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GRIFFIN v. AMBIKA CORP.

July 13, 2000

LYDIA GRIFFIN, SHIRRETTA GRIFFIN, AND LINDA TRENT, PLAINTIFFS,
V.
AMBIKA CORP., AVEDA CORP., ESTÉE LAUDER, ARAMIS INC., AND ORIGINS, DEFENDANTS.



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

  OPINION AND ORDER

BACKGROUND

Except as noted, the following pertinent facts are either undisputed or construed most favorably to the plaintiff. The Salon is a privately-owned business that provides haircuts, massages, and beauty services in Manhattan. According to the defendants, the Salon is a subsidiary of Aramis, which operates salons in the New York area under the brand name "Aveda" and the Aveda Corporation is a separate corporate entity. Declaration of Lynn Oderwald, dated Dec. 15, 1999 ("Oderwald Dec.") ¶ 1; Plaintiffs' Counter 56.1 Statement ("Pl.56.1") ¶ 1. Both Aramis and Aveda are members of the "Estée Lauder Companies." Pl. 56.1 Ex. J.*fn1 Ambika was the previous owner of the Salon, but sold its interest in the "Aveda" brand name in December of 1997 and is not related to the Estée Lauder Companies. Oderwald Dec. ¶ 24.

Plaintiff Lydia Griffin "began her employment" at the Salon "on or about April 28, 1997, as a client coordinator." Comp. ¶ 12. Linda Trent was also hired as a client coordinator in June of 1997. Id. ¶ 14. Finally, Shirretta Griffin, who is Lydia Griffin's sister, was hired in the same capacity in September of 1997.*fn2 As client coordinators, plaintiffs "were responsible for booking services appointments for customers and for `provid[ing] the utmost in customer service and proper scheduling' for external clients (i.e., customers) and internal clients (i.e., hairstylists and other employees who performed client services)". Def. 56.1 ¶ 2 (quoting Oderwald Dec. Ex. A); Pl. 56.1 ¶ 2. Among other requirements, the Salon's client coordinator job description lists the following "Basic Duties": "[p]ositive, interactive attitude with customers;" "[g]reet all clients in a professional manner;" and "[r]esolve client challenges if possible, if not, inform team leader." Oderwald Dec. Ex. A.

Up until September of 1997, there was no on-site supervisor for the client coordinators at the Salon. Oderwald Dec. ¶ 2. However, this changed when Nancy McKay ("McKay") was transferred to the Salon on or about September 11, 1997 to serve in the capacity of "Retail Manager." Comp. ¶ 15; Declaration of Nancy McKay, dated De. 15, 1999 ("McKay Dec.") ¶ 1. In October of 1997, "Team Manager" Katherine Zolcinski ("Zolcinski") became plaintiffs' immediate supervisor. Comp. ¶ 16; Declaration of Katherine Zolcinski, dated Dec. 15, 1999 ("Zolcinski Dec.") ¶ 2.*fn3

Plaintiffs maintain that McKay and Zolcinski were responsible for the alleged discrimination against them. Comp. ¶ 16; Deposition of Lydia Griffin, dated July 14, 1999 ("L. Griffin Dep.") p. 49; Deposition of Shirretta Griffin, dated July 15, 1999 ("S. Griffin Dep.") p. 82-83; Deposition of Linda Trent, dated July 22, 1999 ("Trent Dep.") p. 36-37. According to plaintiffs, this bias was initially revealed in October of 1997, when McKay referred to Lydia Griffin as a "street girl" or a "street person." L. Griffin Dep. p. 69; Trent Dep. p. 38. The exact circumstances of the incident, however, are unclear. L. Griffin Dep. p. 73. Similarly, plaintiffs accuse both McKay and Zolcinski of referring to them by using the phrase "you people." L. Griffin Dep. p. 99-101; S. Griffin Dep. p. 80-82. Again, plaintiffs' recounting of the circumstances under which McKay and Zolcinski used the phrase is unclear. Id. In one instance, an unnamed security guard allegedly quoted McKay to Shiretta Griffin as using the phrase "you people, in terms of me [Shiretta Griffin], my sister [Lydia Griffin] and Linda Trent." S. Griffin Dep. p. 80. In addition, Linda Trent alleges that Zolcinski once accused plaintiffs and another black employee of intimidating customers and referred to them as a "gang." Trent Dep. at 41-42.

In October of 1997, an incident occurred between Lydia Griffin and another African-American employee of the Salon, Charlene Shaw ("Shaw"), who served in the capacity of assistant Team Manager. Declaration of Charlene Shaw, dated Dec. 14, 1999 ("Shaw Dec."), ¶ 3.*fn4 Although the exact details of the incident are in dispute, Pl. 56.1 ¶ 4, plaintiffs do not contest the fact that Shaw reported it to Lynn Oderwald ("Oderwald"), the Salon's Human Resources Representative, or that Shaw resigned shortly thereafter and gave as her reason the fact that "she could no longer tolerate the negative and uncomfortable environment created by Lydia Griffin and, to some degree, by her sister Shirretta." Def. 56.1 ¶ 4 (citing Shaw Dec. ¶¶ 3-4, Ex. A); Pl. 56.1 ¶ 4.

In November of 1997, another client coordinator at the Salon, Kris Scott ("Scott"), also resigned her position, reporting to Oderwald that Lydia and Shirretta Griffin were the reason for her resignation. Def. 56.1 ¶ 5; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 5.*fn5 Again, although the facts of Scott's interactions with plaintiffs are in dispute, plaintiffs do not contest that Scott reported that "she felt too intimidated by Lydia and Shirretta Griffin to continue to work with them." Id.

Defendants also provide evidence of a series of complaints by four customers against Shirretta Griffin and Linda Trent between November of 1997 and February of 1998. Oderwald Dec. Ex. B.*fn6 In brief, defendants' documents accuse the plaintiffs of treating the customers rudely and cursing publicly. Plaintiffs admit only that a fifth customer, Tammy Devereaux, has ever complained about either Trent or Shirretta Griffin. Pl. 56.1 ¶ 6. However, they deny the substance of Ms. Devereaux's complaint. Id.; Affidavit of Linda Trent, dated Jan. 24, 2000 ("Trent Aff."), ¶¶ 2-4.

February 11, 1998, McKay prepared two "awareness letters" for Lydia Griffin. Oderwald Dec. Ex. D. To quote defendants' undisputed description of the letters, they "reported that Ms. Griffin, on two occasions, had used inappropriate language in front of customers." Def. 56.1 ¶ 7; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 7. McKay further memorialized the incidents in an e-mail sent the same night to Oderwald and other employees of defendants. Oderwald Dec. Ex. E. "When Ms. Griffin's supervisor and Ms. Oderwald met with Ms. Griffin to discuss the incidents and prepare her with the `awareness letters,' Ms. Griffin denied the conduct and refused to sign the letters." Def. 56.1 ¶ 7; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 7.

Throughout late February and early March, another series of employees lodged complaints against the plaintiffs. Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 9-14, 17-18.*fn7 Again, plaintiffs summarily deny the substance of the complaints but do not dispute that the complaints were made. Pl. 56.1 ¶¶ 9-14, 17-18. One of the employees, hairstylist Richard Ruiz also expressed his desire to resign his position, giving as his reason the business he had lost "resulting from unprofessional client handling" by the plaintiffs. Oderwald Dec. Ex. H. Ruiz provided specific information about three of his best clients who had refused to return to the Salon because of behavior by the plaintiffs. Id. Among the incidents described by Ruiz was the complaint lodged by customer Tammy Devereaux, a complaint which plaintiffs admit Devereaux made. Id. Mr. Ruiz's account of events was memorialized in a contemporaneous e-mail. Id.*fn8

The most serious charges against the plaintiffs were those by a new client coordinator, Azita Sabahi ("Sabahi"). On March 6, Sabahi reported to Oderwald that she felt she was being subjected to a hostile work environment created by the plaintiffs. Def. 56.1 ¶ 14. Specifically, Sabahi alleged that plaintiffs had made disparaging and discriminatory remarks about her because of her Iranian national origin.*fn9 Id. Oderwald documented the conversation in a March 6 e-mail which she sent to Thomas Pflepsen ("Pflepsen"), a senior human resources manager with Aramis. Oderwald Dec. ¶ 10, Ex. I. Sabahi then created a written record of her allegations against the plaintiffs, which she signed on March 17. Sabahi Dec. Ex. A. Although plaintiffs again summarily deny the substance of Sabahi's accusations, they acknowledge that she did make them and that she produced her own written document. Pl. 56.1 ¶¶ 14-15; S. Griffin Dep. p. 93.

Shortly after Pflepsen received Oderwald's report of Sabahi's complaints, he made a determination that there "was a sufficiently corroborated record on which to initiate action." Def. 56.1 ¶ 16; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 16. Pflepsen, Oderwald and Aramis general manager Stefany Reed ("Reed") "agreed that it was critical that they proceed with any final investigation and appropriate disciplinary action as soon as Ms. Sabahi submitted her written account." Id. Plaintiffs claim that they were completely unaware of any of these complaints and that, to the contrary, while visiting the Salon, general manager Reed had praised Lydia Griffin and Linda Trent as "great employees," on March 3, 1998. Pl. 56.1 second set of numbered paragraphs ("2d ¶") 7.*fn10

At the same time, plaintiffs claim that McKay's and Zolcinski's discriminatory attitudes are proven by a series of false accusations that the supervisors allegedly made against the plaintiffs. Specifically, Shirretta Griffin alleges that McKay falsely accused her of making an expensive telephone call on the Salon's phone at some unspecified time. S. Griffin Dep. p. 82. Similarly, Trent alleges that, at other unspecified times, McKay had implied that one of the plaintiffs had been responsible for a shortfall in a cash register, and that one of them had placed an unauthorized photograph of Al Sharpton on the bulletin board that the Salon uses to inform customers of the company's sales and services. Trent Dep. at 40-41. Finally, Trent alleges that McKay implicitly accused her of stealing one of her co-worker's tips when McKay told the co-worker that she had a right to feel upset about the missing tip. Id. at 43-44. Plaintiffs have also provided supporting affidavits by two other African-American former employees of the salon, who accuse McKay of using a "negative tone of voice" with black employees, Affidavit of Anthony Williams, dated Oct. 29, 1999, ¶ 4, and of creating false charges against them to get them discharged. Id. ¶ 5; Affidavit of Tomonkia Byrd, dated Oct. 27, 1999, ¶¶ 3-4.*fn11

Although the exact timing is unclear, plaintiffs allege that they first complained about this discrimination to both Zolcinski and Oderwald. However, on March 10, 1998, Lydia Griffin filed a formal complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights ("NYSDHR"), alleging that she and other black employees of the Salon had been subjected to race and color discrimination. Def. 56.1 2d ¶ 2; Oderwald Dec. Ex. P. In it, Griffin recited that she "and my black counterparts [had] got[ten] along well with Ms. Zolcinski,"*fn12 but that once "McKay came to the department, Ms. McKay and Ms. Zolcinski began treating Black employees in a discriminatory manner." Oderwald Dec. Ex. P. Griffin also listed her allegations that McKay had called her a "street person," used the phrase, "you people" and made false accusations against black employees "while failing to make the same accusations against similarly situated Caucasian employees." Id. Defendants received notice of the complaint on March 17, 1998, when a copy of it was delivered to the Salon by mail. Def. 56.1 ¶ 27; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 27, 2d ¶ 3.*fn13

On March 19, 1998, Oderwald and Reed met with all three plaintiffs to inform them that they would be placed on a paid break. Pl. 56.1 2d ¶ 4; Oderwald Dec. ¶ 13. See also Oderwald Dec. Ex. K (a March 19, 1998 e-mail memorializing the meetings with plaintiffs). During the following week, Oderwald, Reed, and Pflepsen conducted five more employee interviews to investigate the complaints about the plaintiffs. Oderwald Dec. ¶ 14. See also id., Ex. L. (a March 23, 1998 e-mail listing the questions asked in the interviews). Reed and Oderwald again met with each of the plaintiffs individually on March 25, 1998, but none of the three provided evidence to refute the charges against them. Oderwald Dec. ¶ 15, Ex. N; Pl. 56.1 ¶¶ 21, 22.

On March 26, Oderwald sent individual letters to each of the plaintiffs informing them that their employment had been terminated. Pl. 56.1 2d ¶ 5; Oderwald Dec. Ex. O. The letters confirmed for the plaintiffs the Salon's position that it had received complaints from a number of their co-workers and customers concerning their "unprofessional behavior" and "business conduct" and stated that the company had "no alternative" but to fire the plaintiffs "due to the needs of our business." Oderwald Dec. Ex. O. The Salon enclosed checks for each of the plaintiffs for the days they had been placed on paid leave and for unused vacation time. Id. In total, Lydia Griffin was employed at the Salon for eleven months, Trent for nine months, and Shirretta Griffin for seven months. Def. 56.1 ¶ 3; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 3.

On May 5, 1998, Lydia Griffin applied for the position of Front Desk Manager at Origins, another salon located at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan. Def. 56.1 ¶ 25; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 25; L. Griffin Dep. at 178-182. In connection with that application, Griffin filled out and signed a form in which Griffin listed, among other things, her employment history. Declaration of Patrick Bruner, dated Dec. 14, 1999 ("Bruner Dec.") Ex. A. Above the signature, the form clearly indicates, "[m]isrepresentation or omission of information listed in this application is cause for dismissal." Yet, under her employment history, Griffin reported that she had been employed at the Salon from April 1997 to April 1998, and that her "reason for leaving" was "the company's communication [sic] for growth was unable to be met and I needed more responsibiliti [sic] to help achieve the goals of the [indecipherable]." Griffin contends that this was not a lie, Affidavit of Lydia Griffin, dated Jan. 25, 2000 ("L. Griffin Aff.") ¶ 6, and that, at her interview, she "discussed the incident that happened with myself and Nancy McKay and the results of that" with Origins manager Patrick Bruner ("Bruner"), including the circumstances of her termination. L. Griffin Dep. at 182-85. See also L. Griffin Aff. ¶ 6.*fn14

Griffin was offered a position at Origins and began working shortly thereafter. Def. 56.1 ¶ 26; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 26. However, she was terminated from her employment May 21, 1998, by "Judy Stewart from [Origins'] Human Resources [department], who had no part in my hiring." L. Griffin Dep. ¶ 7. According to Bruner, Griffin was fired because managers at Origins had subsequently learned of the serious nature of the charges against her by the Salon, and because of the misrepresentation and/or omission in her employment application. Bruner Dec. ¶ 5. In response, Griffin alleges that because Origins is affiliated with Estée Lauder, and because Bruner would not corroborate her version of events, that she "believe[s]" that Origins "found out that [she] filed a discrimination complaint" and fired her. L. Griffin Aff. ¶ 8.

Plaintiffs filed this action December 12, 1998. After extensive discovery, defendants filed the instant ...


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