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CURTIS v. AIRBORNE FREIGHT CORP.

January 11, 2000

WAYNE CURTIS, JUAN GONZALES, ANTHONY DUPREE, LENORA YOUNG, LAMONT KILLIAN, PATRICK THOMAS AND RENEE HATCH, PLAINTIFFS,
V.
AIRBORNE FREIGHT CORPORATION D/B/A AIRBORNE EXPRESS, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Scheindlin, District Judge.

OPINION AND ORDER

In this employment discrimination action, plaintiffs Wayne Curtis, Juan Gonzalez, Anthony Dupree, Lenora Young, Lamont Killian, Patrick Thomas and Renee Hatch allege that their employer, Airborne Freight Corporation d/b/a Airborne Express ("Airborne"), subjected them to a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-1 et seq., and the New York State Human Rights Law ("NYSHRL"), N.Y. Exec. Law § 296 et seq. Defendant now moves for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. For the reasons set forth below, defendant's motion is granted in its entirety.

I. Background

A. Factual Background

The following facts are taken from the amended complaint, the parties' Rule 56.1 statements and relevant deposition testimony. Unless otherwise indicated, the facts are undisputed.

Airborne is a Washington corporation which provides express freight and package delivery services throughout the United States. See Amended Complaint ("Am. Compl.") ¶¶ 18-19; Statement of Material Facts in Support of Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Def.56.1") ¶ 1.*fn1 Airborne operates a branch terminal in Elmsford, New York. Am. Compl. ¶ 19. The Elmsford terminal employs approximately one-hundred couriers who transport freight and packages throughout Westchester County. Id. Plaintiffs are couriers employed in Airborne's Elmsford facility. Id. ¶¶ 10, 21. With the exception of Gonzalez who is Hispanic, all of the plaintiffs are African-American. Id. ¶¶ 10-17.

From November 1996 to September 1998, Matt Zaranski was one of approximately eight supervisors at the Elmsford facility. See id. ¶ 22; Def. 56.1 ¶ 4. Zaranski reported directly to Felix "Bud" Patterson, an Airborne District Field Services Manager stationed in Elmsford. See Am. Compl. ¶ 23; Def. 56.1 ¶ 3. Patterson was at all relevant times the senior management official at the Elmsford facility. Def. 56.1 ¶ 3. Patterson and Zaranski are both Caucasian. Am. Compl. ¶ 22.

Airborne's Elmsford couriers, including plaintiffs, are represented by Local 295 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Id. ¶ 24. At all relevant times, the terms and conditions of plaintiffs' employment were governed by a collective bargaining agreement between Airborne and Local 295 (the "CBA").*fn2 Def. 56.1 ¶ 14. The CBA includes a four-step grievance and arbitration procedure for resolution of all disputes between Airborne and its Elmsford employees. Id. ¶ 15. The CBA also provides for the designation of a "shop steward" who is responsible for, among other things, handling the couriers' complaints and filing grievances with the company. Id. ¶ 16. Plaintiff Wayne Curtis is, and was at all relevant times, Local 295 shop steward for the Elmsford facility. Id. ¶ 17.

Except for Killian and Dupree, each plaintiff alleges a single incident of harassment by Zaranski. Am. Compl. ¶ 30.*fn3 Killian claims he was harassed on one occasion by Zaranski and on a separate occasion by Patterson. Id. ¶¶ 30(G)-(H). Dupree alleges that he was harassed by Zaranski on two occasions. Id. ¶¶ 30(C)(D). All of the alleged incidents of harassment occurred between November 1996 and September 1997. Id. ¶ 30. It is plaintiffs' theory that all of the alleged incidents of harassment were racially motivated. Id. However, only two of the nine alleged incidents include arguably racist comments. Id. ¶¶ 30(G), (I).

Although defendant concedes that Zaranski had altercations with each plaintiff, defendant denies that these altercations constitute illegal racial harassment.*fn4 The specific details surrounding the alleged incidents of harassment are set forth immediately below.

1. Juan Gonzalez

Gonzalez is a part-time employee at the Elmsford facility. See 1/29/99 Deposition of Juan Gonzalez ("Gonzalez Dep.") at 20.*fn5 Gonzalez makes morning deliveries and sorts packages for afternoon deliveries. See id. However, Gonzalez leaves work at 12:15 p.m. each day and does not himself make afternoon deliveries. See id.

On one occasion in November 1996, Zaranski instructed Gonzalez to move several boxes that were stacked against Gonzalez's delivery truck. See id. at 21; Def. 56.1 ¶ 18. Zaranski told Gonzalez to put the stacked boxes inside — rather than next to — his truck. See Gonzalez Dep. at 21. In response, Gonzalez told Zaranski: "I do not do afternoon deliveries, those boxes stay there. . . . You can go and talk to Tom Grimaldi, which is another supervisor, if there [is] a problem with this." Id. at 21-22. When Gonzalez refused to move the boxes, Zaranski yelled at him. Def. 56.1 ¶ 19. Gonzalez described the incident as follows:

A: . . . I told [Zaranski] to go see Jim Grimaldi if there was a problem with this, and I guess in retaliation maybe I went over his head and he didn't like it so he got real upset and kept arguing and yelling at me, and I told him, "Do not yell at me, I'm not one of your kids."

Q: What was he saying?

A: He's saying "you're going to put them in your truck" and he told me I better wise up and shut my fucking mouth before he writes me up for insubordination. Then he walked away.

Gonzalez Dep. at 24. At no point during this altercation, nor at any other time, did Zaranski make any racial or ethnic comments to Gonzalez. See id. at 36. Nor did Gonzalez ever hear Zaranski make a racial or ethnic comment to any other driver. See id. at 39. Other than the November 1996 incident, Gonzalez never had any problems with Zaranski. See id. at 24-25, 36, 38, 40.

Gonzalez did not report the November 1996 incident to Patterson or to any other Airborne supervisor. See id. at 39. Gonzalez did complain to Curtis, his shop steward, immediately following the altercation with Zaranski. See id. at 37. Gonzalez told Curtis: "I don't know what [Zaranski's] problem is, but he's yelling at me and I don't appreciate him bumping me off." Id. However, Gonzalez did not tell Curtis that he believed Zaranski's behavior was racially motivated. See id. at 39. Gonzalez filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") on January 22, 1998, more than one year after his November 1996 altercation with Zaranski. Def. 56.1 ¶ 23.

2. Wayne Curtis

Each Airborne courier is assigned to a specific geographic delivery route. Am. Compl. ¶ 21. During what is called the "morning breakdown", couriers identify and collect all outgoing freight to be delivered within their geographic route. See Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 8-11; 1/14/99 Deposition of Wayne Curtis ("Curtis Dep.") at 50. Once the couriers have collected their freight, they "scan" the freight into handheld computers. See Curtis Dep. at 50-51. Scanning enables Airborne to keep track of every piece of freight it sends out for delivery. See id. at 51. Supervisors conduct periodic audits to determine whether couriers are properly scanning their freight. See id. at 99. This audit process is known as "back-scanning." See id.

On one occasion in December 1996, Zaranski "back-scanned" a Caucasian courier named Charlie Judson. See id. During the back-scan, Zaranski somehow corrupted Judson's initial scan forcing Judson to repeat the entire scanning process. See id. Judson called Curtis over to where Judson was standing and began to complain about Zaranski's disruptive back-scan. See id. Zaranski ran over to the two men, went "nose to nose" with Curtis and shouted repeatedly "mind [your] own fucking business . . . shithead." Id. at 99-100. In response, Curtis "took two fingers and placed [them] on Zaranski's chest and gently moved [Zaranski] out of [his] space." Id. Zaranski "cursed" at Curtis and then walked away. See id.

Curtis continued to talk with Charlie Judson about the incident. See id. Curtis testified as follows about what happened next:

While I was [talking with Judson], [Zaranski] had gone around the [conveyor] belt and come up on the other side of the belt and started cursing at me again. At that point I lost it. I jumped over the belt and I went for him. Fortunately, Tommy Grimaldi who had come down the belt for the second portion of the discussion saw me jump over the belts and grabbed me just as I was going for Zaranski. I threw Tommy off and went back towards Zaranski again, and Tommy grabbed me again the second time.

Id. at 101. After Grimaldi pulled Curtis away from Zaranski, Curtis took a walk outside to "cool off". See id. at 101. When Curtis returned, he and several supervisors went to Patterson's office to discuss the incident. See id. According to Curtis, Patterson asked him "what it would take for that situation never ever to happen again." Id. at 102. Curtis told Patterson that "as long as [Zaranski] never went nose to nose with [him] again", the two men "would never have a problem." Id.

Although Curtis and Zaranski never formally reconciled, Curtis testified that the two men informally reached a mutual understanding. See id. Curtis stated:

A:. . . . [S]ince that time [the December 1996 incident] on a personal basis, I've never had any conflict with [Zaranski] again in that nature other than the normal bickering back and forth between what's right on a grievance and what's not.

Q: Normal union management stuff?

A: Right, other than that there has been nothing personal. In fact, we've always been very cordial with one another from that point forward. . . .

Id. at 102-03.

At no time during the December 1996 incident did Zaranski make racial or ethnic comments to Curtis. See id. at 114. Moreover, Curtis testified that at the time the incident occurred, he did not believe it was racially motivated. See id. Curtis filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC on January 22, 1998, more than one year after his December 1996 altercation with Zaranski. See Def. 56.1 ¶ 30; Curtis EEOC Charge of Discrimination, Ex. D to Borden Decl.

3. Anthony Dupree

Incoming freight is transported to the couriers for identification and collection via a moving conveyor belt. Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 9-10. On one occasion in December 1996, Dupree was scanning packages on the conveyor belt when he accidentally hit the "stop button" with his leg and shut down the conveyor belt for approximately ten seconds. See 2/16/99 Deposition of Anthony Dupree ("Dupree Dep.") at 29-34. Dupree had done the same thing — inadvertently hit the stop button — six months earlier. See id. at 31-32. After the belt was reactivated, Zaranski walked over to Dupree and whispered, "Don't do that fucking shit again." Id. at 32. Zaranski made no other comments to Dupree regarding the December 1996 stop-button incident. See id. at 33.

At no time during the stop-button incident, nor at any other time, did Zaranski make racial comments to Dupree. See id. at 33, 62-63. Dupree never reported the stop-button incident to Patterson or to any other Airborne supervisor. See id. at 66. Dupree did complain to Curtis about the incident. Dupree told Curtis that he thought Zaranski "had a problem." Id. at 35. However, ...


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