & Melletz in Cherry Hill, N.J., said she intends to present witness testimony and other evidence that the stated reason for her client’s firing is pretextual.

Wendi Barish of Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton Fires & Newby in Philadelphia, who removed the case to federal court on behalf of CarSense, did not return calls. Messages left for Niconovich and McGowan were not returned.

Contact the reporter at ctoutant@alm.com.

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