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Fleming v. MaxMara USA

June 30, 2009


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


On November 29, 2006, plaintiff Yvonne Fleming commenced this action against defendants MaxMara USA, Inc. ("MaxMara"), John Gleeson, and Luigi Caroggio. Plaintiff asserts claims of (1) discrimination on account of her race, (2) race-based hostile work environment, and (3) retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq. ("Title VII") and the New York City Human Rights Law, New York City Administrative Code §§ 8-107 et seq. ("NYCHRL").*fn1

Presently before this Court is defendants' motion for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, defendants' motion is granted.


The following facts are drawn from the parties' submissions in connection with this motion. Disputes are noted.

Plaintiff is an African-American woman and a former Director of Human Resources and Payroll for defendant MaxMara. Affidavit of Luigi Caroggio ("Caroggio Aff.") ¶¶ 20-21; Am. Compl. ¶ 1. Defendant MaxMara is a wholly owned United States subsidiary of MaxMara Fashion Group S.r.L., a privately owned women's apparel company based in Italy, which employs approximately 300 people in the United States. Caroggio Aff. ¶¶ 13-14. Defendant Gleeson is the former Vice President of Finance for defendant MaxMara. Affidavit of John Gleeson ("Gleeson Aff.") ¶ 1. Defendant Caroggio is currently the Chief Executive Officer of defendant MaxMara, where he formerly served as Vice President of Operations from May 2003 until his promotion to Chief Executive Officer in January 2008. Caroggio Aff. ¶ 1.

On December 4, 2000, Guglielmo Melegari, then-President of MaxMara, hired plaintiff on an "at-will" basis to serve as MaxMara's Director of Human Resources and Payroll, a newly created position. Deposition Testimony of Guglielmo Melegari ("Melegari Dep.") at 15:4-16:3; Caroggio Aff. ¶ 21. At that time, plaintiff did not (and does not currently) possess a college degree, but had 13 years of experience working in payroll and human resources in the retail industry. Deposition Testimony of Yvonne Fleming ("Pl. Dep.") at 10:5-8; 23:11-23. At MaxMara, plaintiff reported both to Mr. Melegari and defendant Gleeson, then-Vice President of Finance for MaxMara. Id. at 25:4-5.

On February 1, 2001, plaintiff met with Sandy Ost, then Assistant Treasurer of MaxMara, in Ms. Ost's office. Pl. Dep. at 99:13-23; Am. Compl. ¶ 28. Defendant Gleeson was also present. Id. According to plaintiff, the purpose of the meeting was to discuss a change plaintiff wished to make to the payroll system. Pl. Dep. at 99:20-23. Plaintiff testified that during the meeting, defendant Gleeson, allegedly because he was "upset about all the changes [plaintiff] was making throughout the company," made the following statement: "one day we are going to come in and there's going to be a rope hanging from the ceiling and guess who is going to be hanging from it." Id. at 103:5-18. Plaintiff testified that defendant Gleeson and Ms. Ost burst out laughing following the statement. Id. Defendant Gleeson denies ever making the statement or any other racially charged remarks to plaintiff. Gleeson Aff. ¶ 23.*fn2 According to plaintiff, Mr. Melegari, plaintiff, and defendant Gleeson met the following day to discuss the incident, at which time Mr. Melegari reprimanded defendant Gleeson. Pl. Dep. at 113:18-115:9. Mr. Melegari does not recall a meeting relating to defendant Gleeson's alleged remark, but did testify that he remembers "having at least a meeting with [plaintiff] and [defendant Gleeson] at the beginning [of plaintiff's tenure at MaxMara] relating to the problems that came from creating this new position." Melegari Dep. at 27:2-7.

According to plaintiff, defendant Gleeson targeted plaintiff and her subordinates, two of whom were also African American, for poor treatment during plaintiff's tenure at MaxMara. For example, plaintiff alleges that defendant Gleeson excluded her from meetings she should have attended or conducted in her official capacity, Pl. Dep. at 152:2-156-12, excessively criticized her work on MaxMara's Employee Manual, id. at 159:3-160:20, and sent rude emails to her, id. at 178:11-185:16. In her Amended Complaint, plaintiff alleges that defendant Gleeson refused to answer work-related questions, arbitrarily imposed Finance Department duties on her, and insulted her in front of the whole office by stating he was "washing his hands off" of her. Am. Compl. ¶ 21. Plaintiff also testified that defendant Gleeson yelled at her staff and threw books at them. Pl. Dep. at 120:13-19.*fn3 Defendant Gleeson denies that any of his interactions with plaintiff were disrespectful in nature or in any way connected to her race. Gleeson Aff. ¶ 20.

It is undisputed that in 1996, defendant Gleeson hired Katie Uyo, a native African woman, to assume a position reporting to him in the Finance Department of MaxMara.*fn4 Affidavit of Katie Uyo ("Uyo Aff.") ¶¶ 2, 7. Ms. Uyo worked for MaxMara throughout plaintiff's tenure there and continues to work for MaxMara. Id. ¶ 1. Plaintiff states that at some point in time, Ms. Uyo told her "to be submissive to Defendant Gleeson and 'yes yes yes him to death.'" Pl. Aff. ¶ 6. Ms. Uyo denies ever having told plaintiff that non-Caucasian employees are expected to play a submissive role with defendant Gleeson, or that they are expected to "yes him" all the time. Uyo Aff. ¶ 21.

According to defendants Caroggio and Gleeson, during an incident shortly before January 2004, plaintiff failed to follow company protocol regarding internal employee transfers. Caroggio Aff. ¶¶ 37-40; Gleeson Aff. ¶ 8. At that time, plaintiff decided to transfer Luisa Yonzon,*fn5 an Accountant Clerk who reported directly to defendant Gleeson, to plaintiff's own department, and to hire another individual, Ma Lorraine De La Rosa Ramos, to replace Ms. Yonzon in Accounting. Gleeson Aff. ¶ 8. According to defendants Gleeson and Caroggio, MaxMara's practice regarding internal transfers is that the heads of the incoming and outgoing departments must sign off on transfers before they are approved. Id.; Caroggio Aff. ¶ 38. Likewise, MaxMara requires that all department heads pre-approve new hires coming into their departments. Id. Defendants Gleeson and Caroggio state that plaintiff failed to secure defendant Gleeson's approval or even his knowledge prior to the transfer of Ms. Yonzon and the hire of Ms. Ramos. Id.

Plaintiff concedes that she effected the transfer and the new hire, but denies that she breached company protocol. Plaintiff testified that prior to transferring Ms. Yonzon, she spoke with both defendants Gleeson and Caroggio, along with other MaxMara employees including former President Melegari, and that "everybody blessed" the transfer. Pl. Dep. 207:19-210:10. Mr. Melegari signed a form dated February 5, 2004 approving the transfer, Bonnaig Aff Ex. 8 (copy of form), but recalled at his deposition that although he "agreed in principle with the move, [he] believe[d] [he] was presented after the fact with everything that was done and [he] was not pleased with the process, not the final outcome or final result." Melegari Dep. at 75:11-16. Defendant Gleeson denies that plaintiff secured his prior approval. Gleeson Aff. ¶ 8.

Defendant Caroggio states that when Mr. Melegari learned about the transfer incident involving plaintiff and Ms. Yonzon, he "berated [defendant Caroggio] for allowing [plaintiff] to breach Company protocol." Caroggio Aff. ¶ 39. In response, in January 2004, defendant Caroggio drafted an email to Mr. Melegari in Italian. Id. ¶ 40. The email was sent only to Mr. Melegari. Id.; see also id. Ex. 15 (copy of email). According to plaintiff's translator, the email includes the following statement:

On the other question, Yvonne (Director of HR!!!!!!!!) contacted Luisa without anyone's authorization and I, when I heard about it, did not want to dispute it because

a) I thought you had approved it,

b) The substitution did not generate additional costs to the departments for which I am responsible

c) I don't want to obstruct the enthusiasm demonstrated by Luisa towards the new opportunity.

Now I have the duty of calling you every time Yvonne goes to shit!! Instead of breaking my balls teach good manners and proper behavior to your ass-licking partners.

Bonnaig Aff. Ex. 24 (copy of English translation of email).

According to plaintiff, in addition to referring to plaintiff as an "ass-licking partner" in the January 2004 email, defendant Caroggio also generally treated her as if she were subservient to him. Pl. Dep. at 194:14-197:6. For instance, she testified that he at times ordered her to perform tasks not within her job description. Id. In addition, she alleges that when she attempted, at defendant Gleeson's direction, to correct errors in defendant Caroggio's employment paperwork relating to social security taxes, defendant Caroggio became enraged, blamed her for creating problems, and refused to cooperate in rectifying the tax issue until Mr. Melegari intervened. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 50-56.

In August of 2004, one of MaxMara's employees committed suicide. Caroggio Aff. ¶ 34. In response, plaintiff called a firm-wide meeting to discuss the incident. Id. According to plaintiff, Mr. Melegari instructed her to convene a meeting in order to explain what had happened. Pl. Dep. at 81:23-82:11. Defendants Caroggio and Gleeson state, however, that plaintiff did not clear the meeting's content with senior management beforehand, and that at the meeting, plaintiff "went so far as to attribute the employee's suicide to alleged mistreatment the employee had received from specific co-workers," adding, "and you know who you are." Gleeson Aff. ¶ 7; Caroggio Aff. ¶ 34. Plaintiff denies having made any comment that could be interpreted as accusing specific employees of mistreatment that may have contributed to the suicide. Pl. Dep. at 82:24-83:10.

In January of 2005, Emmi Haddock, MaxMara's Director of Sales, circulated a firm-wide email announcing a promotion of one of her subordinates, in contravention of company policy directing that such announcements should be made by plaintiff. Caroggio Aff. ¶ 32; see also id. Ex. 12 (copy of Ms. Haddock's email). In response, plaintiff sent a firm-wide email that stated the following:


I am sure that your employee is grateful to your company wide email announcement that you have sent out today. However, I need to remind you that it isn't your responsibility to do so. I sent out a memo . . . apprising you that any announcements in new hires are done via my office. . . . What I fail to understand is, either your lack of regard for procedures or that you didn't comprehend the memo.

I therefore recommend, that in the future, should you be confused as to the purpose, content, meaning, request, etc., etc. of any memos or emails generated from my office, do feel free to call my office and ...

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