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Velez v. Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp.

July 31, 2007

AMY VELEZ, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
NOVARTIS PHARMACEUTICALS CORPORATION, NOVARTIS CORPORATION, AND THOMAS EBELING, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gerard E. Lynch, District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

Female employees of Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation ("NPC") bring this gender discrimination suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. ("Title VII"). Defendant Novartis Corporation ("Corporation"), the corporate parent of NPC, moves for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiffs have failed to show that Corporation is subject to liability for its subsidiary's actions. Plaintiffs also move for class certification pursuant to Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Both motions will be granted.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs are nineteen women presently or formerly employed by NPC in sales-related positions.*fn1 They claim that NPC discriminates against them in various ways, including in compensation, promotion and promotional opportunities, personnel evaluations, and by adverse treatment of women who take pregnancy leave. They seek injunctive relief, back pay and front pay, and compensatory and punitive damages.

NPC is a pharmaceutical company with about 6,000 employees, headquartered in East Hanover, New Jersey, with operations in all 50 states. The corporation's organizational structure divides the country into "territories," each of which has one or more sales representatives responsible for marketing NPC's products to local doctors. NPC also has "national field forces" of employees focusing on areas such as "mass markets," institutional markets, and specialty physicians. NPC is wholly owned by defendant Corporation, a holding company with three employees, through another company, Novartis Financial. As discussed below, the parties dispute the extent and nature of the relationship between Corporation and NPC.

Defendant Thomas Ebeling is Chief Executive Officer ("CEO") of Novartis Pharma AG, which owns both Corporation and NPC. He is also a boardmember of NPC, and alleged to have been actively involved with the management of NPC. (Compl. ¶ 44.)

After extensive discovery, plaintiffs move for certification of a class consisting of [a]ll women who are currently holding, or have held, a sales-related job position with [NPC] during the time period July 15, 2002 through the present, including those who have held positions as Sales Representatives, Sales Consultants, Senior Sales Consultants, Executive Sales Consultants, Sales Associates, Sales Specialists, Senior Sales Specialists, and District Managers I.

(P. Class Cert. Mem. 1.) In support of the motion for class certification, plaintiffs offer evidence that includes the declarations of 87 women who are or were employees of NPC, as well as two expert reports.

Defendants oppose the request for class certification, primarily on the grounds that plaintiffs' statistical and anecdotal evidence fails to show the existence of common questions of fact and law. Defendant Corporation moves for summary judgment on the grounds that plaintiffs have failed to show it that its operations are sufficiently integrated with NPC's operations to give rise to liability for any acts of discrimination.

DISCUSSION

I. Novartis Corporation's Motion for Summary Judgment

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is warranted where "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). The moving party has the burden to establish the absence of any material factual issues. Terry v. Ashcroft, 336 F.3d 128, 137 (2d Cir. 2003), citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). "In determining whether there are genuine issues of material fact," the Court must "resolve all ambiguities and draw all permissible factual inferences" in favor of the non-moving party. Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

B. Standards for Parent Company Liability Under Title VII

A parent company can be held liable for its subsidiary's violations of Title VII under the "single or joint employer" test developed by the National Labor Relations Board and adopted by the Second Circuit in the Title VII context. Gulino v. N.Y.S. Educ. Dep't, 460 F.3d 361, 378 (2d Cir. 2006). Under this test,

[A] parent and subsidiary cannot be found to represent a single, integrated enterprise in the absence of evidence of (1) interrelation of operations, (2) centralized control of labor relations, (3) common management, and (4) common ownership or financial control.

Cook v. Arrowsmith Shelburne, Inc., 69 F.3d 1235, 1240 (2d Cir. 1995).

The four-factor test may be satisfied "by a showing that there is an amount of participation that is sufficient and necessary to the total employment process, even absent total control or ultimate authority over hiring decisions." Id. at 1241 (internal citations, alterations and quotation marks omitted). "We focus our inquiry . . . on the second factor, centralized control of labor relations," id. at 1241, a "crucial element of the inquiry." Parker v. Columbia Pictures Indus., 204 F.3d 326, 341 (2d Cir. 2000) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Because centralized control of labor relations is the focus of the analysis, it will be discussed first.

C. Centralized Control of Labor Relations

The most important element in the four-factor test is "whether the two enterprises exhibit centralized control of labor relations, including tasks such as handling job applications, approving personnel status reports, and exercising veto power over major employment decisions." Parker, 204 F.3d at 341. "This particular criterion has been distilled to a critical question: what entity made the final decision regarding employment matters related to the person claiming discrimination?" Regan v. In the Heat of the Nite, Inc., 93 Civ. 862, 1995 WL 413249, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Jul. 12, 1995).

Corporation relies heavily on this Court's decision in Salemi v. Boccador, Inc, No. 02 Civ. 6648, 2004 WL 943869 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 29, 2004). In that case, the Court held that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether a corporation and its parent company should be treated as an integrated employer for Title VII purposes, even though the level of control exercised by the parent company was "less than that described in many of the cases that have allowed integration under Title VII." Id. at *5. Acknowledging that centralized control of labor relations was the "key factor" in the inquiry, id. at *4, the Court analyzed that factor in terms of the specific allegations in the case, which concerned the conditions of the plaintiff's employment, not failure to promote or wrongful termination. Id. at *5. The Court held that the relevant employment decisions for purposes of integrating [the two companies] are not simply the hiring or firing of plaintiff, but rather are those decisions that construct the conditions of employment for employees at the plaintiff's level, including not only the hiring and firing of employees at [her] level, but also the hiring and firing of the manager [of the subsidiary company] and the setting of overall policies for employee conduct and discipline.

Id. In this case, the relevant employment decisions for the most part also concern conditions of employment. Plaintiffs' allegations include discriminatory promotion, disparate pay, differential treatment, hostile work environment, discrimination against women who take pregnancy leave, sexual harassment, and retaliation. (Compl. ¶ 3.)

Nothing about the allegations concerning Corporation, however, suggests that it has any control over the personnel policies of NPC, much less the conditions of employment experienced by NPC employees. Unlike the situation in Salemi, where the officer who served as president of both corporations "controlled many of [the subsidiary's] employment policies, even those as quotidian as dress code," and "exercised this authority on behalf of [the parent corporation]," 2004 WL 943869 at *6, plaintiffs have pointed to no evidence that any Corporation officer has any control whatsoever over the conditions of employment at NPC. Uncontradicted testimony in the record indicates that Corporation never tells NPC's HR personnel what policies to adopt or how to respond to an employee complaint, and never communicates with them to discuss the hiring or firing of NPC's employees. (Reply Ex. 2 at 299.)

Plaintiffs contend that there is a "blending" of human resources functions between Corporation and NPC. They note that James Robinson, Vice President of Corporation's HR department, is also Vice President of HR for two related companies, Novartis Services and Novartis Financial, and contend that Ronbinson "has also been responsible for the HR aspect of [NPC's] acquisitions of sales personnel." To support this claim, they note that on one occasion when Corporation planned to acquire certain operations from another company and merge those operations into NPC, Robinson performed due diligence on the personnel who would be transferred in support of those operations. (P. Ex. E.1 at 52-53, 55-56.) No reasonable factfinder could find, however, that this due diligence was evidence of centralized control of labor relations.

In connection with the acquisition, Robinson wrote a report on the "HR piece of the due diligence," but did not share it with anyone at NPC's HR department. (Id. at 56, 60.) Although this service may have in some indirect sense involved personnel management at NPC (in that that was the subject of the report), nothing suggests that Robinson exercised any control over labor relations at NPC. The writing of the report was not a joint HR function, but a financial analysis of the prospects of a proposed acquisition by the holding company. Thus, Robinson's analysis of the proposed deal is not evidence that Corporation exercised any control over the conditions of employment at NPC.

Other evidence submitted by plaintiffs is even weaker. Plaintiffs note that Corporation and NPC have submitted joint applications for Fortune Magazine's "Best Places to Work" survey. Plaintiffs acknowledge, however, the rules of the contest required that corporations apply together with all affiliates, rather than individually.*fn2 (P. Mem.*fn3 11-12.) The only inference that can be drawn from the joint submission, therefore, is that the various Novartis entities wished to be known as good places to work. The law of corporate liability is not governed by the rules of a magazine contest.

Plaintiffs also rely on the Novartis companies' use of Lisa DiPaolo, an NPC administrative employee. DiPaolo works for NPC and does separate work for Corporation, for which Corporation reimburses NPC. (Reply Ex. 4 at 135.) Plaintiffs do not contend that DiPaolo's services for Robinson at Corporation pertain in any way to NPC's personnel policies or practices. The fact that the NPC employee is paid for HR work at Corporation, and the fact that the employee's work at Corporation is limited to Corporation's HR needs, is evidence of separation of HR functions between the two corporations. Moreover, the fact that a single NPC employee is used by Corporation says nothing about whether Corporation controls conditions of employment at NPC.

Plaintiffs also note that Corporation's Head of HR participates in HR-related meetings at NPC. The evidence suggests that Corporation sometimes adopts policies formulated by NPC.

(D. Ex. E.3 at 229-34.) It is not surprising that Corporation, which has three employees, would use policies adopted by NPC, a much larger affiliated corporation, as a model. But nothing in the record indicates that it is in any way obligated to do so, or that Corporation has the ability to dictate the terms of any policies to NPC.

Finally, plaintiffs also argue that the two corporations share employee benefit plans. However, "the fact that the companies maintained the same benefits does not suggest centralized control of labor relations." Balut v. Loral Elec. Sys., 988 F. Supp. 339, 347 (S.D.N.Y. 1997). Rather, a "common benefits package speaks only to economies of scale . . . and not to centralized control of labor relations." Kellett v. Glaxo Enter., 91 Civ. 6237, 1994 WL 669975, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 30, 1994).

Plaintiffs have failed, in short, to offer any meaningful evidence of centralized control of labor relations. There is no evidence that Corporation and NPC "appear to make joint hiring and firing decisions." Lihli Fashions Corp. v. N.L.R.B., 80 F.3d 743, 747 (2d Cir. 1996). Nor is there evidence from which a reasonable factfinder could conclude that Corporation exerted control over the conditions of employment at NPC. As in a similar case,

[i]t is uncontroverted that [the two companies] have separate human resources departments, and that [the subsidiary] establishes its own policies and makes its own decisions as to the hiring, discipline, and termination of its employees. It is likewise undisputed that plaintiffs worked for [the subsidiary] and that each was supervised by another [subsidiary] employee. It follows from these undisputed facts that [the subsidiary], and not [the parent], made the 'final decisions' regarding plaintiffs' employment that are at issue here.

Duffy v. Drake Beam Morin, No. 96 Civ. 5606, 1998 WL 252063, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. May 19,1998). Therefore, there is no genuine issue of material fact as to this critical prong of the inquiry.

D. Interrelation of Operations

When considering the "interrelation of operations" prong of the integration analysis, courts in this district have considered factors including:

(1) whether the parent was involved directly in the subsidiary's daily decisions relating to production, distribution, marketing, and advertising; (2) whether the two entities shared employees, services, records, and equipment; (3) whether the entities commingled bank accounts, accounts receivable, inventories, and credit lines; (4) whether the parent maintained the subsidiary's books; (5) whether the parent issued the subsidiary's paychecks; and (6) whether the parent prepared and filed the subsidiary's tax returns.

Herman v. Blockbuster Entm't Group, 18 F. Supp. 2d 304, 309 (S.D.N.Y. 1998), aff'd 182 F.3d 899 (2d Cir. 1999). Plaintiffs offer no evidence pertaining to the first, third, or fifth of these factors.

The evidence on which plaintiffs rely to show interrelation of operations is weak. There is no evidence that Corporation "establish[es] the operating practices and management practices" at NPC. Cook, 69 F.3d at 1241. Rather, plaintiffs' evidence primarily establishes that Corporation, which is very small, shares some services with and purchases others from NPC for reasons of efficiency.

Corporation and NPC share office space in Florham Park, New Jersey. A reasonable factfinder could conclude, based on testimony introduced by plaintiffs (P. Ex. C), that the office space is not clearly marked as separate, although there is contradictory evidence in the record.

(D. Ex. 6.) Similarly, plaintiffs note that Corporation and NPC employees have access to the same phone directory and intranet services (P. Mem. 16), and that NPC provides IT services to Corporation. (P. Mem. 17.) Although these facts, if true, would indicate that Corporation and NPC are closely-affiliated companies, they do not indicate any interrelationship that is relevant to control over conditions of employment at NPC.

A lengthy list of other asserted connections offered by plaintiffs includes little of relevance. Plaintiffs contend that Corporation pays NPC to store its records at NPC's warehouse, but offer no evidence that this was anything other than an arm's-length transaction. Plaintiffs' claim that all of the relevant Novartis companies use Pricewaterhousecoopers as external auditors is even less compelling. Any number of companies use that auditor's services without being affiliated in any way. Plaintiffs' contention that Novartis Services decides which NPC drugs need patent protection (P. Mem. 17) is irrelevant to whether Corporation exercises any control over NPC's personnel functions. Plaintiffs also claim that Corporation's deputy general counsel keeps custody of NPC's minute books. (P. Mem. 17.) This fact establishes that the parent company is keeping track of the operations of its subsidiary, but not that it exercises any control over NPC's operations. See Balut, 988 F. Supp. at 345-346 ("The fact that [the parent] Loral reviewed [the subsidiary's] operations biannually, however, does not demonstrate an interrelationship, because a parent typically reviews a subsidiary's progress on a periodic basis"). Plaintiffs note that Corporation provides some capital financing to NPC, but this is typical of a relationship between parents and subsidiaries. Nor does the allegation that Corporation has the power to approve or disapprove NPC's budget suggest an interrelationship of operations; rather, this is a normal corollary of ownership.

Plaintiffs also rely on what they call a "lack of arm's-length dealings" between the two corporations. (P. Mem. 9.) They note that Corporation does not have a written lease for the office space it rents from NPC, although the annual rent is over one million dollars. This is evidence of a close relationship, but it has nothing to do with labor relations. Nor does the informality of the arrangement raise a question about whether it was agreed to at arm's length.

Plaintiffs claim that Corporation decides how much Novartis Services will bill NPC for audit, legal, and intellectual property-related services it performs for NPC (P. Mem. 9), but this allegation concerns the relationship between Corporation and Novartis Services, not Corporation and NPC. Similarly, plaintiffs' claim that loans from Novartis Financial to NPC are approved by NPC's board without any effort to get a better deal from non-Novartis companies. (P. Mem. 10.)

Even if true, this allegation concerns the relationship between NPC and Novartis Financial, not NPC and Corporation.

Finally, plaintiffs note that employees of the various Novartis companies are told to think of the corporations as "one big family" (P. Mem. 18), and that NPC files its tax return through Corporation, Novartis Financial, and Novartis Services. Corporation files the consolidated tax return. (P. Mem. 17.) While these allegations do indicate some degree of interrelationship of operations, they do not suggest the degree of entanglement generally found to satisfy this prong of the analysis, even in combination with the other allegations discussed above. Cf. Regan, 1995 WL 413249, at *3 (finding interrelationship of operations where employees rotated informally between the relevant companies, and where employee records, payroll records, and bank deposits of each company were kept together); Parker, 204 F.3d at 341 (relying on pay stubs that listed an employee's employer as paid "on behalf of" the parent "through" the subsidiary); Linskey v. Heidelberg Eastern, Inc., 470 F. Supp. 1181, 1184 (E.D.N.Y. 1979) (noting that the subsidiary could request employees from the parent, and the parent had the "absolute privilege" of appointing employees to the subsidiary, including its president). If such routine connections ...


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