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Schmidt v. State University of New York at Stonybrook

May 5, 2006

ANDREA SCHMIDT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK AT STONYBROOK AND FREDERICK MILLER, M.D., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Townes, U.S.D.J.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Plaintiff Andrea Schmidt ("Plaintiff" or "Schmidt") brings this action pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII") and New York State Human Rights Law ("NYSHRL") for the discrimination she alleges she suffered at the hands of Dr. Frederick Miller ("Miller" or "Defendant Miller") while the two were employed by defendant State University of New York at Stonybrook ("SUNY" or the "University"). Both Miller and SUNY move for summary judgment dismissing the complaint. Based upon all submissions of the parties, and for the reasons stated below, both Defendants' motions are hereby GRANTED.

I. Facts and Procedural History

Schmidt began working as a temporary employee in Defendant SUNY's Pathology Department in the summer of 1998. (Def. SUNY 56.1 Stat. ¶ 1.) At the time Plaintiff was hired, she was supervised by Barbara Kelly ("Kelly") and performed administrative work in the Pathology Department. (Def. Miller 56.1 Stat. ¶ 2.) In July 1999, Kelly offered Plaintiff a full- time job in the department as an administrative assistant. (Def. SUNY 56.1 Stat. ¶ 5; Def. Miller 56.1 Stat. ¶ 3.) At the time Plaintiff began working at SUNY, Defendant Miller was the Chair of the Pathology Department. (Def. Miller 56.1 Stat. ¶ 4.) Miller resigned from this position at the end of 2000, but still held various posts at the University, including, inter alia, Pathologist-in-Chief, Director of Laboratories, Associate Director of Laboratories, and he held an endowed chair as a Professor of Pathology. (Kritzer Aff. Ex. 1C at 937-8, 941; Def. SUNY 56.1 Stat. ¶ 7.) Miller was a high-ranking, tenured founding member of the faculty who, according to Plaintiff, spoke freely of the power he held.

Plaintiff suffered from anorexia nervosa and, sometime after commencing employment with SUNY (but in either 1998 or 1999), she suffered a relapse of the disorder and was out of work for one month, a period referred to in the pleadings as Plaintiff's "house hospitalization." (Def. Miller 56.1 Stat. ¶¶ 5-6.) Plaintiff's co-workers were aware of Plaintiff's anorexia when she returned from her house hospitalization. (Id. at ¶ 6.) Miller in particular asked Plaintiff about her disorder. (Id. at ¶ 7.) Plaintiff testified that Miller "showed concern and...wanted to know more about the illness." (Schlossberg Aff. Ex. C at 97.) Miller inquired as to how and why Plaintiff fell prey to anorexia, whether she was seeking help, and what she was eating. (Id.) On several occasions, Miller placed cookies and/or vitamins on Plaintiff's desk beside post-it notes reading "eat me." (Id.) However, he stopped doing this after Plaintiff told him it was not working. (Def. Miller 56.1 Stat. ¶ 16.)

Plaintiff initially believed Miller was concerned about her health. (Id. at 113.) She told Miller that she was hospitalized in the past because of her anorexia and almost died. (Def. Miller 56.1 Stat. ¶ 12.) She also gave Miller a copy of a book entitled "The Secret Language of Eating Disorders" to help him understand her illness. (Id. at 114.) Per Miller's request, Plaintiff also provided him with copies of poems she wrote and artwork she created. (Schlossberg Aff. Ex C at 114-118.)

Special Project

Plaintiff testified that, at the end of 2000, after Miller stepped down from the position of Chair of the Pathology Department, he started dedicating more time to her. (Schlossberg Aff. Ex. C at 127.) In May of 2001, Plaintiff began assisting Miller on a special project. (Def. Miller 56.1 Stat. ¶ 25.) According to the "Request for Approval of Extra Service for Research Foundation Employees" (the "Form"), Schlossberg Aff. Ex. G, the project involved scanning slides and incorporating them into JPEG images to be put on a CD and used for teaching purposes. (Def. Miller 56.1 Stat. ¶ 26.) Plaintiff indicated on the Form that her compensation would be $15,000 " fringes," in addition to her regular salary. (Id.) Both Plaintiff and Miller signed the Form, and Kelly appears to have played a role in obtaining approval for the project. (Schlossberg Aff. Ex. G; see also Ex U (Kelly e-mail outlining proposed salary changes).)

Plaintiff testified that a condition to accepting the additional work was that a portion of it would have to be performed at Miller's home. (Kritzer Aff. Ex. 2 at 136; Schlossberg Aff. Ex. C at 134.) Plaintiff told Miller that she would only be comfortable going to his home "if it was on a professional basis," to which he responded that his wife would be present at all times. (Kritzer Aff. Ex. 2at 136-137.) Plaintiff agreed to work at Miller's home, though she testified that she did not believe she had a choice if she wanted the additional work. (Id.) Plaintiff went to Miller's home between five and ten times in furtherance of this project, and was given a laptop computer to facilitate the assignment. (Schlossberg Aff. Ex. C at 134-139.)

In the course of performing the project at Miller's house, Plaintiff alleges she became overwhelmed by the amount of attention Miller gave her and that which he demanded in return. For example, in the summer of 2001, Miller invited Plaintiff to the ballet and she declined. (Kritzer Aff. Ex. 2 at 151.) Thereafter, Miller invited Plaintiff to accompany him and his wife to the Bronx Zoo. (Id.) Plaintiff claims Miller knew that she liked animals and that she would therefore have no excuse to turn down an invitation to the zoo. (Id.) Plaintiff testified that she hesitated but ultimately went with the couple, after being instructed by Miller to keep the excursion a secret from her co-workers. (Schlossberg Aff. Ex. C at 480.)

Plaintiff testified in her deposition that she was reluctant to ever turn Miller down "because when [she] seemed unappreciative, [Miller would initiate] long discussions." (Kritzer Aff. Ex. 2 at 361.) For example, when asked in her deposition why she did not decline the invitation to the Bronx Zoo, Plaintiff answered:

I knew it would hurt his feelings and I knew he would ask me why I felt uncomfortable and I knew that we were going to have a long in-depth conversation about how he felt towards me. I didn't want to get into another one. We had spoken about this too many times....Because when he was upset about something I said, my work would be involved. He would bring up how can I work with somebody if we don't have this understanding, if we don't have a mutual understanding of our relationship? How can I work with someone if they are uncomfortable with me? [...]

[W]hen I used to say [no to] him, he would take me into his office and ask me why I was uncomfortable going to his house, why I was uncomfortable talking about things, why I didn't feel comfortable talking about my modeling,*fn1 why I didn't feel comfortable talking about my dates. There came a point where he would inquire about my sexual activity and even e-mailed me about it. So it was something I did not want to get into with him anymore. (Kritzer Aff. Ex. 2 at 153-5; see also Schlossberg Reply Aff. Ex. C (Arbitration Award) at 2 (finding Miller "devoted inordinate blocks of time to discussing with [Plaintiff] the status of the relationship").)

Plaintiff testified that, during the months in which she worked on the special project with Miller, he overheard her having a phone conversation with a man she recently started seeing romantically. (Kritzer Aff. Ex. 2at 163.) Miller called Plaintiff into his office and asked with whom she had been speaking. (Id. at 164.) Plaintiff responded that it was a friend or acquaintance. Miller became upset and responded, "It doesn't sound like a friend to me." (Id. at 164-5.) Miller is also alleged to have said "I don't see how you can deprive me of the joy of knowing that you're seeing someone knowing that it would make me happy that I knew that you were seeing someone." (Id. at 165.) That weekend, Miller called Plaintiff at home and allegedly said "Do you think I'm stupid?...[W]hy haven't you told me that you were seeing someone?" (Id.)

E-mail Exchanges

The record contains copious e-mails exchanged between Plaintiff and Miller, many extensively discussing the parties' feelings for one another, and reflect a progression in the relationship that on its face appeared consensual until a certain point. (See generally Schlossberg Aff. Ex. H, I, J, N, O, Q.)

For example, on June 18, 2001, Plaintiff wrote an e-mail to Miller declining his offer to have a "kind of relationship similar to that of an adoptive daughter." (Schlossberg Aff. Ex. I.) Plaintiff also states in an e-mail to Miller: "I like being friends with you, but as I stated, you may want a closer relationship and I will not be angry or upset if you choose to be on a professional level with me only. I was not expecting you to become so close." (Id.) On July 21, 31, and at least one other occasion prior to August 11, 2001, Miller wrote to Plaintiff offering her to support her (both financially and emotionally) and either demanded affection in return, see Schlossberg Aff. Ex. Q, or asked Plaintiff what he could expect in return. (See Schlossberg Aff. Ex. N; Pack Decl. Ex. E at 8 ¶ 44 ("In this world nothing is free.").) Plaintiff responded that she would continue to work on the special project, as initially agreed, and repeatedly declined his invitations to be "like an adoptive daughter" to him and his wife. (Id. at Exs. J, N, O.)

Additionally, Plaintiff testified that Miller called her "Sugarplum;" said "That's some slit" regarding one of her skirts; told her (in his home) that he really cared about her while rubbing her knee; put a plant on her desk and told her, "They call it a penis plant. It's looking a little limp;" said that if he were Plaintiff's age he would take her out; offered to pay for the breast implants Plaintiff admitted she wanted; wrote a poem called "On legs" about Plaintiff's legs (including the lines, "If I had yours, they'd be out there. No boots, no gear."); created a "brochure" (including, inter alia, the line, "I can be a lot of fun...Try me and you'll see") and placed it on Plaintiff's desk in an attempt to advertise her availability to suitors; showed her a picture of a celebrity wearing a sheer dress showing her nipples and asked Plaintiff if she would like to wear that dress; said he would like to buy her a black slinky dress; and said that a particular shirt accentuated her bosoms; set a photograph of Plaintiff as the desktop wallpaper on his computer; and used a photograph of Plaintiff in a Power Point presentation in the office without her permission. (Schlossberg Aff. Ex. C at 171, 178, 186, 188, 189, 197, 199, 203, 204; Ex. S (collection of poems); Ex. T; Am. Complaint ¶ 14; Kritzer Aff. Ex. 2 at 30; see generally Schlossberg Aff. Ex. L (e-mail from Miller to Plaintiff offering a "close friendship," "unconditional support," asking Plaintiff to take on role as adoptive daughter to Miller and his wife) and id. at 4 (referring to Plaintiff as "Sugarplum").)*fn2

Plaintiff also alleges that Miller wrote a poem to her containing the following:

This is here and now, something you can touch, a soft and friendly touch, a hand when things are tough...I love you so and that you know, the thing you never see. Oh, woman, feel thyself and join me in my quest to liberate the cherished things inside. Seek a way that opens up the jewels that make you what you are. Too much pleasure lies at risk to think about a loss. I want your wealth within to have a chance to breathe. Where ere you are or ere will be my heart goes out to you.

(Schlossberg Aff. Ex. C at 336-7.)

By July 2001, Plaintiff found the situation with Miller to be "intolerable." (Schlossberg Ex. C at 177.) Plaintiff testified that "[H]e kept telling me that he would try and act appropriately. He kept telling me that he would stop and back off....I even said to him 'Dr. Miller, you're obsessed.' He said, 'I know. I'm trying to get better.'" (Id.)

On July 31, 2001, Plaintiff wrote to Miller, inter alia: "I am sorry that I can't be more of what you want me to be or show the amount of affection that your children do. I sincerely feel strongly towards you and your wife, and cannot thank you enough for everything you've given me (not just monetarily either)." (Schlossberg Aff. Ex. J.) In response, Miller wrote:

This is not easy for me. Sometimes you pretend everything is fine but it isn't-- far from it. My feelings don't change but I am able to modify and control them....I can't be as warm...you saw a very special part of me. I can't extend myself for you, I can't be your advocate or protector, possibly you will change but I really doubt it-- if you do I don't plan to go anywhere. You need only remember that I will have a spot for you indefinitely but you just can't land in it when you want.

(Id.)

On August 6, 2001, Miller presented Plaintiff with a document she refers to as a "Balance Sheet." In it, Miller outlines for Plaintiff's consideration the pros and cons of a "Professional" relationship with him versus a "Caring" relationship. (See Schlossberg Decl. Ex. M.) If Plaintiff selected the "Professional" relationship, Miller promised there would be little stress but that the relationship would be superficial and Miller would have "no incentive...to provide anything that would help [her] outside of the narrow confines of the project." The "Caring," relationship involved, inter alia, "as close to total security" as Miller could provide, "from cell phone to vacation," and required of Plaintiff "willingness to change," "expression of affection: from touch to words," "inquiring about what [Miller and his wife] do," "random (unscheduled) call[s] inquiring as to how [Miller and his wife] are," "taking an extra few minutes when you visit (for work) just to chat about anything," and "poems, pictures, drawings." Id. ...


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