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VOSATKA v. COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

August 24, 2005.

ROBERT J. VOSATKA, PH.D., M.D., Plaintiff,
v.
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: LORETTA PRESKA, District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Robert Vosatka, Ph.D., M.D. ("Vosatka"), commenced this action on April 2, 2004, by filing a complaint against Columbia University ("Columbia") alleging employment discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") and various related state law claims (the "Complaint"). Columbia now moves for summary judgment on all claims. For the reasons set forth below, Columbia's motion is granted.

BACKGROUND

  I. Vosatka's Employment at Columbia University

  Vosatka was appointed as an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Columbia University in 1997. Def. 56.1 ¶ 2.*fn1 By virtue of that appointment, Vosatka was a candidate for a tenured position. Def. 56.1 ¶ 1, 2. Faculty holding tenure-track positions are generally limited to a maximum of eight years of full-time service unless they are granted tenure. Polin Decl.,*fn2 Ex. A at 44.*fn3 An eight-year term is not guaranteed, however, and "any full-time appointment may be terminated at the end of its stated term, even if eight years of service have not been completed, as long as the officer is given adequate written notice." Polin Decl., Ex. A at 44. The Faculty Handbook requires a "Notice of Non-Renewal" to be given at least twelve months before the end of an appointment after two or more years of full-time service. Polin Decl., Ex. G at 189.*fn4 Non-tenured faculty members may continue after eight years if they are approved for clinical or practice appointments. Polin Decl., Ex. A at 44. Clinical appointments must be confirmed in writing and require the approval of various University officials. Polin Decl., Ex. G at 188.

  As an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Vosatka worked as a research scientist and performed clinical duties. Pl. Aff. ¶ 24.*fn5 While Vosatka claims that Dr. Richard Polin*fn6 orally assured him that he would be considered for a clinical appointment if he were not granted tenure, Pl. Aff. ¶ 31,*fn7 Vosatka never received such assurances in writing, Vos. Tr. A at 64.*fn8

  II. Vosatka's Injuries

  In November 1999, Vosatka ruptured his Achilles tendon. Pl. Aff. ¶ 4. In March 2001, Vosatka suffered from a related infection and experienced complications that resulted in more than seventeen surgeries. Vos. Tr. A at 105, 119. Vosatka was granted a fully-paid medical leave from March 2001 until May 2002. Def. 56.1 ¶ 24. Although Vosatka is capable of walking "completely alone without any unassisting [sic] devices except for some support stockings," Vos. Tr. A at 113, Vosatka alleges that he cannot walk "too far" and tends to sit with his foot raised, Vos. Tr. A at 107, 115. In spite of his injury, Vosatka attempts to exercise occasionally and tries to help repair around the house. Vos. Tr. A at 115-16.

  Before his medical leave, Vosatka received a fourth-year review, in which it was determined that he was an unlikely candidate for tenure. Polin Decl., Ex. B.*fn9 The reviewers cited Vosatka's low productivity, which they recognized was partially due to a laboratory fire and a medical problem, and his low national visibility in the research community as reasons for their decision. Polin Decl., Ex. B.

  While Vosatka was on leave, Columbia assisted him in acquiring a disability supplement to enable him to continue his research. Def. 56.1 ¶ 26. Approximately $2,000 of the supplement funded equipment to assist Vosatka in his work duties. Vos. Tr. A at 121.*fn10 Technicians were also assigned to help Vosatka with his work because he "could no longer stand for long hours at the bench." Vos. Tr. B at 316.*fn11 Additionally, Vosatka requested an office adjacent to the laboratory to avoid walking and taking the stairs, and his office was subsequently moved to a location within the laboratory space. Vos. Tr. A at 142-44.

  In 2002, upon his return to work, Vosatka informed Dr. Polin that he had difficulty doing clinical work because of his injury and requested that he not be assigned to that department. Vos. Tr. B at 320. Vosatka was subsequently removed from most or all of his clinical responsibilities after August or September 2002. Def. 56.1 ¶ 29. Thereafter, Vosatka never communicated an interest in returning to his clinical responsibilities or any ability to do so. See Vos. Tr. B at 321. III. The NIH Training Grant

  While Vosatka was on medical leave, he was assigned to assist Dr. Polin and Dr. Raymond Stark*fn12 in drafting an NIH Training Grant proposal. Def. 56.1 ¶ 34. The proposal was not submitted in 2002 as planned, so Vosatka continued to work on it to meet the 2003 deadline. Vos. Tr. B at 372, 375. In order for a grant proposal to be submitted, the grant must be approved by various University officials. Vos. Tr. B at 378. Vosatka informed Dr. Polin that he believed a provision in the NIH Training Grant would violate a provision in the New York Health Law because the grant could require postgraduate fellows working under the grant to work more hours than were permitted under the New York State law. Pl. Aff. ¶ 32; Vos. Tr. B at 379. Vosatka asserts that Dr. Polin planned to instruct the fellows only to record their clinical hours but not their research hours in order to avoid detection. Pl. Aff. ¶ 33. In or about January or February 2003, Vosatka refused to work on the grant application further because he believed that it would violate New York regulations. Vos. Tr. B at 376; Pl. Aff. ¶ 34. No fellows have worked in connection with the NIH Training Grant at Columbia because it has neither been submitted nor funded to date. Polin Decl. ¶ 19. IV. Vosatka's Conduct Toward Women*fn13

  Vosatka shared his laboratory space with other researchers, fellows, and technicians. Vos. Tr. A at 189-93. In 2003, several of Vosatka's female subordinates and colleagues complained about his behavior in the lab. Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 43, 52-53. In one incident, Vosatka "had a couple of beers with friends" at a conference in California and sent an e-mail at 4:21 a.m. to Ms. Taylor, a female postdoctoral fellow who was a subordinate of his in the lab. Vos. Tr. A at 192-93, 201-202. The subject of the e-mail was "is thi [sic] you?," and, in the text, Vosatka included two links to sexually explicit websites and asked "or is this you?" Garland Decl.,*fn14 Ex. A.*fn15 Vosatka had "Googled" Ms. Taylor's name in an effort to find her e-mail address and was directed to several explicit websites of other women with the same name who appeared to be selling sexual services. Vos. Tr. A at 200-203; Garland Decl., Ex. A. Although Vosatka knew that the women in those websites were not the same Ms. Taylor as the one with whom he worked, Vosatka thought it was amusing to send Ms. Taylor the links. Vos. Tr. A at 205. Dr. Marianne Garland, the senior female faculty member in the lab, received complaints from several female employees of the lab who had seen the e-mail and found it offensive. Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 51-52; Garland Decl. ¶ 4. Additionally, the females in the lab complained to Dr. Garland that Vosatka made a number of sexual comments and offensive jokes that made them uncomfortable. Garland Decl. ¶ 5. They told Dr. Garland that Plaintiff treated his female subordinates poorly and did not interact with them in a respectful manner. For example, Vosatka once told the younger female employees that he lost ten pounds by circumcision. Garland Decl. ¶ 5.

  Dr. Garland and Dr. Michael Myers*fn16 arranged a meeting between Vosatka and the female lab employees to resolve their problems. Garland Decl. ¶ 7. The women thereafter reported to Dr. Garland that they were further offended by Vosatka's comments during the meeting that "women's menstrual cycles become synchronized when they work together." Def. 56.1 ¶ 58; Vos. Tr. A at 223-24. Vosatka also mentioned during the meeting that perhaps the women were complaining because they were "all simultaneously having Pre-Menstrual Syndrome." Def. 56.1 ¶ 59. Perhaps not surprisingly, Dr. Myers and the female employees did not feel that the meeting was successful, Vos. Tr. B at 246-47, so they notified Dr. Polin of the problems between Vosatka and the female employees in the lab, Garland Decl. ¶ 10. Dr. Polin asked Vosatka to stay at home while the Dean of Academic Affairs investigated the complaints. Pl. Aff. ¶ 12. After the Dean determined that Vosatka had not violated any University rules, Pl. Aff. ¶ 16, Dr. Polin arranged a meeting among Vosatka, Dr. Garland, and the University Ombudsperson to mediate a resolution that would permit Vosatka to return to work in the lab, Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 64-65. During that meeting, Vosatka accused Dr. Stark of committing physical assault against Dr. Garland, which Dr. Garland denied. Vos. Tr. B at 272; Garland Decl. ¶ 15. He also claimed that Dr. Stark "told both [Vosatka and Dr. Garland] that he had taken morphine from the laboratory" and "used it to inject his neighbor who was dying. . . . He did mention that it was the dose that, in his experience in doing this, would be sufficient to terminate his life." Vos. Tr. B at 272, 273-75, 277. Dr. Garland denied hearing this information, and Vosatka offered no evidence to support his allegations. Vos. Tr. B at 281.

  V. Psychiatric Evaluation

  After Dr. Polin was informed of Vosatka's "erratic behavior" and "bizarre allegations" during his meeting with the Ombudsperson, Dr. Polin put Vosatka on medical leave and required Vosatka to undergo a psychiatric evaluation to determine his fitness to return to work. Def. 56.1 ¶ 69. The Faculty Handbook allows the University to require an officer of instruction to "undergo a medical examination by a physician . . . in any case in which a question of medical disability arises." Polin Decl., Ex. G at 190. Dr. Owens, a psychiatrist, determined that Vosatka showed indications of personality problems that likely contributed to his conflicts with co-workers. Polin Decl., Ex. J.*fn17 Dr. Owens indicated that Vosatka "lack[s] awareness of the impact of his actions on others" and is "relatively impervious to objective criticism." Polin Decl., Ex. J. Although Dr. Owens concluded that Vosatka was "not impaired by any major mental illness, and he is cognitively and emotionally able to return to work," he suggested that Vosatka not continue to work with the people with whom he had conflicted. Polin Decl., Ex. J. Dr. Rosenfeld, a clinical psychologist, determined that Vosatka has a "tendency to feel unfairly treated [which] is likely to lead to problems in work environments." Polin Decl., Ex. J. Dr. Rosenfeld also believed that Vosatka's personality traits were likely to "significantly hinder his interpersonal functioning both at work and in social relationships." Polin Decl., ...


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