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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Town of Huntington

February 8, 2008

EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, PLAINTIFF,
v.
TOWN OF HUNTINGTON AND HUNTINGTON YOUTH BUREAU YOUTH RESEARCH INSTITUTE, INC., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hurley, Senior District Judge

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("Plaintiff" or "EEOC") filed the present action against defendants Town of Huntington ("Huntington" or the "Town") and Huntington Youth Bureau Youth Research Institute, Inc. ("Youth Bureau") (collectively, "Defendants"), alleging that Defendants discriminated against Janie Schmidt ("Schmidt") because of her age, and retaliated against her for opposing discriminatory practices, in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (the "ADEA"). Defendants have moved for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("Rule") 56. For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motion is denied.

BACKGROUND

The material facts, drawn from the Complaint and the parties' Local 56.1 Statements, are undisputed unless otherwise noted.

The Youth Bureau provides services to at-risk families and youth within Huntington through special Town-wide projects. Project Sanctuary and Project Excel are two of the programs that are run under the auspices of the Youth Bureau. Schmidt began working at the Youth Bureau in January 1990 as an employment counselor for Project Enterprise, later called Project Excel. On November 1, 1999, she was hired by Project Sanctuary as the Independent Living Skills Counselor. As the Independent Living Skills Counselor, Schmidt was required to seek out and work with youths between the ages of 16-21 and to provide case management, living skills, and crisis management services to them. Jeannette Myers was Schmidt's supervisor when she was initially hired by Project Sanctuary. Ms. Myers left her position with Project Sanctuary in September 2002. Anthony Zenkus ("Zenkus") was hired as Project Director of Project Sanctuary in December 2002 and became Schmidt's new supervisor. Zenkus was 38 years old and Schmidt was 58 years old.

Schmidt and Zenkus first met in 1990 when Schmidt started working at the Youth Bureau. Schmidt worked with Zenkus prior to 1999 when they were both assigned to work out of the Youth Directions and Alternatives office in Greenlawn.

At Project Sanctuary, Zenkus reported to Patsy Hirschhorn ("Hirschhorn"), Youth Project Director, who began overseeing Project Sanctuary in September 2002. Hirschhorn also served as Acting Project Director for Project Sanctuary from September to December 2002, until Zenkus was hired. Hirschhorn reported to Maria Georgiou ("Georgiou"), Executive Director of the Youth Bureau since February 1, 2001.

In addition to Plaintiff, there were two other full-time counselors at Project Sanctuary who reported directly to Zenkus: Lizabeth Graeve ("Graeve") (Runaway Counselor) and Jennifer Grosser ("Grosser") (Family Social Work Counselor). Both Graeve and Grosser were in their twenties.

According to Plaintiff, "Zenkus began a campaign of discrimination against Schmidt . . . almost from the moment he became Sanctuary's Project Director." (Pl.'s Mem. at 1.) Zenkus's animus towards Schmidt began in 1999 when they were both working at Greenlawn Youth Directions and Alternatives. When Zenkus learned that Plaintiff was transferring to the Independent Living Skills Counselor position, Zenkus told a then-colleague, Timothy Sweeney, that Schmidt was too old to work with the Youth Bureau population of 12-21 year olds. According to Mr. Sweeney's affidavit, Zenkus told Mr. Sweeney that Zenkus did not agree with the decision to hire Schmidt as Independent Living Skills Counselor "because she was too old for the clients to relate to and that she would be ineffective as such." (Pl.'s Ex. 8.) Zenkus "added that the position needed a much younger individual to be effective in that role [and] went on to compare [] Schmidt to younger counterparts (all in the age range of 22 to 29) who had previously held that position and communicated that she would fail in comparison due to, what [] Zenkus perceived to be, her advanced age." (Id.)

Schmidt claims that once Zenkus became her supervisor at Project Sanctuary, he treated her less favorably than the two other younger counselors. For example, Zenkus's demeanor towards Schmidt was hostile and demeaning; he excluded her from social conversation and often invited her younger colleagues to meet him at bars or to hear his band perform while extending no similar invitations to Schmidt; he told Graeve she should "hang out" with the staff of a different project because they were "young and motivated" and told Schmidt it was wonderful that the director of another project was able to hang out with her staff because they were all about the same age; he gave Schmidt a memorandum outlining performance expectations, including deadlines for performances of certain tasks, while the two younger counselors received no similar memo; upon complaining of the memorandum to Hirschhorn, Zenkus's supervisor, Hirschhorn directed Zenkus to prepare memoranda for the other two younger counselors; Zenkus then distributed similar memoranda to the other two counselors but told them before hand that their task dates were simply "targets." (Pl.'s Stmt. of Material Disputed Facts ¶¶ 160-85.)

Schmidt made several complaints regarding Zenkus's treatment. On February 14, 2003, Schmidt met with Hirschhorn and Zenkus and complained to Hirschhorn about the hostile and disparate treatment Zenkus had been exhibiting towards her. According to Schmidt, she complained that Zenkus was treating her differently from the younger counselors. On April 23, 2003, Schmidt met with Georgiou and complained that Zenkus continued to harass her despite her previous complaints to Hirschhorn. Schmidt claims that she specifically complained to Georgiou that Zenkus was treating her differently than the younger staff. On May 8, 2003, Schmidt wrote a letter to Georgiou (with a copy to Hirschhorn), again complaining of Zenkus's hostile treatment of her. The letter specifically states that "[b]eginning almost immediately after Mr. Zenkus started at [Project] Sanctuary, his tone and language toward me have been demeaning and hostile, and I quickly began to feel as if I was being treated differently than other, younger employees with whom Mr. Zenkus seemed to have a more friendly relationship." (Pl.'s Ex. 22.) Schmidt was terminated on September 25, 2003. In December 2003, Defendants hired Elizabeth Brown ("Brown") to replace Schmidt for the position of Independent Living Skills Counselor. Brown was in her twenties when hired.

Defendants' version of the relevant events is, not unexpectedly, quite different. Defendants claim that Schmidt failed to meet required goals for her position for two consecutive years. More specifically, Defendants maintain that the Independent Living Skills Counselor position was funded almost exclusively through a grant which required that Schmidt provide intensive case management services to at least 40 youth in 2002. Schmidt failed to meet her contract goal for 2002. As early as January 2003, Zenkus and Hirschhorn expressed concern about the number of youth to whom Schmidt was providing services, especially due to the possibility that the program could lose its funding if Schmidt failed to meet her contract goal again in 2003. In March 2003, Hirschhorn recommended that Schmidt be terminated due to her growing concerns about Schmidt's ability to meet her contract goals for services in 2003. Zenkus allegedly opposed Hirschhorn's recommendation in March 2003. Georgiou, who as Executive Director had the exclusive authority to approve any termination, chose not to terminate Schmidt in March 2003. Despite the emphasis placed by her supervisors on the need for her to increase her intensive case management numbers, Schmidt continued to struggle to increase her caseload. According to Defendants, Schmidt provided case management services to a total of only 12 clients through the first eight months of 2003. In September 2003, Hirschhorn again recommended to Georgiou that Schmidt be terminated. This time, Georgiou concurred with Hirschhorn and authorized Schmidt's termination on or about September 25, 2003. According to Defendants, Zenkus was not involved in the decision to terminate Schmidt's employment, nor did he recommend that Schmidt be terminated. In fact, according to Defendants, Zenkus recommended that Schmidt be placed on probation rather than be terminated at that time. Hirschhorn was 57 years old at the time she recommended that Schmidt be terminated and Georgiou was 56 years old at the time she authorized Schmidt's termination.

DISCUSSION

I. Applicable Law and Legal Standards

A. Summary Judgment

Summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 is only appropriate where admissible evidence in the form of affidavits, deposition transcripts, or other documentation demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, and one party's entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. See Viola v. Philips Med. Sys. of N. Am., 42 F.3d 712, 716 (2d Cir. 1994). The relevant governing law in each case determines which facts are material; "only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). No genuinely triable factual issue exists when the moving party demonstrates, on the basis of the pleadings and submitted evidence, and after drawing all inferences and resolving all ambiguities in favor of the non-movant, that no rational jury could find in the non-movant's favor. Chertkova v. Conn. Gen'l Life Ins. Co., 92 F.3d 81, 86 (2d Cir. 1996) (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)).

To defeat a summary judgment motion properly supported by affidavits, depositions, or other documentation, the non-movant must offer similar materials setting forth specific facts that show that there is a genuine issue of material fact to be tried. Rule v. Brine, Inc., 85 F.3d 1002, 1011 (2d Cir. 1996). The non-movant must present more than a "scintilla of evidence," Delaware & Hudson Ry. Co. v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 902 F.2d 174, 178 (2d Cir. 1990) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252), or "some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts," Aslanidis v. U.S. Lines, Inc., 7 F.3d 1067, 1072 (2d Cir. 1993) (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986)), and cannot rely on the allegations in his or her pleadings, conclusory statements, or on "mere assertions that affidavits supporting the motion are not credible." Gottlieb v. County of Orange, 84 F.3d 511, 518 (2d Cir. 1996) (internal citations omitted).

The district court, in considering a summary judgment motion, must also be "mindful of the underlying standards and burdens of proof," Pickett v. RTS Helicopter, 128 F.3d 925, 928 (5th Cir. 1997) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252), because the evidentiary burdens that the respective parties will bear at trial guide district courts in their determination of summary judgment motions. Brady v. Town of Colchester, 863 F.2d 205, 211 (2d Cir. 1988). Where the non-moving party will bear the ultimate burden of proof on an issue at trial, the moving party's burden under Rule 56 will be satisfied if he can point to an absence of evidence to support an essential element of the non-movant's claim. Id. at 210-11. Where a movant without the underlying burden of proof offers evidence that the non-movant has failed to establish her claim, the burden shifts to the non-movant to offer "persuasive evidence that [her] claim is not 'implausible.' " Brady, 863 F.2d at 211 (citing Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587).

Summary judgment is generally inappropriate where questions of the defendant's state of mind are at issue, Gelb v. Board of Elections of the City of New York, 224 F.3d 149, 157 (2d. Cir. 2000), and should thus be granted with caution in employment discrimination cases. Gallo v. Prudential Residential Servs., Ltd. P'ship, 22 F.3d 1219, 1224 (2d Cir. 1994); Carlton v. Mystic Transp., Inc., 202 F.3d 129, 134 (2d Cir. 2000). Nonetheless,"summary judgment remains available to reject discrimination claims in cases lacking genuine issues of material fact." Chambers v. TRM Copy Ctrs. Corp., 43 F.3d 29, 40 (2d Cir. 1994). "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." Meiri v. Dacon, 759 F.2d 989, 998 (2d Cir. 1985). "[T]he salutary purposes of summary judgment - avoiding protracted, expensive and harassing trials - apply no less to discrimination cases than to commercial or other ...


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