United States District Court, E.D. New York
June 17, 2005.
DEBORAH DEBENEDICTIS, Plaintiff,
TORRE, LENTZ, GAMELL, GARY & RITTMASTER, LLP, Defendant.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOHN GLEESON, District Judge
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
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
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.
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.