United States District Court, N.D. New York
June 28, 2004.
CAROLINE S. WILSON, Plaintiff,
INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS MACHINES, Inc., and FRANK URBAN, Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: THOMAS McAVOY, District Judge
MEMORANDUM DECISION and ORDER
Plaintiff Caroline Wilson commenced the instant action pursuant
to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e,
and N.Y. Executive Law § 296 ("Human Rights Law" or "HRL")
alleging that Defendant International Business Machines ("IBM")
terminated her employment on account of her gender and/or
pregnancy. Presently before the Court are Defendants IBM and Frank Urban's motions for summary judgment
pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 56 seeking dismissal of the Complaint
in its entirety.
IBM hired Plaintiff in 1984. In 1997, Plaintiff became the
account manager within the Test Design Automation ("TDA") team of
the Microelectronics Division. In this position, Plaintiff was
responsible for selling a certain software product. From 1997
through July 2000, Plaintiff's first-line manager was Randy Kerr.
From July 2000 through the end of Plaintiff employment, her
first-line manager was Dennis Meehl. Kerr and Meehl reported to
In April 2000, Plaintiff informed Kerr that she was pregnant.
In May or June 2000, Plaintiff sought permission to take a
one-year leave of absence following the birth of her child. This
request was granted. IBM hired Dean Rittenhouse to fill the
vacancy created by Plaintiff's leave of absence. On August 11,
2000, Plaintiff went out on maternity leave. After exhausting her
paid time off, Plaintiff commenced a year-long unpaid leave of
In the Fall of 2001, IBM began plans for a reduction in force.
The TDA team recommended certain personnel for layoff. The TDA
team decided that, because there were two persons in the sales
and marketing position (Plaintiff and Rittenhouse), one of the
positions had to be eliminated. Plaintiff was selected for
layoff. Rittenhouse was retained. According to Meehl, he
recommended that Plaintiff be laid off because Rittenhouse had
built relationships with customers and was closing deals, from
which IBM needed revenue, and removing Rittenhouse at that time
could jeopardize those deals that were in progress. Meehl made
his recommendation on October 31, 2001. See Meehl Aff., Ex. D.
The recommendation was reviewed by Dale Hoffman on November 14,
2001. Id. On November 19, 2001, Plaintiff returned to work from her leave
of absence. On November 28, 2001, Meehl notified Plaintiff that
she was to be laid off. Plaintiff inquired of Meehl why she, as
opposed to Rittenhouse, was being laid off. Rittenhouse referred
Plaintiff to Urban. Plaintiff then asked Urban why she was being
laid off. Urban responded that "it was easier this way.
[Rittenhouse] was working on some contracts. It was easier to
keep him rolling along." Wilson Dep. at 49. During the course of
the conversation with Urban, Urban briefly discussed breast
feeding. Id. at 51-52. The conversation then turned to a
discussion of mothers, unions and why IBM never built a facility
in Pennsylvania. Id. Plaintiff was laid off effective January
A few months after Plaintiff's termination, IBM underwent
another set of layoffs. In June 2002, Rittenhouse was laid off
effective August 5, 2002 because IBM eliminated the remaining
sales and marketing position in TDA. In October 2002, IBM sold
the entire TDA operation to Cadence Design Systems, Inc.
Plaintiff then commenced the instant action claiming that she
was terminated on account of her gender and/or pregnancy.
Currently before the Court are Defendants' motions to dismiss the
Complaint in its entirety pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 56.
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
It is well settled that on a motion for summary judgment, the
Court must construe the evidence in the light most favorable to
the non-moving party, see Tenenbaum v. Williams,
193 F.3d 581, 593 (2d Cir. 1999), and may grant summary judgment only
where "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and
. . . the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of
law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). An issue is genuine if the relevant
evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict
for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A party
seeking summary judgment bears the burden of informing the court
of the basis for the motion and of identifying those portions of
the record that the moving party believes demonstrate the absence
of a genuine issue of material fact as to a dispositive issue.
Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). If the
movant is able to establish a prima facie basis for summary
judgment, the burden of production shifts to the party opposing
summary judgment who must produce evidence establishing the
existence of a factual dispute that a reasonable jury could
resolve in his favor. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith
Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). A party opposing a
properly supported motion for summary judgment may not rest upon
"mere allegations or denials" asserted in his pleadings, Rexnord
Holdings, Inc. v. Bidermann, 21 F.3d 522, 525-26 (2d Cir. 1994),
or on conclusory allegations or unsubstantiated speculation.
Scotto v. Almenas, 143 F.3d 105, 114 (2d Cir. 1998). With this
standard in mind, the Court will address the pending motions.
The framework for review of Title VII discrimination claims is
well-settled. To establish a claim of disparate treatment,
Plaintiff must demonstrate that: (1) she is a member of the
protected class; (2) she was qualified for the position; (3) she
was subjected to an adverse employment action; and (4) that the
adverse employment action occurred under circumstances giving
rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination. See Terry v.
Ashcroft, 336 F.3d 128, 138 (2d Cir. 2003). Under the familiar
McDonnell Douglas burden shifting scheme, McDonnell Douglas
Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973), if Plaintiff
establishes a prima facie case, there is a presumption of
unlawful discrimination. The burden then shifts to the employer
to proffer a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its
action. If the employer satisfies this burden, any presumptions of
discrimination are erased and Plaintiff is left to submit
sufficient evidence (which may include the evidence in support of
the prima facie case) from which a fair-minded trier of fact
could reasonably conclude that "the defendant's employment
decision was more likely than not based in whole or in part on
discrimination.'" Terry, 336 F.3d at 138 (quoting Stern v.
Trustees of Columbia Univ. in City of New York, 131 F.3d 305,
312 (2d Cir. 1997)).
Here, there is no dispute that Plaintiff satisfies the first
three elements of her prima facie case. There is dispute whether
Plaintiff can demonstrate that her termination occurred under
circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination.
Plaintiff contends that such circumstances exist because, among
other things, Plaintiff was replaced by a male (Rittenhouse). The
Second Circuit has held that being replaced by someone outside
the protected class suffices to establish a prima facie case.
See Zimmerman v. Associates First Capital Corp.,
251 F.3d 376, 381 (2d Cir. 2001). Accordingly, Plaintiff has met her
minimal burden of setting forth a prima facie case of gender
The next inquiry is whether IBM has set forth a legitimate,
non-discriminatory reason for its actions. IBM argues that they
were operating in a tough economic market at the time and they
wished to retain Rittenhouse, who had been in the job for one
year so he could close deals that were in process and generate
income for the business. IBM maintains that Rittenhouse was more
familiar with the then-current customer base and feared that
releasing Rittenhouse could jeopardize the work in progress. This
explanation is a legitimate, non-discriminatory business concern.
Because IBM has met its burden of setting forth a legitimate,
non-discriminatory reason, all inferences of discrimination drop
from the case and the burden returns to Plaintiff to prove discrimination vel non. Plaintiff may prove her case by
providing evidence of discrimination and/or by proving that IBM's
proffered legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating
Plaintiff was a pretext for unlawful discrimination. In support
of her claim, Plaintiff argues that Rittenhouse was less
qualified for the position than she, Rittenhouse did not perform
as well on the job as she did, IBM terminated another female who
recently gave birth, and, upon her return from the leave of
absence, Urban allegedly discussed the topics of breast feeding
and whether her husband was employed. IBM counters that
Rittenhouse performed satisfactorily during a particularly tough
sales market; the other female as well as numerous other males
were laid off as part of the reduction in force; and Urban's
comments are irrelevant because he made them after the decision
was made to terminate Plaintiff, Urban was not the final decision
maker, and they do not evince a discriminatory intent.
The Court finds that Plaintiff has proffered insufficient
evidence from which a fairminded trier of fact could reasonably
conclude that she was terminated on account of her gender or
pregnancy. Plaintiff fails to present sufficient evidence
supporting the conclusion that IBM's legitimate,
non-discriminatory reason is a pretext for unlawful
discrimination. Although Plaintiff disagrees with IBM's
assessment of the situation and of Rittenhouse's performance,
Plaintiff fails to submit any evidence tending to suggest that
IBM did not honestly believe that the decision to keep
Rittenhouse instead of Plaintiff would, from a business
standpoint, be for the good of the company. Plaintiff submits no
evidence that Rittenhouse was not more familiar with the
then-current customers, that he did not perform adequately under
the circumstances, that he was not in the middle of closing
certain deals, or that IBM did not believe that removing him
would jeopardize those deals. Having failed to demonstrate that
IBM's proffered legitimate, non-discriminatory reason was not a
pretext for unlawful discrimination, the question remains whether there is
sufficient other evidence from which the trier of fact could
reasonably conclude that Plaintiff was discriminated against on
account of her gender or pregnancy.
For the following reasons, Plaintiff has failed to meet her
burden. First, there is no dispute that IBM was going through
tough times and laid off numerous employees. Wilson Dep. at 46.
It is further undisputed that IBM determined to eliminate one of
the two sales and marketing positions in the Microelectronics
Division. Stmnt. of Mat. Facts at ¶ 19. "[A] reduction-in-force
or restructuring that results in an elimination of jobs often is
a legitimate reason for dismissing an employee." Tarshis v.
Reise, 211 F.3d 30, 37 (2d Cir. 2000).
Second, Plaintiff's contention that another female employee who
recently gave birth was also laid off is of little to no
evidentiary value. The Second Circuit has "previously cautioned
against attributing much if any significance to the fact that
another member of the protected class was discharged along with
the plaintiff . . . especially where the numbers involved are
small." Zimmerman, 251 F.3d at 382 (internal citations
omitted). In any event, the evidence in the record is that the
other female as well as her male co-worker were laid off because
it was determined that their project management responsibilities
could be reassigned to others. Moreover, the statistics
concerning the layoff from the TDA team cut against Plaintiff's
claim. Ten employees were laid off in November 2001 six males
and four females.
Third, Plaintiff's attack on Rittenhouse's qualifications do
not further her case of discrimination. Plaintiff's disagreement
with IBM's evaluation of Rittenhouse's qualifications does not
raise a triable issue of fact. Plaintiff does not offer any
evidence that Rittenhouse was unqualified for the position.
Rather, she simply maintains that she performed better than Rittenhouse. Plaintiff is unable to quantify any appreciable
difference in their qualifications. Even assuming Plaintiff to
have been more qualified, her argument fails to take into account
those factors that may have been important to Defendant in making
its decisions. For example, it may have been more important for
IBM to have Rittenhouse close deals that he started, even though
he may not have performed overall as well as Plaintiff. For
reasons previously discussed, Plaintiff has failed to point to
any evidence suggesting that IBM's claimed management concerns in
this regard were pretextual. This Court's function is not to
armchair quarterback business decisions, but to review the record
and determine whether there is sufficient evidence to permit the
trier of fact to reasonably conclude that Plaintiff was the
victim of unlawful discrimination. In this case, there is no
evidence of any appreciable difference between the qualifications
and/or success of Plaintiff and Rittenhouse, and nothing about
their relative qualifications is indicative of unlawful
Fourth, the mere fact that Rittenhouse, a male, was retained
while Plaintiff, a female, was not, is insufficient to
substantiate Plaintiff's discrimination claim. This is
particularly so when considering the totality of the
circumstances, including market conditions and the fact that
Rittenhouse had been performing in the job for a year, whereas
Plaintiff had been off of the job for over a year.
Fifth, the comments attributed to Urban are not indicative of
gender or pregnancybased discrimination. According to Plaintiff,
she was inquiring why she was being let go and "at some point the
conversation switched to breast-feeding. And I remember being
quite embarrassed as he told me about his wife breast-feeding for
three years with his first baby. It wasn't a conversation I was
comfortable in and so I remember quickly saying, I'm not
breast-feeding anymore. Like maybe he'll change his . . . mind."
Wilson Dep. at 51-52. The conversation changed topics shortly thereafter to a discussion of
mothers, unions, and why IBM never operated out of Pennsylvania.
Nothing about this alleged conversation suggests that Urban did
not want Plaintiff to remain on the job because of her gender
and/or pregnancy. This conversation does not evince any negative
attitude towards women or pregnancy. There are no allegations
that Urban made any derogatory comments about breast feeding or
otherwise made any connection between Plaintiff's job and breast
feeding. To the contrary, this appears to be an innocuous
conversation about child rearing. Absent something more, casual,
cordial discussions about raising children (including breast
feeding) do not evidence unlawful discrimination.
Sixth, even assuming Urban made these comments and that such
comments evidenced animosity by him towards females and/or women
who have recently given birth, the evidence in the record is that
Urban was not responsible for making the decision to lay off
Plaintiff. The undisputed evidence in the record is that Meehl
made the initial determination as to who should be laid off.
Urban agreed with the recommendation. The final decision was made
by Dale Hoffman. This determination was made before Urban's
comments. There is no evidence that Urban infected Meehl's or
Hoffman's decision to terminate Plaintiff with any discriminatory
motive he may have harbored.
In sum, without some indicia that IBM treated Plaintiff
differently because she was pregnant or because she was female,
there can be no inference of unlawful discrimination. Plaintiff
has failed to point to sufficient evidence from which a
fair-minded trier of fact could reasonably conclude that she was
discriminated against on account of her gender and/or pregnancy. Having found that there is insufficient evidence to support a
claim of discrimination against Defendant IBM, Plaintiff's HRL
claim must similarly fail as against Defendant Urban.
For the foregoing reasons, Defendants' motions for summary
judgment are GRANTED and the Complaint is DISMISSED IN ITS
IT IS SO ORDERED.
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