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Morris v. Ales Group USA

June 28, 2007

DEANNA MORRIS PLAINTIFF,
v.
ALES GROUP USA, INC. AND ERIC DOMEL DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Paul A. Crotty, United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

Plaintiff Deanna Morris ("Morris"), an African-American woman, brings this action for employment discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation against Defendants Ales Group USA ("Ales"), her former employer, and Eric Domel ("Domel"), her former supervisor (collectively "Defendants") claiming violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1981, Title VII of the 1964 and 1991 Civil Rights Acts, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. ("Title VII") and New York State Executive Law § 296 ("NYHRL"). She alleges seven causes of action: (1) unlawful removal from payroll, (2) unlawful failures to hire, (3) unlawful replacement as brand manager, (4) unlawful termination, (5) fraud, (6) sexual harassment, and (7) retaliation.*fn1 Defendants now move for summary judgment on all claims. The motion is granted.

FACTS*fn2

Morris, a licensed cosmetologist, began working for Ales in September 1998 as a Customer Service Manager with salary of $42,000. Ales is a French company that designs, manufactures and sells skincare, haircare, and fragrance products. Later, Morris became the Officer Manager, and her salary was increased to $50,000. Nicole Arbour was Morris's direct supervisor until 1999, when Arbour transferred out and Eric Domel became Morris's supervisor. In 1999, Morris was in charge of marketing the Phytospecific ("Specific") line of hair products. In January 2001, Morris and Ales entered into a consulting agreement ("Agreement"). The parties' allegations concerning the Agreement and its significance vary substantially.

Defendants contend that Morris's position as Brand Manager of the Specific line was terminated in January 2001 due to the lack of success of the Specific brand. Ales offered Morris another position in Training at a reduced salary of $40,000. Morris then worked in Training, but on a part-time basis. Shortly thereafter, in February 2001, the parties entered into the Agreement which engaged Morris, through her company, Deanna's Inc., as a consultant on an "as needed basis" for Ales. On February 21, 2001, the parties signed another agreement providing for Morris's consulting services through March 11, 2001, in exchange for $14,500, and the option to retain Morris's services beyond that time through June 30, 2001, at a rate of $200 per day. The Agreement released Ales from legal liability for employment-related claims, in consideration for Morris's continued salary through February 15, 2001, and medical benefits through April 30, 2001. Subsequently, the parties agreed in writing to extend the consulting services through June 30, 2001. From February 2001 on, Morris was off the payroll at Ales and any work she did was on a consulting basis.

Morris, on the other hand, characterizes the post-February 2001 relationship quite differently. She contends that Domel approached her in January 2001 with the intention of changing her employment status from payroll employee to consultant for financial reasons because, Domel told her, Ales could no longer afford to keep her on payroll. She alleges that she was forced into this new working relationship, and that she signed the February 21, 2001 agreement and prepared and signed subsequent consulting contracts with Ales with the understanding that the change in title was a change in name only, and that she would continue to function as she had as a payroll employee with the same compensation and benefits; Defendants, however, did not follow through with these representations and she was never restored to the payroll.

In April 2003, Morris submitted an invoice to Domel on behalf of Deanna's Inc. for $10,000 in conjunction with a press mention she had secured with The Oprah Winfrey Show. The parties agree that Domel's immediate reaction to the invoice was negative and that he "vehemently" disapproved of the invoice. (Am. Compl. ¶ 22.) Shortly thereafter, in July 2003, Domel notified Morris via email that the working relationship was terminated and that Ales would not pay the $10,000 invoice.

Morris alleges that from the time she was taken off payroll, in February 2001, to the time she was terminated, she expressed interest in numerous payroll (non-consulting) positions at Ales, but was rejected each time. She maintains that Ales refused to hire her for these positions and that Defendants terminated the Agreement because of discriminatory motives and, alternatively, based on her refusal to acquiesce to the sexual harassment by Domel during her tenure at Ales.

Defendants maintain, however, that Morris was initially demoted because her position was eliminated based on the lack of financial success of the Specific brand, and that Ales terminated the Agreement with Morris in 2003 based on their disagreements concerning the $10,000 invoice. Defendants deny that discrimination played any role in the employment decisions concerning Morris and deny all sexual harassment allegations.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On May 25, 2004, Morris filed a charge against Ales with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") for discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin, age, retaliation, and "other" which she identified on the form as her being "too fat." The EEOC issued a dismissal and right-to-sue letter on May 28, 2004 (postmarked June 1, 2004). Morris then filed this action against Ales on October 19, 2004. On April 25, 2005, Judge Preska*fn3 dismissed the ADEA claim with prejudice. On June 30, 2005, Morris filed an amended complaint ("Amended Complaint") adding Domel as a defendant.

Magistrate Judge Katz presided over the pretrial discovery matters, which proved to be contentious. Morris refused to comply with discovery orders, and disregarded warnings of sanctions. As a result, Magistrate Judge Katz imposed sanctions: (1) the November 16, 2005 order precludes Morris from seeking emotional distress damages; and (2) the December 14, 2005 order precludes Morris from seeking economic damages. Morris objected to the rulings and sanctions and appealed to this Court. The Court sustained Magistrate Judge Katz's rulings on March 24, 2006, and again on March 30, 2007.

Defendants filed their motion for summary judgment on October 18, 2006. Morris's response focuses on the same discovery disputes that have characterized this case for the past three years, rather than on factual bases for her claims. The thrust of her opposition is that the motion for summary judgment is premature because her attempts at discovery have been frustrated in light of Magistrate Judge Katz's orders and rulings.*fn4 In light of the Court's prior rulings, Morris's position is not well taken.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

A motion for summary judgment shall be granted "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, 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." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Summary judgment should only be granted if "the nonmoving party 'has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of [her] case with respect to which [she] has the burden of proof.'" Berger v. United States, 87 F.3d 60, 65 (2d Cir. 1996) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). The Court must "resolve all ambiguities and draw all factual inferences in favor of the nonmoving party." McClellan v. Smith, 439 F.3d 137, 144 (2d Cir. 2006) (citation omitted). Summary judgment should not be granted where issues of fact are "genuine," and "a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

Summary judgment is rarely appropriate in employment discrimination cases, where the employer's intent and state of mind are in dispute. Carlton v. Mystic Transp., Inc., 202 F.3d 129, 134 (2d Cir. 2000). While summary judgment is available to defendants in discrimination cases, its use is limited to situations in which there is a complete lack of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position, or the evidence is so overwhelmingly slanted in favor of the defendant "that any contrary finding would constitute clear error." Danzer v. Norden Sys., Inc., 151 F.3d 50, 54 (2d Cir. 1998). Still, a plaintiff "is not entitled to a trial simply because the determinative issue focuses on the defendant's state of mind." Dister v. Cont'l Group, Inc., 859 F.2d 1108, 1114 (2d Cir. 1988). As this Circuit has cautioned: The summary judgment rule would be rendered sterile ... if the mere incantation of intent or state of mind would operate as a talisman to defeat an otherwise valid motion. Indeed, the salutary purposes of summary judgment-avoiding protracted, expensive and harassing trials-apply no less to discrimination cases than to commercial or other areas of litigation.

Meiri v. Dacon, 759 F.2d 989, 998 (2d Cir. 1985).

The Court must grant summary judgment for defendant where plaintiff's evidence is "merely colorable, conclusory, speculative, or not significantly probative." White v. Lenox Hill Hosp., No. 02-CIV-5749, 2004 WL 2337016, at * 1 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 18, 2004) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50). A plaintiff cannot create a disputed issue of fact by offering "conclusory allegations, conjecture, and speculation." Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. v. Jones Chem., Inc., 315 F.3d 171, 175 (2d Cir. 2003) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Instead, to survive summary judgment, plaintiff's facts "must be material and of a substantial nature, not fanciful, frivolous, gauzy, spurious, irrelevant, gossamer inferences, conjectural, speculative, nor merely suspicions." Contemporary Mission, Inc. v. U.S. Postal Serv., 648 F.2d 97, 107 n.14 (2d Cir. 1981) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

The same standards apply when a litigant is pro se; however, such a litigant is afforded wide latitude and her submissions are held "to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972). Thus, the Court must "read the pleadings of a pro se plaintiff liberally and interpret them 'to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest'." McPherson v. Coombe, 174 F.3d 276, 280 (2d Cir. 1999) (quoting Burgos v. Hopkins, 14 F.3d 787, 790 (2d Cir. 1994)).

I. Mootness

As a threshold jurisdictional matter, the Court must decide whether Morris's failure to follow Magistrate Judge Katz's orders and the resulting sanctions precluding her from recovering emotional distress and economic damages have rendered her claims moot. There must be a real "case or controversy" at every step of a federal judicial proceeding. See Agee v. Paramount Commc'ns. Inc., 114 F.3d 395, 398 (2d Cir. 1997). To sustain jurisdiction, "it is not enough that a dispute was very much alive when suit was filed . . . . The parties must continue to have a 'personal stake in the outcome' of the lawsuit." Lewis v. Cont. Bank Corp., 494 U.S. 472, 477-78, (1990) (quoting Los Angeles v. Lyons, 461 U.S. 95, 1010 (1983)). A case becomes moot if "it is impossible for the court to grant any effectual relief whatever to a prevailing party." In re Kurtzman, 194 F.3d 54, 58 (2d Cir. 1999) (internal quotations omitted).

As a result of Morris's repeated discovery violations, Magistrate Judge Katz precluded Morris from seeking emotional distress damages (Nov. 16, 2005 Order) and economic damages (Dec. 13, 2005 Order). On Morris's appeal from those determinations, the Court sustained them on the record after a hearing on March 24, 2006. After further rulings by the Magistrate Judge, Morris took another appeal; the Court ratified its prior determinations of March 24, 2006, and affirmed the Magistrate Judge's subsequent rulings (Mar. 30, 2007 Order).

Morris is proceeding pro se, and therefore is not entitled to attorneys' fees. See Kay v. Ehrler, 499 U.S. 432 (1991). Thus, Morris is foreclosed from any monetary relief in this case. Furthermore, Morris does not seek equitable relief of any kind, including reinstatement. Similarly, it is well settled that "[e]motional involvement in a lawsuit is not enough to meet the case-or-controversy requirement." Aschroft v. Mattis, 431 U.S. 171, 172-73 (1977). In these circumstances, it is impossible for the Court to grant Morris any relief and consequently, there is no case or controversy. Accordingly, the Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction.

Out of an excess of caution, however, the Court proceeds to address numerous other grounds on which ...


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