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Morin v. Tormey

June 3, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: David N. Hurd United States District Judge



Plaintiff Bobette Morin ("plaintiff") sues the following defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for unlawful retaliation and a hostile work environment in violation of her First Amendment right to free speech: (1) Hon. James C. Tormey, District Administrative Judge for the Fifth Judicial District; (2) Hon. Bryan R. Hedges, Onondaga County Family Court Judge; (3) John R. Voninski, former law clerk to defendant Tormey and Executive Assistant for the Fifth Judicial District from 2000-2006; and (4) William F. Dowling, former law clerk to defendant Hedges and Court Attorney Referee for the Onondaga County Family Court. Plaintiff's initial claims arising under the Family Medical Leave Act and all claims asserted against the Office of Court Administration of the Unified Court System, the State of New York, and the individual defendants in their official capacities were dismissed pursuant to a bench decision dated October 11, 2007. See Order, Dkt. No. 31.

Defendants now move for summary judgment of plaintiff's remaining claims pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. Plaintiff opposes. Oral argument was heard on May 29, 2009 in Utica, New York. Decision was reserved.


A. Facts

The following facts are either undisputed or construed in the light most favorable to plaintiff. See Mandell v. County of Suffolk, 316 F.3d 368, 377 (2d Cir. 2003). Plaintiff began her career as a court clerk with the New York State Office of Court Administration ("OCA") in 1983. She was later appointed Chief Clerk of the Onondaga County Family Court ("OCFC") in 1994 where she remained until her involuntary removal and forced demotion on March 8, 2007. Prior to her removal, plaintiff had received a number of OCA awards and was nominated by her co-workers in July 2006 for the Unified Court System's Quality Service and Leadership Award.

Defendant Tormey, a Republican, became District Administrative Judge of the Fifth Judicial District in 2000. He subsequently replaced the incumbent Executive Assistant with his former law clerk, defendant Voninski. In or about "the summer of 2002,"*fn1 defendant Voninski escorted plaintiff to defendant Tormey's chambers whereupon the three individuals had a conversation about OCFC Judge David G. Klim. Judge Klim, a Democrat, was running as a candidate in the upcoming fall election for State Supreme Court Justice. According to plaintiff, defendant Tormey said, among other things, that Judge Klim was running on the Democratic ticket against "good Republican friends of mine," Pl's. Aff., Dkt. No. 143, ¶ 7, and that Judge Klim "is a sympathetic candidate and media darling and because of his disability will get endorsed by the paper, [so it is important to] get information out there to help the Republican candidates." Id., ¶ 9. Plaintiff also states that defendant Tormey asked suggestive questions during the conversation, including whether she "was a good Republican," id., ¶ 7, and if she "wanted to be a team player." Id. After plaintiff refused their requests that she "dish dirt," id., ¶ 8, and monitor Judge Klim's "comings and goings," id., ¶ 10-11, defendants Tormey and Voninski became visibly angry and ordered plaintiff to leave the office immediately. Id., ¶ 12. Despite her refusal to cooperate with defendants Tormey and Voninski, Judge Klim lost the election, and he passed away before plaintiff commenced her lawsuit.

Shortly after the summer 2002 conversation and until 2006, plaintiff's requests for resources were routinely denied by defendants Tormey and Voninski. Such requests included calls for additional computer equipment and the filling of court staff vacancies. Plaintiff alleges similar requests were granted for other employees during the same time period. In October of 2002, defendant Hedges warned plaintiff that defendant Voninski and others were attempting to remove her from Chief Clerk and from the OCFC altogether. Plaintiff alleges defendant Hedges offered the same warnings in December of 2002 and again in March of 2003 after Florence Walsh was appointed to Deputy Chief Clerk of the OCFC .

In 2005, the New York State Legislature enacted a statute calling for the OCFC to establish a new courtroom, Model Permanency Part 10 ("Part 10"). Despite training the Court Attorney Referee for the newly established Part 9, plaintiff alleges defendant Dowling actively tried to prevent her from training staff for Part 10 and otherwise aiding with the creation of that courtroom. Plaintiff was later accused of failing to satisfactorily perform her duties with respect to helping with the establishment of Part 10, including her inability to obtain a Case Activity Report System Identification Number for defendant Dowling.

On February 20, 2006, defendant Voninski issued plaintiff a disciplinary memorandum for using her annual leave hours without obtaining prior approval. Defendant Voninski thereafter required plaintiff to call him from her office phone at the beginning and end of each work day to confirm her arrival and departure time. Plaintiff alleges no other Chief Clerk or employees of her Judicial Grade level are required to report their arrival and departure times.

On April 17, 2006, defendant Voninski instructed plaintiff that she was being temporarily re-assigned to Lewis County Family Court in Lowville, New York. The new assignment resulted in plaintiff having to travel approximately four hours round-trip each workday. Two days after returning from her temporary placement in Lowville, defendant Voninski instructed plaintiff to begin reporting to the Oneida County Family Court in Rome, New York. This assignment resulted in plaintiff having to travel approximately two hours round-trip each workday. Employees at both locations have stated they were surprised plaintiff was re-assigned to their courthouses because her Judicial Grade level is much higher than what was required. Additionally, the employee plaintiff replaced at the court in Lowville, Judy Meekins, stated at her deposition that defendant Voninski suggested to her that she take time off shortly before plaintiff was re-assigned to that courthouse. Meekins Dep., Ex. O to Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J., Dkt. No. 129-45, 12: 2-15.

While on re-assignment, defendants solicited information from plaintiff's co-workers about plaintiff's workplace conduct. Defendants thereafter contacted the Inspector General's Office and requested an investigation of plaintiff's behavior.

On January 30, 2007, plaintiff was notified that she was recommended for removal from her position of Chief Clerk based upon the findings of the investigation conducted by the Inspector General's Office. As a consolation, plaintiff was offered a lower-salaried position as Court Attorney Referee. Plaintiff accepted the demotion and began working as a Court Attorney Referee in Rome on March 12, 2007. Plaintiff's complaint was filed May 15, 2007.

B. Plaintiff's Allegations

Plaintiff makes collective allegations against all defendants as well as specific allegations against each individual defendant. All acts of retaliation or conduct contributing to a hostile work environment are alleged to have occurred from between the summer 2002 conversation and plaintiff's forced demotion in March of 2007.

Plaintiff alleges all defendants solicited negative information about plaintiff while she was on temporary re-assignment to the Lowville and Rome Family Courts beginning in February of 2006. Plaintiff also alleges defendants enticed co-workers to come forward with negative information about her by promoting employees who provided such information, or alternatively, threatening employees who refused to help discredit plaintiff's job performance. Finally, all defendants are alleged to have acted together to remove plaintiff from her position as Chief Clerk.

Plaintiff's specific allegations against defendant Tormey are limited to his refusal to grant plaintiff's requests for resources needed to perform her job, requesting an investigation of plaintiff's workplace conduct, ordering plaintiff to move into a poorly maintained, uncomfortable office located in the basement of the courthouse, and allowing defendant Dowling to usurp plaintiff's authority to make operational decisions for the OCFC in 2006.

Plaintiff's specific allegations against defendant Voninski are limited to his refusal to grant plaintiff's requests for resources, issuing her a disciplinary memorandum, chastising her in front of her co-workers for using annual leave hours to which she was entitled, requiring her to call him from her office phone on a daily basis to confirm her arrival and departure ...

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