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Chow v. Stride Rite Corp.

January 27, 2009

SHARON CHOW, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE STRIDE RITE CORP. D/B/A TOMMY HILFIGER FOOTWEAR, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul G. Gardephe, U.S.D.J.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

In this action, Plaintiff Sharon Chow claims that Defendant Stride Rite Corp. (referred to herein as "Tommy Footwear") violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e (hereafter, "Title VII"), and the New York State Human Rights Law, New York Executive Law § 296 (hereafter, "NYSHRL") by terminating her employment because she was pregnant. (Cmplt. ¶¶ 10-30) She also claims that she had a contractual right to be placed on family-medical leave and to return to Tommy Footwear after her leave was over, and asserts that the termination of her employment constituted a breach of this alleged contractual obligation. (Cmplt. ¶¶ 31-33; Pltf. Br. at 8-9) Tommy Footwear has moved for summary judgment with respect to all of Chow's claims. For the reasons stated below, Tommy Footwear's motion for summary judgment (Docket No. 9) is GRANTED.

DISCUSSION

Summary judgment is warranted if the moving party shows that "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact" and that it "is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). "A dispute about a 'genuine issue' exists for summary judgment purposes where the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could decide in the non-movant's favor." Beyer v. County of Nassau, 524 F.3d 160, 163 (2d Cir. 2008). In deciding a summary judgment motion, the Court "resolve[s] all ambiguities, and credit[s] all factual inferences that could rationally be drawn, in favor of the party opposing summary judgment." Cifra v. General Electric Co., 252 F.3d 205, 216 (2d Cir.2001).

"It is now beyond cavil that summary judgment may be appropriate even in the fact-intensive context of discrimination cases," and that "the salutary purposes of summary judgment -- avoiding protracted, expensive and harassing trials -- apply no less to discrimination cases than to . . . other areas of litigation." Abdu-Brisson v. Delta Airlines, Inc., 239 F.3d 456, 466 (2d Cir. 2001). As in any other case, "an employment discrimination plaintiff faced with a properly supported summary judgment motion must 'do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.' . . . She must come forth with evidence sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to find in her favor." Brown v. Henderson, 257 F.3d 246, 251 (2d Cir. 2001) (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986)). "Mere conclusory statements, conjecture or speculation" by the plaintiff will not defeat summary judgment. Gross v. Nat'l Broadcasting Co., Inc., 232 F. Supp. 2d 58, 67 (S.D.N.Y. 2002); see also Holcomb v. Iona College, 521 F.3d 130, 137 (2d Cir. 2008) ("Even in the discrimination context . . . a plaintiff must provide more than conclusory allegations to resist a motion for summary judgment."); Meiri v. Dacon, 759 F.3d 989, 998 (2d Cir. 1985) ("To allow a party to defeat a motion for summary judgment by offering purely conclusory allegations of discrimination, absent any concrete particulars, would necessitate a trial in all Title VII cases.").

The Court is mindful that "direct evidence of . . . [discriminatory] intent will only rarely be available, . . . [so] 'affidavits and depositions must be carefully scrutinized for circumstantial proof which, if believed, would show discrimination.'" Holcomb, 521 F.3d at 137. However, the Court must also "carefully distinguish between evidence that allows for a reasonable inference of discrimination and evidence that gives rise to mere speculation and conjecture." Bickerstaff v. Vassar College, 196 F.3d 435, 448 (2d Cir. 1999).

When deciding summary judgment motions in Title VII employment discrimination cases, courts apply the three-step burden shifting analysis enunciated in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-04, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 1824-25 (1973). See Quaratino v. Tiffany & Co., 71 F.3d 58, 64 (2d Cir. 1995).*fn1 The first step is for the plaintiff to "establish a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination . . . by showing that: (1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she satisfactorily performed the duties required by the position; (3) she was discharged; and (4) her position remained open and was ultimately filled by a non-pregnant employee." Id. "Alternatively, a plaintiff may satisfy the fourth requirement . . . by showing that the discharge occurred in circumstances giving rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination." Id. The plaintiff's burden at this is stage is "de minimis." Beyer v. County of Nassau, 524 F.3d 160, 163 (2d Cir. 2008).

If the plaintiff succeeds in "demonstrat[ing] a prima facie case, the burden of production shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, clear, specific and non-discriminatory reason for discharging the employee." Quaratino, 71 F.3d at 64. If the defendant does so, the plaintiff must offer evidence from which a jury could find "that the employer's reason was merely a pretext for pregnancy discrimination." Id. The plaintiff must offer evidence showing both that the employer's proffered reason was "false and that discrimination was the real reason" for the employer's action. Id. (emphasis in the original).

A. FACTS

Chow was employed by Tommy Footwear as the Product Line Manager -- Women's Casual from October 2002 through August 23, 2004. (Def. Rule 56.1 Stat. ¶¶ 1, 26)*fn2 She was one of two Product Line Managers in the Women's Product Design and Marketing Department; the other was Angela Son. (Id. ¶ 4) Both Women's Product Line Managers reported to Ruthie Davis, the Vice President -- Women's Product, until May 4, 2004, when Davis's position was eliminated and Bornie Del Priore took over Davis's responsibilities (and responsibility for the Men's line) as Senior Vice President -- Product and Marketing. (Id. ¶¶ 4-10) Chow and Son, the two Women's Product Line Managers, began reporting to Del Priore at that time. (Id. ¶ 11)

Chow was pregnant at the time Del Priore started, and submitted a request for maternity leave that Del Priore approved on May 21, 2004. (Id. ¶¶ 11-12) On June 17, 2004, the second-to-last business day before Chow's maternity leave was to begin, Del Priore met with Chow and Son (who was not pregnant) and told them that the Product Line Manager positions were going to be eliminated and their employment terminated. (Id. ¶¶ 20-21, 26) The same day, Denise Lockaby, Director of Professional Development, met with Chow to conduct her exit interview and informed her that her official termination date would be delayed until after she received the full maternity leave she had been scheduled to take. (Id. ¶ 25) Chow received the same maternity benefits she would have received had Del Priore not decided to terminate her employment, and she technically remained employed by Tommy Footwear until August 23, 2004 (the last day of her scheduled leave). (Id. ¶¶ 26-28)

Del Priore made the decision to eliminate the Product Manager positions with the approval of Richie Woodworth, the President of Tommy Footwear, and the Human Resources Services Group. (Id. ¶¶ 3, 14, 30) Del Priore made the decision as part of a reorganization of the Product Design and Marketing department, which Woodworth had started by creating Del Priore's Senior Vice President position. (Id. ¶¶ 6-8) The remainder of the restructuring was left to Del Priore to implement. (Id. ¶¶ 8, 10) She determined that the three Product Line Manager positions (two on the Women's side, and one on the Men's side) should be eliminated, and that their responsibilities should be divided between two new, more senior Director's positions -- one for Women and one for Men -- each of which would be supported by one or two administrative Product Coordinator positions. (Id. ¶ 13) There is no evidence that Chow expressed interest in either of the new positions, and Chow concedes that she "has chosen to stay at home since the birth of her first child except for" performing a brief consulting job. (Id. ¶ 23)

Del Priore had three children aged seven or younger at the time she decided to eliminate the Product Line Manager positions, and Chow does not contend that Del Priore "was hostile to people who were married or had children." (Id. ¶¶ 7, 32) Chow does assert, and Tommy Footwear does not contest, that at unspecified times prior to her termination, other high-level employees had made comments relating to children or pregnancy. Specifically, after being informed of Chow's pregnancy, Davis -- Chow's former supervisor -- asked Chow repeatedly whether she intended to return to work and stated that she would not return to work if she were Chow. (July 8, 2006 Affidavit of Sharon Chow ¶¶ 6, 9) Davis also attributed her own professional success to the fact that she had not had children and expressed a preference for working with young women. (Id.; see also Pltf. Rule 56.1 Reply ¶¶ 2, 3) Another Vice President, Yoriko Powell, told Chow that she did not have children and did not like children. (Chow Aff. ¶ 6; Pltf. Rule 56.1 Stat. ¶ 4) Davis and Powell did not have any input into the decision to terminate Chow's employment. (Def. Rule 56.1 Stat. ¶ 30)

B. CHOW'S PRIMA FACIE CASE OF DISCRIMINATION

Tommy Footwear does not dispute that Chow has established the first and third elements of a prima facie case: Chow was a member of a protected class, i.e., pregnant women, and she was discharged. However, Tommy Footwear argues that Chow cannot establish the second element of her prima facie case because she was not qualified for the new Director position. It further argues that she cannot establish the fourth element of her prima facie case because her former position was not filled and there are no other circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination. (Def. Br. at 6-11) ...


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