United States District Court, S.D. New York
May 24, 2004.
MARTHA GONZALEZ, Plaintiff, against PARISH OF TRINITY CHURCH, Defendant
The opinion of the court was delivered by: RICHARD CASEY, District Judge
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Martha Gonzalez ("Plaintiff") brings this suit against defendant Parish
of Trinity Church ("Trinity"), alleging that she was terminated from her
employment in violation of Title YE of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,
42 U.S.C. § 2000-e et seq. (Title VII). Discovery is complete, and
Defendant now brings this motion for summary judgment. For the reasons
set forth below, the motion is GRANTED.
Martha Gonzalez, a woman of Puerto Rican descent, was employed by
Trinity from February 11, 1985 through January 4, 2000, the date on which
she was terminated. At the time of her termination, Plaintiff was
employed as a receptionist/secretary in the church's Finance Division, in
which capacity she was responsible for the preparation and transmittal of
data to Trinity's outside payroll service, Automatic Data Processing,
Inc. ("ADP"), as well as other responsibilities, such as the deposit of
donations into church bank accounts.
In October 1999, Trinity observed that its actual payroll expense
exceeded its budget, and the General Ledger Department performed an
analysis to determine the source of the variance. (Knoll Aff. at ¶ 3.) Through this analysis, Trinity determined that on
June 23, 1999, Gonzalez received seventy hours of advance vacation pay,
totaling $1,217.92, in addition to the regular paycheck that she received
on that date. (Knoll Aff. at ¶ 3; La Vacca Aff. at ¶ 3.) This advance
vacation pay was not deducted in any subsequent period, resulting in an
overpayment to Gonzalez. (Knoll Aff. at ¶ 3; La Vacca Aff. at ¶ 3.).
In order to receive advance vacation pay, Trinity's procedures require
an employee to submit a written request, signed by her supervisor, to the
Human Resources Department for approval at least three weeks in advance
of the first scheduled vacation day. (La Vacca Aff. at ¶ 4.) This
procedure ensures that the advance is properly recorded and that the
employee is not overpaid. Id.
Gonzalez did not notify the Human Resources Department of her advance
vacation pay request; nor did she obtain the consent of her supervisor.
Rather, Gonzalez arranged for the payment directly through ADP, even
though advance vacation pay is supposed to be handled by the Human
Resources Department, not Gonzalez. (Knoll Aff. at ¶ 4; La Vacca Aff.
at ¶ 5).
Gonzalez did nothing to rectify the overpayment until confronted by the
General Ledger Department more than four months later. (Knoll Aff. at ¶
4.) In November 1999, Kevin Kapadia of the General Ledger Department
approached Gonzalez about the overpayment. (Knoll Aff. at ¶ 4; La Vacca
Aff. at ¶ 6.) Gonzalez did not deny the overpayment, and arrangements
were made for it to be deducted from subsequent paychecks. (Knoll Aff. at
¶ 4; La Vacca Aff. at ¶ 6.)
Trinity subsequently undertook a detailed analysis of (1) Gonzalez'
timesheets on which she recorded her hours of work; (2) the church's
payroll transmittals, which were prepared by Gonzalez; and (3) Gonzalez'
earnings statements for the years 1998 and 1999. This investigation revealed more than four separate instances in which Gonzalez arranged to
receive unauthorized overtime pay. (See La Vacca Aff. at ¶ 6-12.)
Because all discrepancies were in Gonzalez' favor, Trinity determined
that Gonzalez had misappropriated church funds. (Knoll Aff. at ¶ 6-7.)
On January 4, 2000, Constance Gerard, Director of Human Resources;
Margaret Nodine, Gonzalez' direct supervisor; and Joseph La Vacca,
Assistant Controller, met with Gonzalez. During this meeting, Gonzalez
was informed of the investigation and that she was being terminated.
In order to prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party
must establish that there are no genuine issues of material fact and that
judgment is warranted as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Anderson
v. Liberty Lobby. Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). Facts, and all
inferences therefrom, must be viewed in a light most favorable to the
non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd, v. Zenith Radio
Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986); American Gas. Co. v. Nordic Leasing,
Inc., 42 F.3d 725, 728 (2d Cir. 1994). If the moving party meets its
burden, then the non-movant must set forth specific facts showing that
there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250.
In discrimination cases, a trial court must be particularly cautious
about granting summary judgment where the employer's intent is at issue,
because direct proof is often lacking. Gallo v. Prudential Residential
Servs., 22 F.3d 1219, 1224 (2d Cir. 1994). The court, therefore, must
look to circumstantial evidence, which, if believed, would show
discrimination. Id. Summary judgement may be appropriate, however, where
no evidence exists or where only conclusory allegations have been offered
to suggest that an employer's motives are improper. Minott v. Port Auth of New York, 116 F. Supp.2d 513, 518 (S.D.N.Y.
A plaintiff alleging that she was discharged in violation of Title VII
carries the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of
discrimination by showing that (1) she belongs to a member of a protected
minority; (2) she was qualified for the position; (3) she suffered an
adverse employment action; and (4) the adverse employment action occurred
in circumstances giving rise to an inference of racial discrimination.
McDonnell Douglas v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).
If the plaintiff meets this burden, the employer must produce evidence
that the adverse employment action was taken for a "legitimate,
nondiscriminatory reason." St. Mary's Honor Or. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502,
509 (1993); McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802. In order to overcome this
defense, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the proffered reason is
simply a pretext for discrimination. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 803.
While the burden of production shifts throughout the analysis, the burden
of proving the employer's discriminatory intent remains with the
plaintiff. See Texas Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253
Gonzalez has failed to make out a prima facie case because she has
failed to produce evidence showing that her discharge occurred in
circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination. Gonzalez
asserts that employees under "similar positions" as herself were given
severance packages in 1997 after being terminated. (Pl.'s Mem at ¶ 11.)
She also claims, somewhat inconsistently, that other employees who had
received unauthorized pay and failed to report it had not been
terminated. (See Pl.'s Mem. at ¶ 28.)
A plaintiff can raise an inference of discrimination by showing that
the employer subjected her to disparate treatment, that is, treated her less favorably
than a similarly situated employee outside her protected group. See
Graham v. Long Island R.R., 230 F.3d 34, 39 (2d Cir. 2000). While
Gonzalez has alleged that she was treated differently from other Trinity
employees, she has failed to submit evidence showing either that these
employees were outside her protected group or that they were similarly
situated. According to the deposition transcript of Margaret Mary
Nodine, Trinity's Executive Assistant to the Chief Financial Officer, in
her eleven years in the Finance Division, no former employee was found to
have committed acts such as those committed by Gonzalez, nor received
severance pay after being discharged for such conduct. (Nodine Aff. at
While Gonzalez is correct that other employees who had received
overpayments relating to vacation pay were not terminated, she has
submitted no evidence that those employees held positions involving the
transmission of payroll data. Moreover, these employees had followed the
appropriate procedures for requesting advance overtime pay, and there is
no evidence that they had any history of misappropriating church funds.
(See Fenster Reply Aff., Ex. G.) Because Gonzalez has produced no
evidence demonstrating that her termination occurred under circumstances
giving rise to an inference of discrimination, she has not made out a
prima facie case under Title VII.
Even assuming, arguendo, that Gonzalez has established a prima facie
case, Trinity has shown a "legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason" for her
termination. Misappropriation of church funds by an employee charged with
the sensitive task of transmitting payroll data to an outside payroll
service certainly represents a valid, nondiscriminatory basis for
Gonzalez' termination. Gonzalez does not dispute that she misappropriated
church funds, and she has failed to show that other Trinity employees who committed such acts were allowed to continue
their employment. Therefore, Gonzalez' Title VII claim must also fail
because she has not shown that Trinity's proposed reason for her
discharge was pretextual.
For the reasons set forth above, Defendant's motion for summary
judgment is GRANTED, and the complaint is dismissed in its entirety.
Accordingly, the Clerk of the Court is directed to close the case and
remove the file from the active docket.
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