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August 26, 2003


The opinion of the court was delivered by: David Trager, District Judge

Plaintiff Shirley E. Bryant ("Bryant") brings this employment discrimination and retaliation action against her former employer, defendant Research Foundation of State University of New York ("Research Foundation"), which administered the Brooklyn BEGIN Management Program ("BEGIN"). Bryant, who is black, alleges that her employment was terminated and that she was denied a transfer by her black supervisor because Bryant was not sufficiently "Afrocentric" and because of Bryant's lighter skin color. She also claims that she was terminated in retaliation for her complaining about being discriminated against, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"). Bryant initially commenced this action pro se, but has since obtained counsel. Research Foundation now moves for summary judgment.*fn1 [ Page 2]


The following is either undisputed or is presented in the light most favorable to Bryant. The BEGIN program is a federally mandated program that helps welfare recipients return to the workforce. (Def. Research Foundation's Loc. Civ. R. 56.1 Stmt. Mat. Facts ("Def.'s Stmt.") ¶ 1 n. 1.) Participants who engaged in this program received public assistance and were required to attend classes and engage in program activities for 35 hours each week. (Id. ¶¶ 1, 7.) Prior to January 3, 2000, the program was run by the City University of New York ("CUNY"). (Id. ¶ 1.) On January 3, 2000, CUNY ceased administering the BEGIN program, and Research Foundation took over the program. (Id.)

Bryant, a black female, was hired in August 1999 by CUNY as an Orientation and Assessment ("O & A") Facilitator for the BEGIN Workstudy program. (Bryant 8/29/01 Dep. at 99.*fn2) Bryant's job responsibilities included providing students with program policy, conducting testing and assessment, facilitating workshops, working with the staff on classroom assignments, and, if needed, referring students for counseling. (Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 6.)

On January 3, Research Foundation became Bryant's employer when it took over the program. (Id. ¶ 1.) With the change in management, Bryant's prior supervisors were replaced by Iesha Sekou ("Sekou"), the Program Director, and Deborah Nelson ("Nelson"), the Educational Coordinating Assistant — both of whom are black females. (Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 2; Declaration of Rebecca W. Embry ("Embry Dec."), Ex. 13; Bryant 8/29/01 Dep. at 106.) The racial makeup of the program's other employees is as follows: Of the five teachers, two were white males (one of [ Page 3]

whom left on March 24, 2000), one was a Filipino female, one was a black male and one was an Hispanic male; Bryant was the only black female teacher. (Embry Dec., Ex. 13; Bryant 8/29/01 Dep. at 103-05.) Of the support staff, all of whom were female, two were black, one was Hispanic and one was white. (Embry Dec., Ex. 13; Bryant 8/29/01 Dep. at 103-05.)

During the period of transition, Bryant sought to transfer to a "coordinating position at one of the welfare centers," but was unsuccessful because that position was already filled. (Bryant 10/03/01 Dep. at 45-46.) Therefore, Bryant continued her employment at the BEGIN program despite the change in management, and her continued employment was confirmed by Research Foundation in a letter dated January 19, 2000. (Embry Dec., Ex. 6.) The letter provided that she is an at-will employee subject to Research Foundations policies and the availability of funds. (Id.) The stated term of her employment was March 31, 2000. (Id.)

The dress code at the BEGIN program allowed for casual attire during "dress down" days when students were not in attendance. (Bryant 10/03/01 Dep. at 41-42.) Sekou regularly dressed in what Bryant's describes as an "Afrocentric" attire, and routinely "kept her hair wrapped in an African hair dress." (Id. at 27-28, 43.) Bryant described Afrocentric attire as "exemplified" by Sekou, "the African hair dress, the African clothing." (Bryant 10/03/01 Dep. at 39.) Bryant's other supervisor, Nelson, did not wear "Afrocentric" attire. (Bryant 10/08/01 Dep. at 154-55.) Bryant, however, regularly wore a business suit even when not required. (Bryant 10/03/01 Dep. at 38-39.) Bryant also had short, curly blond hair, which was dyed from a natural color of brown to blond. (Id. at 27.) Among the employees working at the BEGIN program, only Sekou and Warren [ Page 4]

Burns*fn3 — a black male whom Sekou hired as a teacher — wore Afrocentric attire. (Bryant 10/08/01 Dep. at 154.)

Beginning in January 2000 through March 2000, Sekou derided Bryant for her choice of attire and the fact that she dyed her hair blond. (Id. at 141-45.) "[T]hree or four times," while on the elevator, Sekou whispered to Nelson within Bryant's earshot about Bryant's hair and "snicker[ed]." (Id. at 144-45.) In one encounter, Sekou, referring to Bryant's blond hair, called her a "want to be" which Bryant claims is "a common phrase in the black community" referring to someone "want[ing] to be white." (Bryant 10/03/01 Dep. at 26.) In another encounter, Sekou asked Bryant why she dyed her hair, and told Bryant that the chemicals in the dye would damage her hair. (Bryant 10/08/01 Dep. at 142.) In March 2000, Bryant overheard Sekou telling Nelson, as Bryant walked into Sekou's office, "[h]ere comes the wannabe." (Id. at 160.) Sekou also told Bryant that there is no need for her to wear a suit, and that Bryant "should dress like me," pointing to herself (Sekou) while wearing what Bryant characterized an Afrocentric attire. (Id. at 210.)

Bryant also claims that Sekou excluded her from staff meetings by scheduling them when Bryant had classes scheduled. (Bryant 10/03/01 Dep. at 35-36.) The meetings were usually held on Fridays when participants were out on work assignments. (Id.) However, because Bryant worked with the participants in the orientation process who did not yet have work assignments, she had classes scheduled and could not attend the meetings. (Id.) Sekou told Bryant to clear her Friday schedule so that she could attend. (Id.) Bryant spoke with Gary Smith, the HRA Supervisor, in an attempt to reschedule her classes so that she could attend. (Id. at 36.) However, "each time [Bryant and Smith] went to [Sekou's] office she took a telephone call, kept [them] [ Page 5]

waiting 20, 30 minutes and [they] were unable to." (Id. at 36-37.) At some point, Sekou stopped informing Bryant of the meetings entirely. (Id.)

Sometime in late February or early March, Bryant interviewed with Yvonne Bruce ("Bruce"), the Program Coordinator for the Brooklyn BEGIN Internship Program, in an effort to transfer into a different department at the BEGIN program. (Id. at 48.) At the end of the interview, Bruce called the Director of Personnel, Jon Ho ("Ho") — in the presence of Bryant — and told him that "she was satisfied," and that Bruce "wanted [Bryant] to come on board as soon as possible." (Id.) However, Bryant's transfer was delayed because a replacement for Bryant had not yet been arranged. (Id.)

To comply with the federal mandate, students in orientation were typically not released before 4:30 or 5:00 p.m. (Id. at 52.) However, on March 16, 2000, Bryant released her students prior to the scheduled student release time. (Id.) In a memorandum to Bryant, dated March 16, 2000, Sekou wrote that "today you dismissed all students a half-day [sic] without permission from me even though[] you were told under no circumstances should this happen. . . . Any future action of this manner can lead to your dismissal." (Embry Dec., Ex. 8.) However, Bryant denies ever receiving that memorandum and claims that Sekou had never even discussed the issue with her before March 16, 2000. (Bryant 10/08/01 Dep. at 134.) Bryant claims that the first time she saw that memorandum was after her termination, when it was submitted by Research Foundation in response to Bryant's complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC").

Moreover, Bryant claims that she released the students early because she was informed by Gary T. Smith, the HRA Supervisor, that students should be released early to allow the students to attend an "open school afternoon" for their school-aged children. (Bryant 10/03/01 Dep. at 53.) Bryant also claims that all teachers released their students early that day, and that no one else had [ Page 6]

been reprimanded. (Id.; Bryant 10/08/01 Dep. at 132-133.) Bryant claims to have never released students early on other days, unless Sekou "called a staff meeting and asked for [Bryant] to be there." (Bryant 10/03/01 Dep. at 54.)

In an email apparently sent to Ho on March 23, 2000, Sekou recommends that Bryant be terminated immediately for "Direct Insubordination" and "Disregard for Program Policy." (Embry Dec., Ex. 11.) Sekou claimed that since January 3, 2000, Bryant failed to attend mandatory staff meetings and "[f]ailed to adjust [the] schedule to accommodate Friday Staff meetings." (Id.) She also claimed that Bryant changed the orientation schedule without supervisory permission, which caused confusion among new students. (Id.) Finally, she wrote that on March 14, 2000,*fn4 Bryant released students early "[d]isregarding the mandated 9 to 5 p.m." (Id.)

On March 24, 2000, Bryant missed another staff meeting, of which she was not informed. (Bryant 10/03/01 Dep. at 39.) However, Bryant's assistant, Maria Romero did attend and related to Bryant that at the meeting, Sekou introduced a woman, Shirley Jones ("Jones"), as Bryant's replacement.*fn5 (Id.) Bryant later saw Jones and described her as "a dark skinned woman with [] the dreadlock hair, with the Afrocentric dress, the African dress." (Id.)

Bryant then called Ho later that day to inquire on the status of her transfer request. (Id. at 30.) Ho asked her why she wanted to transfer. (Id. at 30-31.) Bryant then related to Ho her difficulties with Sekou: [ Page 7]

I felt Iesha Sekou was discriminating against me because of her treatment against me. I told him that I heard her make several comments about the color of my hair, my style of dress and that she had begun to exclude me in staff meetings, and that although the other staff members were given evaluations, I wasn't.
(Id. at 30.) Bryant also related that Sekou called her a "wannabe." (Bryant 10/08/01 Dep. at 197-98.) This was ...

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