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Brant v. County of Dutchess

February 11, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kenneth M. Karas, U.S. District Judge


Plaintiff Michele Brant ("Plaintiff") is a staff employee of the Dutchess County Board of Elections (the "Board"). On November 23, 2005, she brought this action naming as defendants the County of Dutchess (the "County") and the Board. The Complaint states a hostile work environment claim on the basis of Plaintiff's gender under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a)(1). Plaintiff seeks damages of $250,000, attorney's fees and court costs, and unspecified injunctive relief. Defendants move for summary judgment. For the reasons stated in this Opinion, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED in its entirety.

I. Background

A. Plaintiff's Employment at the Board of Elections

The Dutchess County Board of Elections is an entity prescribed by New York state law. See N.Y. Election Law § 3-200 ("There shall be a board of elections in each county of the state. . . ."). By law, the Board consists of two commissioners, with each major political party eligible to recommend one commissioner. See id. The Board institutionally is empowered to hire and manage staff; in addition, each commissioner is permitted to "approve and at pleasure remove a deputy, establish his title and prescribe his duties." Id. § 3-300. The Board's Republican Commissioner is David J. Gamache ("Gamache") and its Democratic Commissioner is Frances Knapp ("Knapp").

Plaintiff was hired as a Republican staff member to the Board in or around January 2003. (Defs.' Stmt. Pursuant to Rule 56.1 ("Defs.' 56.1") ¶ 9.) From December 2004 until at least the time of the filing of this Motion, Plaintiff held the title of elections administrator at the Board. (Id. ¶ 2.) Prior to that time she was a senior elections specialist and prior to that an elections specialist. (Id. ¶¶ 7, 11.)

B. Plaintiff's History with Board Employee Thomas Sassaman

Although not the immediate subject of this lawsuit, the history between Plaintiff and former Board employee C. Thomas Sassaman ("Sassaman") is important background to it. When Plaintiff became employed by the Board, Sassaman was employed there as a Republican staff member. (Id. ¶ 9.) Plaintiff and Sassaman developed a close working relationship, were friendly with one another in the workplace, and often ate lunch together and took smoke breaks together.*fn1 (Id. ¶ 10.) In mid or late December 2004, Plaintiff told Gamache that Sassaman had confessed that he had "fallen" for her and that he wanted to take their relationship "to the next level." (Id. ¶ 13.) In or around December 2004, Gamache effectively swapped the jobs of Plaintiff and Sassaman, promoting Plaintiff to elections administrator and demoting Sassaman to elections specialist. (Id. ¶ 12.) The Parties agree that the job switch was "for reasons not relevant to the issues in this action." (Id.; Dep. of David J. Gamache ("Gamache Dep.") 15 ("Well, [Sassaman] wasn't doing his job. . . .").) This personnel move was unwelcomed by other staff members, some of whom liked Sassaman, and some of whom felt Plaintiff should not have been promoted. (Dep. of Michelle Brant ("Brant Dep.") 112:19, 116:11.)

In early March 2005, Plaintiff again approached Gamache and told him that the situation with Sassaman had escalated. (Id. ¶ 14.) Plaintiff said that Sassaman had telephoned her at home and at the office from his home on his days off. (Id.) She told Gamache that Sassaman was making her uncomfortable and that she felt like he was stalking her. (Id.) On advice from Gamache, Plaintiff documented her claim in writing. (Id. ¶ 15.) Gamache spoke to Sassaman about the allegations, and also notified the Dutchess County Sheriff's Office, which conducted its own investigation. (Id. ¶ 16.) Based on these investigations and Sassaman's admissions in course, Sassaman was given the choice in late March 2005 to resign or be terminated; he resigned effective April 1, 2005. (Id. ¶ 18.)

C. Sassaman's Letter to the Dutchess County Legislature

On or about April 11, 2005, Sassaman delivered a letter to several members of the Dutchess County Legislature ("April 11 letter"), including then-minority leader Roger Higgins. (Id. ¶ 19.) In the April 11 letter, Sassaman described himself as a "disgruntled employee" who was "discriminated against based on [his] age," was "harassed" by Gamache and Brant, had his rights violated, and had his "character brought into question." (Aff. of Karen Folster Lesperance ("Lesperance Aff."), Ex. D at 3.) The letter contained a series of detailed and salacious allegations about the purported professional misconduct of Gamache and the supposed personal misconduct of Plaintiff, including extramarital affairs. Sassaman wrote that he was "considering all legal options at this time." (Id.)*fn2

Prior to sending the April 11 letter, Sassaman showed a draft of it and/or discussed its contents with Knapp and with Board employees Kim Ferese ("Ferese"), Jeanne Short ("Short"), and Bill Frazier ("Frazier"). (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 36.) Sassaman also mentioned the letter to Board employee Lynn Nippert ("Nippert") and said he would show it to her. Although Nippert did not see a draft before it was sent, she later was shown a copy of the letter by Short, who had obtained it from either Sassaman or Knapp. (Id. ¶ 37). When the letter was received by the various legislators to whom it was addressed, news of its existence spread rapidly throughout the Board's office. (Id. ¶ 22.)

D. Ballo Acquires a Copy of the Letter

John Ballo ("Ballo") was Democratic Deputy Commissioner of the Board when Sassaman sent his April 11 letter. (Id. ¶ 23.) Ballo was, at that time, the senior Democratic staff member in the office because Knapp was on vacation.*fn3 (Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 47.) Ballo learned that some of the county legislators had received a letter from Sassaman attacking Gamache, and called the legislature to seek to obtain a copy. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 23.) Ballo was told by administrative staff that the letter was being widely discussed, but that he would have to contact a recipient ...

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