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Lee v. Heritage Health & Housing

September 30, 2009

E. LEE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
HERITAGE HEALTH & HOUSING, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Debra Freeman, United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

In this case, which is before me on consent pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Plaintiff E. Lee ("Plaintiff")*fn1 claims that her employer, defendant Heritage Health and Housing ("Defendant") violated her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (the "FMLA" or the "Act"), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq., and the New York City Human Rights Law (the "NYCHRL"), N.Y. Admin. Code § 8-101 et seq., by terminating her after she took a leave of absence due to work-related stress. (See generally Complaint, dated Nov. 27, 2007 ("Compl.") (Dkt. 1).) Defendant has moved for summary judgment (Dkt. 17), seeking dismissal of Plaintiff's FMLA claims on the grounds that (1) she did not have a "serious health condition" within the meaning of the statute, and (2) if she did, she did not provide Defendant with adequate notice of that condition (see Defendant's Memorandum of Law in Support of Summary Judgment, dated Oct. 1, 2008 ("Def. Mem.") (Dkt. 19), at 8-14). Defendant similarly seeks summary judgment on Plaintiff's NYCHRL claim on the ground that Plaintiff did not have a disability covered by that law (id. at 15), although Defendant also argues that, if the Court were to dismiss Plaintiff's federal claims, then it should decline to exercise jurisdiction over any pendent claim (id. at 14-15).

For the reasons discussed below, Defendant's motion for summary judgment is granted as to Plaintiff's FMLA claim, and Plaintiff's NYCHRL claim is dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, without prejudice to the assertion of that claim in state court.

BACKGROUND

A. Factual Background*fn2

Defendant is a not-for-profit corporation that "provides enriched housing, counseling, education, employment and support to individuals in the community who have special needs, including the mentally disabled, substance abusers, persons living with HIV/AIDS, recently released ex-offenders, and the homeless, as well as overall community development." (See Defendant's Local Rule 56.1 Statement of Undisputed Material Facts, dated Sept. 28, 2008 ("Def. 56.1 Stmt.") (attached to the Declaration of Elissa Hutner in Support of Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, dated Sept. 29, 2008 ("Hutner Decl.") (Dkt. 20)), at ¶ 3 (citing Affidavit of Serge Joachim, sworn to Sept. 23, 2008 ("Joachim Aff.") (attached to the Hutner Decl., as Ex. B)), at ¶ 2; Plaintiff's Statement Pursuant to Local Rule 56, dated Oct. 22, 2008 ("Pl. 56.1 Stmt.") (Dkt. 25), at ¶ 2.)

Plaintiff was employed by Defendant for approximately 12 years, until March of 2007. (Lee Aff., at ¶ 1.) Defendant hired Plaintiff as a residence counselor in March 1995 and promoted her in 2002 to the position of unit supervisor of a program known as Supported Housing. (See Transcript of the Deposition of Irwisa Lee, conducted Aug. 20, 2008 ("Lee Dep.") (attached to Hutner Decl., at Ex. A), at 6-7, 10.) Plaintiff's immediate supervisor was Serge Joachim ("Joachim"), Director of Defendant's Community Residential Programs. (Def. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 4 (citing Lee Dep., at 12; Joachim Aff., at ¶ 1); Pl. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 4.) By 2006, as unit supervisor, Plaintiff was responsible for 100 beds (i.e., 100 residents), in apartments scattered throughout the Bronx and Manhattan. (Def. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 5 (citing Lee Dep., at 7, 11; Joachim Aff., at ¶¶ 10-11); Pl. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 5.) Plaintiff was also responsible for supervising three residence counselors (see Lee Dep., at 7; Joachim Aff., at ¶ 5), and for meeting with them regularly to review their cases, the services they were performing, and the accuracy and timeliness of their progress notes (see Joachim Aff., at ¶ 6; Lee Dep., at 23-27). For each resident for whom the staff provided services, the staff prepared a Restorative Services Plan ("RSP")*fn3 to document those services, and Plaintiff then submitted the RSPs to her supervisor, Joachim. (See Lee Dep., at 14.) Plaintiff was also responsible for submitting, to Joachim, weekly reports that provided information as to whether any paperwork or documentation was incomplete. (See Def. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶¶ 7-8 (citing Lee Dep., at 17-18, 21, 25); Pl. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶¶ 7-8.)

1. Events Prior To March 2007

In March 2006, the New York State Office of Mental Health awarded Defendant an additional 24 beds. (Def. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 6 (citing Lee Dep., at 11-12; 44-45; 48; Joachim Aff., at ¶ 11; id. at Ex. 2 (Defendant Weekly Report, dated 11/06 ("Weekly Report"))).) According to Defendant, it had originally planned to assign these additional beds to Plaintiff, but she refused to accept the beds on the grounds that she was stressed and had too much work. (See id.; see also Joachim Aff., at ¶ 10.) At her deposition, Plaintiff confirmed that Defendant had wanted to assign the additional beds to her (Lee Dep., at 43-45), but she testified that Defendant did not plan to increase her pay for taking on the additional work (see id. at 45 ("There was a lot of stress going on there because they wanted me to take over more beds for the same money.")). According to Plaintiff, she did not refuse the assignment of the additional 24 beds, but instead told Joachim that she "would take on the additional beds for an increase in salary." (Lee Aff., at ¶ 10; see Pl. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 6.) In opposition to Defendant's motion, Plaintiff further asserts that "at no time did [she] say [she] was 'stressed' or had too much work." (Lee Aff., at ¶ 10.)

In any event, Defendant eventually made the decision not to assign Plaintiff the additional beds, but rather to split Supported Housing evenly into two units, each with its own supervisor. (Def. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 6 (citing Lee Dep., at 11-12, 44-45, 48; Joachim Aff., at ¶ 11; Weekly Report).) Plaintiff retained 62 beds (rather than the 100 for which she had previously had responsibility), and her unit became known as "Supported Housing 1." (Id.) A new unit supervisor was appointed for the remaining 62 beds, in a second unit called "Supported Housing 2." (Id.)

2. Facts Relating to Plaintiff's Initial Request for Sick Leave, in March 2007

Around February of 2007, Plaintiff began to have problems with a residence counselor under her supervision, Joanne Rivers ("Rivers"), who, according to Plaintiff, had reportedly been abusing clients. (Lee Dep., at 28-30.) On or about February 27, 2007,*fn4 Plaintiff and Rivers apparently "got into a shouting match" that was so loud that it disrupted a meeting being held by Defendant's Executive Director, Jorge Abreu ("Abreu").*fn5 (Joachim Aff., at ¶ 26; see id. at Ex. 6 (Memorandum to File, dated Mar. 20, 2007 ("3/20/07 File Mem."), at 1.) At the time of the incident, Joachim was away from the office on vacation, so Plaintiff met with his assistant Joan Douglas ("Douglas") to discuss the altercation with Rivers. (See Lee Dep., at 29-30, 33.) She also discussed the incident in a supervisors' meeting at which James Woods ("Woods"), Defendant's Chief Operating Officer, was present. (Id. at 29, 37-39; see Joachim Aff., at ¶ 26; 3/20/07 File Mem., at 1.) Woods placed Rivers on a temporary administrative suspension, until Joachim's return. (Joachim Aff., at ¶ 27; 3/20/07 File Mem., at 1.)

Upon Joachim's return on March 1, 2007, Douglas briefed him regarding Plaintiff and Rivers's altercation. (Joachim Aff., at ¶ 28; see 3/20/07 File Mem., at 1.) While Joachim was conferring with Douglas, Plaintiff arrived at Joachim's office to speak with him. (See id.) Joachim advised Plaintiff that he was in a meeting and that he would "get back to her" once the meeting was over. (Joachim Aff., at ¶ 28.)

Plaintiff then went to Abreu's office. (Def. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 10 (citing Lee Dep., at 38, 40; Joachim Aff., at ¶ 12).) Plaintiff spoke with Abreu to tell him about her problem with Rivers (Lee Dep., at 37; 39), and also to tell him that she "was feeling stressed about what was going on" and needed a week off from work (Def. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶¶ 10-11 (citing Lee Dep., at 38, 40; Joachim Aff., at ¶ 12); Pl. 56.1 Stmt, at ¶¶ 10-11). According to Plaintiff, she told Abreu that she was stressed due to "a combination of things." (Def. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶¶ 12-13 (citing Lee Dep., at 41-42); Pl. Stmt., at ¶¶ 12-13.)*fn6 Abreu told Plaintiff to take a week off and to bring back a doctor's note. (Def. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 14 (citing Lee Dep., at 42-43); Pl. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 14.)*fn7

Following her meeting with Abreu, Plaintiff submitted a "Leave Time Utilization" ("LTU") form, indicating that she would be requesting sick leave. (Joachim Aff., at ¶ 12; id. at Ex. 3.*fn8 Plaintiff also submitted a memorandum to Defendant's Fiscal Department, stating that she would be "going out on sick leave as of 3/2/07," that she would be "using her sick time,"and that she would "submit documentation from her doctor." (Joachim Aff., Ex. 4 (Memorandum to Fiscal Department from Irwisa Lee, dated Mar. 1, 2007); Lee Dep., at 36.) As of March 1, when she requested this leave, Plaintiff had not made a doctor's appointment (her doctor saw patients on a "walk-in" basis), but she confirmed at her deposition that it had already been decided that she would take a week off from work. (Lee Dep., at 43.)

According to Defendant, Plaintiff did not expressly request leave pursuant to Defendant's Family Leave Policy,*fn9 (Def. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 38 (citing Joachim Aff., at ¶¶ 15, 22; id. at Ex. 8 (Defendant's Family Leave Policy ("Def. Leave Policy"))), or the Family and Medical Leave Act (Joachim Aff., at ¶ 14), and she did not advise Defendant that she suffered from a serious medical condition (Def. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 39 (citing Lee Dep., at 40; Joachim Aff., at ¶ 14)). Plaintiff disputes this, claiming that she requested and was granted a "medical" leave, and that she complied with Defendant's request to provide a doctor's note. (See Pl. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 38; Lee Aff., at ¶¶ 2-6.) Plaintiff states that Defendant accepted the note and did not request further documentation. (Lee Aff., at ¶ 5.) Plaintiff further states that, during her leave, she was unable to work and that she saw two doctors, one of whom increased her prescription blood pressure medication. (Id. at ¶¶ 3, 6.)

During her period of sick leave, Plaintiff saw Dr. Ruben U. Carvajal, whom she described at her deposition as "[her] medical doctor." (Lee Dep., at 56.) Dr. Carvajal provided Plaintiff with the note that she submitted to Defendant. (Def. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 17; Pl. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 17; see Joachim Aff., Ex. 5 (Note from Dr. Carvajal, dated Mar. 3, 2007).) The note stated that Plaintiff was suffering from "acute stress secondary to job-related issues since 3/1/07" and advised that Plaintiff "rest." (Id.) The note further stated that Plaintiff would be able to return to work on March 12, 2007. (See id.; see also Lee Dep., at 56.)

Plaintiff testified that, when she visited Dr. Carvajal, she also complained of abdominal pain, and that, as a result, he referred her to her gynecologist, Dr. Chang, whom she then saw on March 5, 2007. (Lee Dep., at 57.) At least for purposes of the pending motion, however, Lee does not appear to argue that she was suffering from any type of abdominal or gynecological ailment during the period of her leave, and she admits that she did not provide Defendant with any note or other documentation from Dr. Chang. (See Def. 56.1 Stmt, at ¶ 20 (citing Joachim Aff., at ¶ 13); Pl. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 20; see also Lee Dep., at 58.)

Plaintiff also states that, prior to March 2007, she had a history of hypertension, which was known to Defendant, and that, during the period of her sick leave, one of the two doctors she saw (she does not state which one) increased her blood pressure medication. (Def. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 18 (citing Lee Dep., at 51-52); Pl. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 18; see Lee Aff., at ¶ 6.) The record, however, contains no documentation of this change in medication; no evidence of any increased dosage amount; no evidence of the actual or expected duration of any change in any pre-existing prescription; and no evidence that any change in Plaintiff's medication was necessitated by the stress for which she took leave. Plaintiff does not claim to have been prescribed any psychiatric medications for her episode of stress, and the record also contains no evidence that Dr. Carvajal treated Plaintiff for stress by doing anything more than see her on the single occasion that Plaintiff reports. (Def. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 19 (citing Lee Dep., at 51-52); Pl. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 19; see also Lee Dep., at 57-58 (Plaintiff could not recall whether she scheduled a follow-up appointment with Dr. Carvajal).) Plaintiff concedes that, apart from the increase in her blood pressure medication, she was not prescribed any other treatment, by any health care provider, during her leave. (Def. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 19 (citing Lee Dep., at 51-52); Pl. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 19.)

3. Defendant's Review of Plaintiff's Work and the Decision To Remove Her from Her Position as Unit Supervisor

On March 1, 2007, the same date that Plaintiff had requested sick leave, Joachim met with Rivers to discuss her altercation with Plaintiff. (Joachim Aff., at ¶ 31.) When Rivers met with Joachim, she complained about a lack of supervision by Plaintiff. (Id. at ¶ 32.) Specifically, Rivers told Joachim that a number of RSPs were outdated and that Plaintiff had not provided Rivers with assistance on how to update them. (Id.) As a result of Rivers' complaint, and while Plaintiff was out of the office on sick leave, Joachim reviewed several of Supported Housing 1's RSPs, and discovered that the plans were outdated and incomplete. (Id. at ¶¶ 33-35; Def. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 25 (citing Joachim Aff., at ¶ 34).) According to Joachim, his review contradicted Plaintiff's weekly reports, which had stated that there were no incomplete RSPs, progress notes or other documentation (Joachim Aff., at ¶ 33); further, Joachim asserts that Plaintiff knew or should have known that her reports were incorrect and misleading (Joachim Aff., at ¶ 34; Def. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 26 (citing Joachim Aff., at ¶ 35)).*fn10 Thus, Joachim attests that, to his belief, Plaintiff had intentionally falsified her reports. (Def. 56.1 Stmt, at ¶ 27 (citing Joachim Aff., at ¶¶ 35, 38).) Joachim further states that, in light of the incomplete records, as well as "Plaintiff's inability to supervise her staff[,] and her inappropriate, disruptive behavior," he came to believe that Plaintiff could no longer serve as unit supervisor of Supported Housing 1. (Def. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 28 (citing Joachim Aff., at ¶¶ 25-32); see also Joachim Aff., at ¶ 36.)

Plaintiff disputes Joachim's assertions regarding her purported misconduct, and avers that, in the course of her employment, "[she] never falsified any records or failed to keep records properly up to date." (Lee Aff., at ¶ 11; Pl. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 25.) Plaintiff also asserts that she had discovered some records that were outdated due to the neglect of other workers, and that Defendant was aware of this problem and was also aware of her work to correct them. (Lee Aff., at ¶ 11.)

4. Plaintiff's Return To Work on March 12, 2007, and Her Second Leave of Absence

When Plaintiff returned to work on March 12, 2007, she purportedly felt much better, was no longer stressed, and was ready to work. (Def. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 16 (citing Lee Dep., at 51-53); Pl. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 16.) On the same date, however, Joachim met with Plaintiff to tell her that she would no longer be the supervisor of Supported Housing 1. (Def. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 21 (citing Lee Dep., at 59-60; Joachim Aff., at ¶ 37); Pl. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 21.) Plaintiff also met with both Joachim and Woods, together, regarding this decision. (See Def. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 23 (citing Lee Dep., at 60-61); Pl. 56.1 Stmt., at ¶ 23; see also Lee Dep., at 63.) They informed her that, rather than remain in current position as supervisor of 62 beds, she could become the supervisor of a 26-bed unit, with the beds located mostly in Queens. (Lee Dep., at 59-60; Joachim Aff., at ¶ 37.) Plaintiff asserts that she asked if she could have additional staff to work with her, if she were to accept such a position, as it had been indicated to her that one of the Queens apartments had been taken over by drug dealers and that she would therefore be required to retrieve the apartment from the drug dealers. (See Lee Dep.,at 60-61.) Joachim and Woods informed Plaintiff that she would not be given any additional staff for the position. (See id. at 61.) When Plaintiff continued to ask for staff, Joachim again said "no" (id.), and, at that point, according to Plaintiff, Woods turned around and said, "You're going to do it or resign"(id.).

Defendant portrays the events of March 12 somewhat differently. According to Defendant, when Plaintiff returned from leave on that date, Joachim told her that he had reviewed the documentation for her unit and found it to be outdated, which, at the time, Plaintiff did not dispute. (Joachim Aff., at ΒΆ 37.) Joachim then offered Plaintiff two options -- either to take the smaller 26-bed unit in Queens as supervisor, with no decrease in pay or title, or to be demoted to a "Case Worker" position in Manhattan, at a lower salary. (Id.) Joachim states that he warned Plaintiff that, if she did not take either of the positions, she ...


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