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RAMOS v. MARRIOTT INTERN.

March 14, 2001

MARIA O. RAMOS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MARRIOTT INTERNATIONAL, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William C. Conner, Senior District Judge.

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Maria O. Ramos, brings the instant action against defendant Marriott International, Inc. ("Marriott") pursuant to Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. ("Title VII") and New York State Human Rights Law, New York Exec. Law § 290 et seq. ("NYHRL"). Plaintiff alleges that because of her gender, and in retaliation for her complaints made to her supervisors and defendant's Human Resources Department, she was terminated. She further alleges that she was subjected to a hostile work environment by her supervisor and coworkers during her tenure of employment. Defendant now moves for summary judgment pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 56(b). For the reasons stated hereinafter, defendant's motion is granted in part and denied in part.

BACKGROUND

In June 1998, plaintiff was hired by defendant as its first female Banquet Room Sous Chef at its Renaissance Westchester Hotel (the "Hotel") located in White Plains, N.Y.*fn1 (Lyness Aff. ¶ 4; Pl. Stmt. Undisp. Mat. Facts ¶ 10, Exs. A, B.) As the Banquet Room Sous Chef, she was the lead cook in the Banquet Room of the Hotel. The Banquet Room services all scheduled events for the Hotel. (Lyness Aff. ¶ 74.) Plaintiff's responsibilities included, inter alia, ordering and preparing the food for the scheduled events as well as managing and scheduling a staff of approximately seven kitchen workers. (Id. ¶¶ 0, 74-75; Lanchais Dep. at 8-20.)

Although plaintiff's cooking skills were never the subject of criticism by her supervisors or the guests of the Hotel, she began having problems with her staff within weeks of her employment. (Pl. Dep. at 283-84.) The staff refused to take any sort of instruction from plaintiff (id.) and both plaintiff and her staff were offended by each others' comments and "attitudes." (Lyness Aff. ¶ 25, Ex. O.)

The "final straw" that ultimately led to plaintiff's termination occurred on June 7, 1999. (Lyness Aff. ¶ 76.) Plaintiff interrupted a meeting of her supervisor, Jean Claude Lanchais, Executive Chef, three times over a period of twenty minutes and proceeded to wait outside of Lanchais' door to inquire as to whether he was meeting with several members of her staff. (Id. ¶¶ 26, 76, Ex. P.) When Lanchais explained that they were not in his office, plaintiff stated that "that was not true" because she had seen two kitchen workers, Livingston Allen and Herbert Gudiel, leave his office. (Id. ¶ 26, Ex. P.)

This incident led to plaintiff's second written reprimand on June 10, 1999, for acting "in an insubordinate manner, willful disregard and disrespect toward the executive chef."*fn2 (Id. ¶ 27, Ex. Q.) She was warned that any future infraction would lead to either suspension or termination. (Id.) That same day, Allen also lodged a complaint against plaintiff. He claimed that she called him into her office the night of June 7th to ask him why he and another kitchen worker were complaining about her to Lanchais. (Id. ¶ 28, Ex. R.) He claimed that he was scared of being alone with her in the kitchen because she would become "hysterical," and begin "screaming and crying" because everyone was "out to get her." He subsequently called Lanchais to resign. (Id. ¶ 29, Ex. S; Allen Aff. ¶¶ 6-7.)

Lanchais then told plaintiff that her continued employment at the Hotel was no longer a viable option and subsequently gave her the choice either to resign or be fired. (Def. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 7; Lyness Aff. ¶¶ 4, 64; Ehler Dep. at 124.) On June 16, 1999, plaintiff chose to resign. Defendant argues that it had to fire plaintiff because of her inability to get along with her coworkers. (Lyness Aff., Ex. A.) Plaintiff claims that she was terminated as a result of her gender and the fifteen to twenty complaints (Pl. Dep. at 391) she made to Lanchais and Karen Ehler, Director of the Human Resources Department, about her abusive work environment. (Lyness Aff., Ex. A.)

Defendant placed an advertisement in its database to fill the position. (Lyness Aff. ¶ 66; Ehler Dep. at 138-39.) All individuals that applied for the position were men (Lyness Aff. ¶ 66; Ehler Dep. at 208), thus plaintiff was replaced by a male, Einar Gudmundsson (Lyness Aff. ¶ 66; Ehler Dep. at 111), who transferred from defendant's hotel in Atlanta. (Lyness Aff. ¶ 66; Ehler Dep. at 138.)

I. Plaintiff's Claims of Harassment and Gender Discrimination

Plaintiff claims that during the course of her employment she was continuously discriminated against and harassed by Lanchais and her coworkers. Plaintiff cannot recall any specific dates, but argues that on separate occasions in 1998, Lanchais stated: (1) that "you wanted to do a man's job, you better make sure you have what it takes in your pants to do it"; (2) that her food presentation was "too girly" because there were too many flowers on the plate; (3) that she was very "emotional," could not "manage the kitchen" and advised plaintiff to "go home" after a heated argument between the two had erupted (Lyness Aff., Ex. A; Pl. Stmt. Undisp. Mat. Facts ¶ 81; Pl. Dep. at 430-31, 434); (4) that plaintiff was "just jealous" when she complained that she was not given a formal invitation to view the other chefs' food presentations (Lyness Aff., Ex. A; Pl. Stmt. Undisp. Mat. Facts ¶ 81); and (5) that she should "buy . . . some women's coats, with the shape to it [because] . . . [s]he is a woman." (Pl. Stmt. Undisp. Mat. Facts ¶ 81; Pl. Dep. at 422.)*fn3 She also claims that he announced her financial information in front of her coworkers in an effort to embarrass plaintiff and cause severe emotional distress. (Pl. St. Undisp. Mat. Facts ¶ 81; Pl. Dep. at 443-49.)

In 1998, John Goodwin, Banquet Room Chef de Partie, also allegedly told plaintiff "never send a woman to do a man's job." When plaintiff expressed her shock as to what had been said, Goodwin responded "it is true." (Pl. Stmt. Undisp. Mat. Facts ¶ 81; Pl. Dep. at 438-39.)

Plaintiff also alleges that she was treated differently from her male counterparts, namely Al Lanza, Woodlands Restaurant lead cook, and Robert Colletti, Woodlands Restaurant Assistant Sous Chef.*fn4 First, plaintiff claims that she was denied a promotion on the pretext that subordinates had complained about her, whereas Lanza and Colletti were promoted after they had each been accused of racial discrimination by a subordinate. (Pl.Stmt.Undisp.Mat.Facts. ¶¶ 50-51.) Lanza, hired two months prior to plaintiff, was promoted from Woodlands Restaurant Sous Chef to Woodlands Restaurant Chef. (Id. ¶¶ 43-49, 51; Iaia Aff. ¶¶ 14-15, Exs. M, N) prior to December 1998. On February 6, 1999, Colletti was promoted to Woodlands Restaurant Sous Chef. (Pl. Stmt. Undisp. Mat. Facts ¶ 51; Iaia Aff. ¶ 17, Ex. P.)

Second, plaintiff claims that she was forced to decrease both food procurement and labor costs in the Banquet Room, whereas Lanza was not required to do the same in the Woodlands Restaurant. (Pl. Dep. at 539-45.) She claims that she was forced to do so even though the Banquet Room was busier than the Woodlands Restaurant and had a smaller staff. When plaintiff pointed this out to Lanchais, she was told to "make it happen for Al." (Lyness Aff., Ex. A.)

Third, plaintiff alleges that Lanchais refused to allow her and Allen, the Banquet Room Assistant Sous Chef, to attend a culinary class in Boston, Massachusetts before Lanza and Colletti participated. (Pl. Dep. at 520-21.) As a result, plaintiff alleges that she was denied the opportunity to accumulate credits for membership in the Culinary Institute of America ("CIA"). (Id. at 513-14; Lyness Aff., Ex. A.) The parties dispute whether the class was connected with the CIA or the American Culinary Federation and whether plaintiff could have in fact acquired credits for either society. (Lanchais Aff. ¶ 9; Pl. Dep. 513-14.) Plaintiff also claims that in 1999, Lanchais, Lanza and Colletti attended an annual food show in New York City without asking her if she wanted to accompany them. (Lyness Aff., Ex. A.) However, she does not dispute the allegation that the food show was not affiliated with the Hotel.

Fourth, every year defendant conducts a confidential survey, the Associate Opinion Survey ("AOS"), in which the staff rates the management as well as other aspects of the Hotel's operations. (Lanchais Dep. at 148). In 1998, Lanchais and Tim Cooper, former Food and Beverage Director, blamed plaintiff for the low rating given by the AOS and were prepared to circulate it to plaintiff's staff in the Banquet Room. (Lyness Aff., Ex. A.) The parties dispute whether the results for the Banquet Room and Woodlands Restaurant were combined, thereby preventing their determination of the source of the problem. (Id.; Ehler Dep. at 57-58.) In any event, this was the first time that the AOS would have been redistributed to the staff of any manager in the Hotel. (Pl. Stmt. Undisp. Mat. Facts ¶ 85; Lanchais Dep. at 153.) Both parties concede that the AOS was never given to plaintiff's staff because plaintiff was terminated before it was to have been done. (Pl. Stmt. Undisp. Mat. Facts ¶ 84; Lanchais Dep. at 152.)

Finally, plaintiff claims that she complained to Lanchais and Ehler approximately fifteen to twenty times concerning her work environment. The only documented complaint concerns an incident when one of plaintiff's kitchen workers, Kittikorn Marbumrung, hit her on the shoulder as she was entering the walk-in refrigerator. (Lyness Aff. ¶ 21, Ex. K). At the time, Marbumrung alleged that he was only joking with plaintiff. (Id.) The basic allegation remains undisputed.

DISCUSSION

I. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate if "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(d). A genuine issue for trial exists if, based on the record as a whole, a reasonable jury could find in favor of the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). On a motion for summary judgment, all evidence must be viewed and all inferences must be drawn in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. City of Yonkers v. Otis Elevator Co., 844 F.2d 42, 45 (2d Cir. 1988).

The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of "informing the district court of the basis for its motion" and identifying the matter "it believes demonstrate[s] the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2553, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). Upon the movant's satisfying that burden, the onus then shifts to the non-moving party to "set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250, 106 S.Ct. at 2510. At this stage, the non-moving party "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 1355-56, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). Bald assertions or conjecture unsupported by evidence are insufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment. See Carey v. Crescenzi, 923 F.2d 18, 21 (2d Cir. 1991); Western World Ins. Co. v. Stack Oil, Inc., 922 F.2d 118, 121 (2d Cir. 1990). However, summary judgment should be employed sparingly in employment discrimination cases where the employer's intent, motivation, or state of mind is at issue. See Gallo v. Prudential Residential Servs., 22 F.3d 1219, 1224 (2d Cir. 1994); Dister v. Continental Group, Inc., 859 F.2d 1108, 1114 (2d Cir. 1988) (citing Meiri v. Dacon, 759 F.2d 989, 998 (2d Cir. 1985)).

II. Title VII and NYHRL

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides that it is unlawful for "an employer to . . . discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to [her] compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's sex. . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Section 296(1)(a) of the NYHRL provides the same protection to an employee. New York courts require the same standard of proof for claims brought under the NYHRL as those brought under Title VII. Therefore, the claims will be analyzed in tandem and our holding with respect to plaintiff's Title VII claims apply with equal force to her NYHRL claims. See Cruz v. Coach Stores, Inc., 202 F.3d 560, 565 n. 1 (2d Cir. 2000); Leopold v. Baccarat, Inc., 174 F.3d 261, 264 n. 1 (2d Cir. 1999); Tomka v. Seiler Corp., 66 F.3d 1295, 1304 n. 4 (2d Cir. 1995).

A. Disparate Treatment

Disparate treatment claims pursuant to Title VII are subject to the three-step burden-shifting analysis set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973). Under this scheme, the plaintiff bears the initial burden to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, a prima facie case of employment discrimination. If the plaintiff satisfies her burden, a presumption arises that "the employer unlawfully discriminated against the employee." St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 506, 113 S.Ct. 2742, 2747, 125 L.Ed.2d 407 (1993) (quoting Texas Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 254, 101 S.Ct. 1089, 1094, 67 L.Ed.2d 207 (1981)). The burden of production then shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the alleged unlawful employment action. See St. Mary's, 509 U.S. at 507, 113 S.Ct. at 2747. The defendant's burden is also minimal. "Any legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason will rebut the presumption triggered by the prima facie case." Fisher v. Vassar College, 114 F.3d 1332, 1335-36 (2d Cir. 1997). "The employer need not persuade the court that it was motivated by the reason that it provides; rather, it must simply articulate an explanation that, if true, would connote lawful behavior." Greenway v. Buffalo Hilton Hotel, 143 F.3d 47, 52 (2d Cir. 1998) (emphasis in original).

If the defendant satisfies its burden of production, then the presumption of discrimination "simply drops out of the picture." St. Mary's, 509 U.S. at 510, 113 S.Ct. at 2749. At this point, a plaintiff may prevail only if she shows by a preponderance of the evidence that the employer's proffered reason is a pretext for discrimination and that it is more likely than not that discrimination was the real reason for the adverse employment action. See id. at 515, 113 S.Ct. at 2752. "[T]he ultimate burden of persuading the trier of fact that the defendant intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff remains at all times with the plaintiff." Id. at 507, 113 S.Ct. at 2747 (quoting Burdine, 450 U.S. at 253, 101 S.Ct. at 1093); Fisher, 114 F.3d at 1335.

1. Plaintiff's Prima Facie Case

A prima facie case of disparate treatment is established by showing that: (1) the plaintiff is a member of a protected class; (2) the plaintiff was otherwise qualified for the position; (3) an adverse employment action was taken; and (4) the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination on the basis of her membership in that class. See Burdine, 450 U.S. at 252-53, 101 S.Ct. at 1093-94. The burden of establishing a prima facie case "is not onerous." Id. at 253, 101 S.Ct. at 1094; Fisher, 114 F.3d at 1335. The burden is so minimal that some courts simply assume the existence of a prima facie case. See, e.g., Lacoparra v. Pergament Home Ctrs., Inc., 982 F. Supp. 213, 223 (S.D.N.Y. 1997) (Conner, J.).

Plaintiff has satisfied the first and third prongs of her prima facie case. As a woman, she is a member of a protected class and termination is an adverse employment action. Defendant argues that she has not satisfied the second and fourth prongs of her prima facie case. In light of ...


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