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IDREES v. BETH ISRAEL HOSPITAL

United States District Court, S.D. New York


October 18, 2004.

MOHAMMED IDREES, Plaintiff,
v.
BETH ISRAEL HOSPITAL, Defendant.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: DENISE COTE, District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

Mohammed Idrees filed this pro se action in 2003, alleging that his former employer, Beth Israel Medical Center ("BIMC") discriminated against him on the basis of his religion, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., ("Title VII"). Idrees is a Muslim who was denied an educational leave of absence in April 1980 and resigned soon thereafter to attend medical school at the American University of the Caribbean ("AUC") in Montserrat, British West Indies. After the medical school failed to meet plaintiff's expectations, he returned to New York in June 1980, and states that he attempted without success to be rehired at BIMC.*fn1 The staleness of these events is at least partly explained by the fact that the EEOC only recently issued a right to sue letter based on Idrees's 1980 complaint to it.

  Following the conclusion of discovery, BIMC has moved for summary judgment. For the reasons below, BIMC's motion for summary judgment is denied.

  Background

  The following facts are undisputed or taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, unless otherwise noted.*fn2 In 1972, Mohammed Idrees was hired by Irving Pachtman, a supervisor in the BIMC pathology department, as a part-time chemistry laboratory technologist in that department, and was made a full-time employee approximately five months later. During his employment at BIMC, Idrees served as a delegate for the District 1199 union.

  Idrees's problems at BIMC date back to 1972, when two non-Muslim co-workers, both of whom were junior to Idrees, were promoted to full-time positions. When Idrees asked why he was not chosen, Pachtman replied that Muslims do not need jobs as they are very rich. Soon after, Carol Vorderer replaced Pachtman as manager of the chemistry laboratory, and together with Claire Stritmatter and Mattie Crougher, she oversaw Idrees's work.

  In June 1978, Idrees received a performance evaluation from Stritmatter, Crougher, and Vorderer that assessed his overall performance as excellent. While recommending that Mr. Idrees "further develop his productivity and ability to work independently of others," the evaluation deemed him to be "very capable of communicating effectively with co-workers and supervisors" and praised him for his interest in new technology and his imagination in dealing with its implementation.

  On April 30, 1979, Idrees requested vacation leave from June 28 through July 6, 1979 to attend an Islamic conference, but Vorderer denied his request. Idrees consequently filed a grievance and ultimately received approval for his vacation shortly before it was scheduled to begin. Upon his return, he felt that Vorderer was angry with him.

  In late June 1979, two Muslim co-workers of Idrees, Abdul Arafat and Ali Zaidi, were fired by Vorderer after Zaidi allegedly punched Arafat's time card. In his capacity as a union delegate, Idrees represented Zaidi and requested arbitration. Although Arafat was ultimately reinstated, Zaidi was not, and Zaidi called Vorderer to ask why. She replied that she did not make the decision. Instead, Vorderer reported to Zaidi that James Stark, BIMC's Director of Personnel, decided not to reinstate Zaidi because Stark does not like Muslims. Vorderer warned Zaidi that his friend Idrees would be next.

  The next month Idrees was assigned to work mandatory overtime on July 22, 1979. On July 20, after Idrees explained to Vorderer that he could not work on July 22, he was informed that there would be problems for him if he did not show up. Two other BIMC employees, Marie Lopez and Michael Napolitano, intervened, and Napolitano threatened to "fix" Idrees. As the argument escalated, Idrees vomited, went to BIMC's emergency room, and was ultimately sent home sick by the doctor who saw him. On July 21, Idrees visited another physician, who diagnosed Idrees with acute anxiety syndrome, acute gastritis, and vomiting, and advised a week's rest and close follow-up. Idrees then called in sick at 12:30 a.m. on July 22 and remained out of work through July 27.

  As the result of his July 22 absence, on July 30, 1979, BIMC suspended Idrees without pay for July 23 and 24. Both Idrees and his union delegate, Ed Johnson, refused to sign the notice, and the union grieved Idrees's suspension. The grievance was denied.

  In September 1979, Vorderer completed another performance evaluation of Idrees. Although Idrees's overall score still fell within the excellent range, Vorderer commented that Idrees had demonstrated a "regression in his total work performance" that was "most evident in his attitude." Idrees refused to sign this evaluation, and the document does not contain Stritmatter and Crougher's signatures.

  On January 22, 1980, Idrees received a second disciplinary notice and had his pay suspended for an alleged unauthorized absence from his work station. Idrees denies leaving his station. In an attempt to resolve both his earlier suspension and the January 22 disciplinary action, Idrees requested arbitration. On March 31, 1980, Idrees asked for personal leave to attend the arbitration, which was scheduled for April 4. However, Vorderer denied this request, and a new date for arbitration was never set.

  Idrees also requested a leave of absence on March 31 for sixteen months — from May 12, 1980 through September 18, 1981 — to attend medical school at AUC. At the same time, Idrees applied for a scholarship through the District 1199 Training and Upgrading Fund (the "Fund") but received no response to his application. On April 9, 1980, Stark sent Idrees a letter denying his request on the grounds that "the duration and purpose [of the requested leave] was determined to be unreasonable under the policy of the Medical Center and in view of the operational needs of your department." Idrees alleges that no such policy existed and that several non-Muslim employees were given educational leaves of absence for longer than sixteen months.*fn3

  On April 14, 1980, Stark called Idrees to his office and presented him with a pre-written agreement. Under this agreement, Idrees would withdraw his request for a leave of absence and resign his position at BIMC as of May 9, 1980. In exchange, the agreement provided that "for purposes of the District 1199 Training and Upgrading Fund only" BIMC would consider Idrees's term to end upon completion of his vacation on July 4, 1980; that BIMC would rescind the disciplinary notice relating to Idrees's failure to report for work on July 22, 1979, pay him for the days he was suspended, and charge them to accumulated sick leave; and that BIMC would issue Idrees a "favorable work reference." Idrees states that had he not signed this agreement, Stark would have fired him. Idrees, Stark, and Thomas Winter, a union representative, then signed the agreement.

  On April 15, Idrees told Stark that given AUC's foreign location, he did not want to "take a chance" and risk losing his position. Therefore, Idrees told Stark that his resignation would be effective July 4, 1980. Stark orally agreed. Later that day, Idrees presented Stark with a letter resigning as of July 4 and explaining that because he would be using his vacation time from May 12 through July 4, his last day in the hospital would be May 9. One day later, per their agreement, Stark wrote a recommendation letter on Idrees's behalf that refers to Idrees as a "skilled worker who combined all the qualities necessary to make him an excellent technologist."

  May 9, 1980 was Idrees's final day of work at BIMC, and the next day, he flew to Montserrat to begin his education at AUC. Within a week of his departure, Vorderer completed a final rating form regarding Idrees's tenure at the hospital. While noting that Idrees was "knowledgeable in chemistry" and produced good work, Vorderer stated that she would not rehire Idrees in the pathology department or elsewhere at BIMC "due to [a] regression in total performance" and commented that he was "uncooperative with supervisory staff."

  Idrees found AUC's program unsatisfactory and returned to New York on June 15. The next day, Idrees called Stark's office to ask for his job back. Stark did not come to the phone, and his secretary told Idrees that Stark said that there was no job for him. Idrees then called Jesse Olson, then-Executive Vice President of the District 1199 union, and requested that Olson call Stark on Idrees's behalf. Olson did so, but his efforts to help Idrees regain his job were equally unsuccessful. Olson recommended to Idrees that he write Stark a letter, which Idrees asserts he did on June 17. However, Idrees never regained his employment at BIMC.

  After Idrees failed to win his job back, Pervez Mirza, a friend and co-worker, asked Stritmatter why Vorderer and Stark refused to rehire Idrees. Stritmatter told Mirza that she had posed this same question to Vorderer and that Vorderer had replied that Stark hates Muslims. Stritmatter further reported to Mirza that Vorderer had said that Stark's prejudice against Muslims was the reason Idrees was both denied his requested leave of absence and not rehired. Upon hearing this, Mirza announced to Stritmatter that such treatment was unfair. Stritmatter noted that Mirza himself, and two other Muslims, Ali Zaidi and Abdul Arafat, had each received similar treatment and remarked that "[t]his is how Beth Israel is."

  On August 14, 1980, Idrees filed a complaint with the EEOC alleging that BIMC discriminated against him on the basis of his religion in failing to reinstate him. Idrees also filed a lawsuit against AUC in this District in November 1980 for misrepresentations made to prospective students, and sought damages for lost wages given his inability to return to BIMC. The Court awarded Idrees $3,940 for his transportation, tuition, and related fees, but denied his employment-related claim, writing that there were "independent intervening causes as to why Idrees was denied reinstatement." Specifically, the Court found that BIMC had presented evidence that it did "not consider Idrees to be a satisfactory employee and at one point had instituted a disciplinary proceeding against him." Idrees v. Am. Univ. of the Caribbean, 546 F. Supp. 1342, 1350 (S.D.N.Y. 1982).

  Although Idrees's lawsuit against AUC was concluded by 1982, his EEOC complaint took much longer to resolve. Initially, the EEOC referred it to the New York City Commission on Human Rights ("NYCCHR"), which issued a Determination and Order dismissing Idrees's complaint on April 30, 1982. Idrees appealed the decision on June 1, 1982, and on June 15, 1982, NYCCHR remanded the case for further investigation.

  Idrees asserts that he called the NYCCHR numerous times over the next two decades to inquire about the status of his claim. In addition, he wrote five letters to the NYCCHR requesting resolution of his case, three of which were sent between 1984 and 1988. He wrote his fourth letter in May 1989 after meeting with Craig Gurian, Legal Director of the NYCCHR's Law Enforcement Bureau, to discuss his claim. Idrees had no further written contact with the NYCCHR until June 1993, when he received a letter from the NYCCHR inquiring whether he wanted to continue pursuing his claim. He replied in the affirmative. The fifth and final letter, sent over eight years later in December 2001, was sent by Idrees's attorney, Michael Andrews, and requested information on the status of the investigation.*fn4

  In March 2002, the NYCCHR issued a Determination and Order After Remand dismissing Idrees's complaint and finding that BIMC did not discriminate against Idrees either in denying him a leave of absence or in failing to rehire him. On the basis of testimony from Jesse Olson, the NYCCHR found that the District 1199 Fund did not provide scholarships to those attending foreign, unaccredited medical schools. It further found that BIMC granted educational leaves only to employees whose educational programs were covered by the Fund. Similarly, after hearing testimony from Stark and Olson, evaluating the circumstances surrounding the rehiring of several non-Muslim employees, and assessing disciplinary actions taken against both Muslims and non-Muslim employees, the NYCCHR concluded that BIMC failed to rehire Idrees not because of discrimination but instead because BIMC management, particularly Stark, regarded him as "difficult, disruptive and confrontational."

  The EEOC adopted the NYCCHR's findings and issued Idrees a right to sue letter on October 28, 2002. Idrees then filed this action on January 22, 2003 and amended his complaint on October 28, 2003.*fn5

  Discussion

  Summary judgment may not be granted unless the submissions of the parties taken together "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." Rule 56(c), Fed.R.Civ. P. The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a material factual question, and in making this determination the court must view all facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). When the moving party has asserted facts showing that the non-movant's claims cannot be sustained, the opposing party must "set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial," and cannot rest on the "mere allegations or denials" of the movant's pleadings. Rule 56(e), Fed.R. Civ. P.; accord Burt Rigid Box, Inc. v. Travelers Property Cas. Corp., 302 F.3d 83, 91 (2d Cir. 2002).

  Claims of employment discrimination brought pursuant to Title VII are analyzed under the burden-shifting approach set forth in McDonnell-Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-03 (1973). A plaintiff bears the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination. Williams v. R.H. Donnelly Corp., 368 F.3d 123, 126 (2d Cir. 2004). "To meet this burden, a plaintiff must show: (i) membership in a protected class; (ii) qualifications for the position; (iii) an adverse employment action; and (iv) circumstances surrounding that action giving rise to an inference of discrimination." Collins v. New York City Transit Auth., 305 F.3d 113, 118 (2d Cir. 2002). A plaintiff's burden in presenting prima facie evidence is de minimis. Abdu-Brisson v. Delta Airlines, Inc., 239 F.3d 456, 467 (2d Cir. 2001).

  If the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, he "creates a presumption that the employer unlawfully discriminated, and thus places the burden of production on the employer to proffer a nondiscriminatory reason for its action." James v. New York Racing Ass'n, 233 F.3d 149, 154 (2d Cir. 2000) (citation omitted); Mandell v. County of Suffolk, 316 F.3d 368, 380 (2d Cir. 2003). Once the employer articulates a nondiscriminatory explanation, the burden shifts back to the employee to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the adverse employment decision was discriminatory. Mandell, 316 F.3d at 381. A plaintiff's demonstration that the employer's proffered reason is pretextual may provide evidence of discrimination. Id.

  The plaintiff bears the ultimate burden of persuading the trier of fact that his employer intentionally discriminated against him. James, 233 F.3d at 154; see also Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prod., 530 U.S. 133, 153 (2000). "Thus, once the employer has proffered its nondiscriminatory reason, the employer will be entitled to summary judgment . . . unless the plaintiff can point to evidence that reasonably supports a finding of prohibited discrimination." James, 233 F.3d at 154. Nonetheless,

to defeat summary judgment within the McDonnell Douglas framework . . . the plaintiff is not required to show that the employer's proffered reasons were false or played no role in the employment decision, but only that they were not the only reasons and that the prohibited factor was at least one of the "motivating" factors.
Back v. Hastings on Hudson Union Free Sch. Dist., 365 F.3d 107, 123 (2d Cir. 2004) (citation omitted).

  Conclusory statements and general attacks on the defendant's credibility are insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Opals on Ice Lingerie v. Body Lines, 320 F.3d 362, 370 n. 3 (2d Cir. 2003); Crawford El v. Britton, 523 U.S. 574, 600 (1998). Rather, the plaintiff must identify affirmative evidence upon which a fact-finder could rely in concluding that he carried his burden of proving defendant's illicit motive. See, e.g., Crawford, 523 U.S. at 600.

  1. Denial of Leave of Absence Claim

  Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Idrees, he has met his de minimis burden of establishing a prima facie case. As a Muslim who was denied an educational leave of absence, he satisfies the first three elements. Plaintiff's affidavit, as well as those of Pervez Mirza and Ali Zaidi, suffice to permit an inference of discrimination against Muslims by BIMC.

  BIMC does not contest that Idrees has established a prima facie case regarding his denial of leave of absence claim. Instead, it has advanced a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for denying Idrees's request for leave. First, citing Stark's April 9, 1980 letter, BIMC asserts that the sixteen-month leave requested by Idrees was unreasonable in its duration. More importantly, BIMC states that the Fund only gave scholarships to employees attending accredited American medical schools and that BIMC's policy was to grant study leaves only to employees supported by the Fund. In support of this assertion, BIMC offers documentary evidence of the Fund's policy as well as the NYCCHR's final conclusion that "BIMC does not grant educational leave to employees attending educational programs other than those paid for by the Fund."*fn6

  Although Idrees fails to demonstrate that BIMC did not maintain its stated policy on leave and has not marshaled evidence that educational leaves were granted to employees not supported by the Fund, he has presented two letters from chemistry laboratory staff suggesting that Vorderer exhibited outward prejudice toward Muslims. Idrees also has submitted the affidavits of Pervez Mirza and Ali Zaidi, which detail these affiants' respective conversations with Stritmatter and Vorderer regarding Stark's anti-Muslim bias. Rather than constituting inadmissible double and triple hearsay, as BIMC contends, these conversations contain layers of admissions by BIMC's agents regarding matters within the scope of their duties. See Fed.R. Evid. 801(d)(2)(D), 805; Stern v. Trustees of Columbia Univ., 131 F.3d 305 (2d Cir. 1997). Therefore, Idrees has raised questions of material fact as to whether the denial was motivated by unlawful consideration of his religion.

  2. Failure to Rehire Claim

  Given that Idrees's failure to rehire claim is brought under Title VII, it too must be analyzed under the McDonnell Douglas framework set forth above. Here, as with the prior claim, Idrees has established a prima facie case.

  BIMC argues that as Stark was involved in the decisions both to hire and not rehire Idrees, no inference of discrimination can be drawn against it. See Grady v. Affiliated Cent., Inc., 130 F.3d 553, 560 (2d Cir. 1997). Given the eight-year period between Idrees's hiring and his resignation and the involvement of other BIMC supervisors in the decision not to rehire him, Stark's dual roles in hiring Idrees and refusing to rehire him do not preclude a finding that Idrees has presented prima facie evidence of discrimination.

  BIMC has put forward two legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for its failure to rehire Idrees. First, it argues that Idrees never applied for rehire and presents a 1981 letter from Stark to the NYCCHR, in which Stark states that Idrees "never applied for reinstatement" at BIMC and "did not speak to me on June 16, 1980 or any other date regarding a request for reinstatement." Alternatively, BIMC asserts that even if Idrees did apply for rehire, BIMC would not have rehired him due to his declining performance and attitude. The evidence demonstrates that both in September 1979 and at the time of her final evaluation of Idrees in May 1980, Vorderer felt that Idrees had shown a "regression in total work performance" and had become "uncooperative with supervisory staff."

  Through his affidavit, Olson's affidavit, and his June 17, 1980 letter to Stark, Idrees has presented a genuine issue of material fact as to whether he applied for rehire. Moreover, Idrees again cites the letters from chemistry laboratory staff, coupled with Zaidi and Mirza's affidavits, as evidence of Vorderer and Stark's bias against Muslims. Together, these exhibits could permit a rational factfinder to infer that in refusing to rehire Idrees, BIMC was actually motivated in part or in whole by religious discrimination.

  Conclusion

  For the reasons stated above, the defendant's motion for summary judgment is denied.

  SO ORDERED.


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