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United States District Court, E.D. New York

June 17, 2005.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOHN GLEESON, District Judge


Plaintiff Deborah Debenedictis brings this action pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq., and New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. Law §§ 296 et seq., alleging discrimination based on sex and retaliation. Defendant Torre, Lentz, Gamell, Gary & Rittmaster, LLP ("Torre Lentz" or "the firm") moves to dismiss the complaint on the ground that Debenedictis has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the reasons set forth below, the motion to dismiss is denied. BACKGROUND

  The following facts are relevant for the purposes of this motion. In deciding this motion, I assume that all of the below allegations, which are made in the complaint, are true. See Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence and Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 164 (1993); Bolt Elec., Inc. v. City of New York, 53 F.3d 465, 469 (2d Cir. 1995).

  Deborah Debenedictis began working at Torre Lentz as a legal secretary in July of 2002. In September of 2003, the firm hired Danielle Colonna as an Associate Attorney. Around July 19, 2004, Colonna described details of her sexual encounters with her boyfriend to Debenedictis. She also told Debenedictis that she was not feeling well because of a urinary tract infection, making Debenedictis uncomfortable.

  On July 30, 2004, Colonna asked Debenedictis to report to her in order to discuss their working relationship. Specifically, Colonna communicated that there was hostility between them that she wanted to address. Debenedictis did not report to Colonna's office because she feared that Colonna would discuss her personal sexual experiences again. A few days later, Debenedictis complained to the office manager, Carol Foley, that she had a conflict with Colonna, although she was too embarrassed and humiliated to report the details to the manager. Foley asked Debenedictis to speak directly with Colonna.

  The next day, on August 3, 2004, while Debenedictis was telling a co-worker what Colonna had said to her, another co-worker, Rahanee Stanford, overheard the conversation. Stanford relayed what she had heard to Foley. On August 4, 2004, Debenedictis was asked to meet with Foley and two partners at the firm, Kevin Gary and Mark Gamell, to discuss why Debenedictis had not spoken directly with Colonna after Foley had directed her to do so. Debenedictis communicated that Colonna frequently called her "Hon" and that Colonna told her about her "sexual escapades" with her boyfriend. (Compl. ¶ 25.) Gamell demanded that Debenedictis share the details of Colonna's comments and Debenedictis refused because she was embarrassed. Gamell began to yell at Debenedictis, telling her that he needed to make an example of "gossip mongers" and insisting that Debenedictis tell him "exactly what [Colonna] said." (Id. at ¶ 26.) Debenedictis refused. The next day Gamell terminated her, telling her that she was insubordinate for refusing to answer his questions.

  Debenedictis filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and she subsequently received a right to sue letter dated December 2, 2004. She filed the instant complaint alleging discrimination and retaliation under federal and state law on January 20, 2005.


  A. The Standard for a Motion to Dismiss Under Rule 12(b)(6)

  Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) may be granted only if "the plaintiff can prove no set of facts that would entitle her to relief on her claims." Velez v. Levy, 401 F.3d 75, 84 (2d Cir. 2005); see also Scutti Enters., LLC v. Park Place Entertainment Corp., 322 F.3d 211, 214 (2d Cir. 2003). A federal court's task in determining the sufficiency of a complaint is "necessarily a limited one." Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974). The appropriate inquiry is "not whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail but whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claims." Id.; see also Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 514 (2002) ("A court may dismiss a complaint only if it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations."). "Liberal pleading rules apply with particular stringency to complaints of civil rights violations." Phillip v. University of Rochester, 316 F.3d 291, 293-94 (2d Cir. 2003) (citing Vital v. Interfaith Med. Ctr., 168 F.3d 615, 619 (2d Cir. 1999)). Specifically the Supreme Court has held that a plaintiff need not plead a prima facie case of discrimination to survive a motion to dismiss. Swierkiewicz, 534 U.S. at 511. There is no requirement of particularity in the pleading of employment discrimination cases; the complaint "must satisfy only the simple requirements of Rule 8(a)." Id. at 513; see also Wynder v. McMahon, 360 F.3d 73, 77 (2d Cir. 2004). In fact, "[i]f a pleading fails to specify the allegations in a manner that provides sufficient notice, a defendant can move for a more definite statement under Rule 12(e) before responding. Moreover, claims lacking merit may be dealt with through summary judgment under Rule 56." Swierkiewicz, 534 U.S. at 514.

  B. Debenedictis's Claims

  Torre Lentz argues that I should dismiss Debenedictis's hostile work environment claims because her allegations are insufficient to state a claim. It also argues that I should dismiss her retaliation claims because insubordination, and not discriminatory animus, was the basis of her termination. Both arguments are without merit.

  1. The Hostile Work Environment Claim

  "In order to prevail on a hostile work environment claim under Title VII, a plaintiff must show that the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment." Terry v. Ashcroft, 336 F.3d 128, 147 (2d Cir. 2003) (quotation marks omitted).*fn1 The plaintiff must also show a specific basis for imputing the conduct creating the hostile work environment to the employer. Feingold v. New York, 366 F.3d 138, 150 (2d Cir. 2004). The analysis is both subjective and objective. The conduct in question must be "severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment, and the victim must also subjectively perceive that environment to be abusive." Id. Other factors to consider include "the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance." Terry, 336 F.3d at 148 (quotation marks omitted). The Second Circuit has noted, however, that "while the standard for establishing a hostile work environment is high,. . . . [t]he environment need not be `unendurable' or `intolerable.'" Id. (quoting Whidbee v. Garzarelli Food Specialties, Inc., 223 F.3d 62, 70 (2d Cir. 2000)). Moreover, while a hostile work environment generally consists of "continuous and concerted" conduct, "a single act can create a hostile work environment if it in fact works a transformation of the plaintiff's workplace." Feingold, 366 F.3d at 150 (quotation marks omitted).

  Under the legal standard established by Rule 12(b), I cannot dismiss Debenedictis's hostile work environment claims. Her pleadings allege incidents of a sexual nature that Debenedictis claims were "humiliating," and she argues that those incidents interfered with the performance of her work. She did not report to Colonna when asked by both Colonna and Foley because of her discomfort with Colonna. She alleges that this discomfort resulted from Colonna's comments. In deciding a motion to dismiss, I cannot judge the merits of Debenedictis's claims, i.e., whether she will ultimately prevail. Swierkiewicz, 534 U.S. at 514. Because I find that her pleadings are sufficient to state a claim of hostile work environment, defendant's motion to dismiss the claims is denied.

  2. Retaliation

  Torre Lentz argues that Debenedictis's retaliation claims should be dismissed because she was terminated due to her insubordination. Again, defendant misapprehends the purpose of a motion to dismiss.

  On a claim of retaliation, a plaintiff must show: (1) that she engaged in activity protected by Title VII; (2) that she was the subject of an adverse employment action; and (3) that there exists a causal link between her protected activity and the adverse action of her employer. Terry, 336 F.3d at 142-143. As noted above, a plaintiff need not establish a prima facie case to survive a motion to dismiss. "Before discovery has unearthed relevant facts and evidence, it may be difficult to define the precise formulation of the required prima facie case in a particular case. Given that the prima facie case operates as a flexible evidentiary standard, it should not be transposed into a rigid pleading standard for discrimination cases." Swierkiewicz, 534 U.S. 506, 512.

  Debenedictis has clearly alleged sufficient facts to infer a causal link. Plaintiff alleges that she was called into several meetings — with Colonna, with the office manager, and with two partners — regarding Colonna's comments, which she felt were embarrassing and humiliating. She alleges that she was yelled at and subsequently terminated after explaining that she was having difficulty working with Colonna because of those comments. (See Compl. ¶¶ 25-26.) These allegations are obviously sufficient to state a claim at the pleading stage. Torre Lentz contends that, according to Debenedictis herself, she was fired for insubordination. That is not true. According to Debenedictis, she was fired as retaliation for her complaint of sexual harassment. At bottom, defendant seeks to have its factual dispute with Debenedictis resolved on a motion to dismiss. That is not appropriate, and thus the motion to dismiss the retaliation claims is denied.


  For the foregoing reasons, Torre Lentz's motion to dismiss is denied in its entirety.

  So Ordered.

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