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Abeln v. Ultra Life Batteries

March 30, 2009

DAVID ABELN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ULTRA LIFE BATTERIES, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: David G. Larimer United States District Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

Plaintiff, a former employee of defendant Ultralife Batteries, Inc. ("Ultralife"), brings this action alleging that Ultralife terminated his employment in retaliation for his complaint about a sexually inappropriate comment in the workplace, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. §2000 et seq., and the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. Law §290 et seq.

Plaintiff was initially employed by Ultralife in November of 1998, ultimately attaining the position of ERP/MARO Manager, which he occupied from 2004-2006. In 2004, Ultralife hired an outside employee, Doug Sengillo ("Sengillo") into the position of Materials Manager, supervising plaintiff and others. The working relationship between Sengillo and plaintiff was "sometimes difficult," and the two periodically disagreed over work-related issues. (Dkt. #15, Att. 1, Exh. A at 41, 42).

In December 2005, plaintiff, Sengillo, and purchasing agent Kevin Howell ("Howell") participated in a conference at Ultralife. Upon learning that a fourth employee would not be attending or phoning in because he was vacationing with his girlfriend, Sengillo commented that the employee was "probably getting his brains f-ed out." Plaintiff complained about the vulgar comment to Ultralife Human Resource Manager Samantha Derrick ("Derrick"). Derrick instructed plaintiff that she would investigate, but warned him that she could not promise to keep his complaint 100% confidential.

After speaking with Sengillo and Howell, who confirmed plaintiff's account, Derrick gave Sengillo a verbal warning and Sengillo apologized to plaintiff for the remark.

In April 2006, four months later, plaintiff was terminated by Ultralife on the grounds of insubordination, after refusing an order by Sengillo to delegate a portion of his job responsibilities to another employee.

Plaintiff thereafter filed a timely complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights ("NYSDHR"). The NYSDHR dismissed plaintiff's complaint on the basis of administrative convenience, and plaintiff was issued a "Right to Sue" letter on or about January 24, 2007. Plaintiff commenced the instant action on February 3, 2007, alleging retaliatory termination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §2000e et seq. and the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. Law §290 et seq.

For the reasons set forth below, Ultralife's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. #11) is granted.

DISCUSSION

I. Standard on a Motion for Summary Judgment

Summary judgment will be granted if the record demonstrates 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); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). Although courts should be cautious about granting summary judgment in cases where motive, intent or state of mind are at issue, a common component of discrimination actions, see Dister v. Cont'l Group, Inc., 859 F.2d 1108, 1114 (2d Cir.1988); Montana v. First Federal Savings and Loan Ass'n of Rochester, 869 F.2d 100, 103 (2d Cir.1989), "the salutary purposes of summary judgment -- avoiding protracted, expensive and harassing trials -- apply no less to discrimination cases than to... other areas of litigation." Meiri v. Dacon, 759 F.2d 989, 998 (2d Cir.1985) (summary judgment rule would be rendered sterile if mere incantation of intent or state of mind would act as a talisman to defeat an otherwise valid motion). See also Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 148 (2000), quoting St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 524 (1993) (trial courts should not "treat discrimination differently from other ultimate questions of fact"). To defeat a motion for summary judgment[,] a plaintiff cannot rely on mere 'conjecture or surmise.'" Heilweil v. Mount Sinai Hosp., 32 F.3d 718, 723 (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, 759 F.2d 989 at 998. Thus, in order to avoid summary judgment, a plaintiff "must come forward with at least some credible evidence that the actions of the [defendants] were motivated by [. ] animus or ill-will." Grillo v. New York City Transit Auth., 291 F.3d 231, 234 (2d Cir. 2002).

II. Plaintiff's Retaliation Claim

Retaliation claims are analyzed within the familiar burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). On a motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of retaliation by showing that: (1) he participated in protected activity; (2) the protected activity was known to the employer; (3) plaintiff was thereafter subjected to an adverse employment action; and (4) there is evidence of a causal relationship between the adverse employment action and the protected activity. Once the plaintiff has done so, the burden shifts to the defendant to establish a legitimate, non-retaliatory basis for the complained-of action. If the defendant does so, the burden returns to plaintiff, who must show that the legitimate, non-retaliatory reason articulated by the defendant is a mere "pretext," and that retaliation was more likely than not the reason for the complained-of action. See Schnabel v. Abramson, 232 F.3d 83, 90 (2d Cir. 2000); Gallagher v. Delaney, 139 F.3d 338, 349 (2d Cir. 1998).

"Protected activity" has a certain meaning in the context of complaints alleging unlawful discrimination in employment. Such activity does not include all acts that occur at the work place or all disputes ...


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