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Dixon v. International Federation of Accountants

April 12, 2010

PATRICIA DIXON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION OF ACCOUNTANTS, RUSSELL GUTHRIE, IAN BALL, SYLVIA BARRETT, AND "DOES 1-10," DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Harold Baer, Jr., District Judge

OPINION & ORDER

Plaintiff Patricia Dixon ("Plaintiff" or "Dixon") brings suit against Defendants International Federation of Accountants ("IFAC"), Russell Guthrie ("Guthrie"), Ian Ball ("Ball"), Sylvia Barrett ("Barrett") and "Does 1-10," (collectively "Defendants") for employment discrimination based on age, race, and national origin, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000 et seq., the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., Section 1981 of the Civil Rights At of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, the New York State Human Rights Law ("NYSHRL"), N.Y. Exec. Law § 296 et seq., and the New York City Human Rights Law ("NYCHRL"), N.Y.C.R.R. § 8-107. Plaintiff also alleges that Defendants retaliated against her for her complaints about discrimination, in violation of Title VII and New York State and City law. Finally, Plaintiff alleges common law breach of contract by IFAC and tortious interference with contract by the individual defendants. Defendants moved for summary judgment on all counts, while Plaintiff cross-moved for partial summary judgment on her contract and tortious interference claims. For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motion for summary judgment is GRANTED, Plaintiff's motion is DENIED, and this case is DISMISSED.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND*fn1

This employment discrimination action, with ancillary common law claims, is brought against Plaintiff's former employer and certain co-workers and supervisors. Plaintiff Patricia Dixon is a 51 year-old black female from Jamaica who worked for IFAC from early 2006 to fall 2007. Defendant IFAC is a professional organization for accountants and accounting organizations, located in New York City. Defendant Ian Ball is a 61 year-old white male from New Zealand, and is IFAC's Chief Executive Officer. Defendant Russell Guthrie is a 44 year-old white male from the United States, and is IFAC's Director of Quality and Member Relations. Defendant Sylvia Barrett is a 41 year-old Asian female and a Canadian citizen, and is IFAC's Deputy Director of Communications.

In 2006, Plaintiff submitted a resume to IFAC, and in February of that year was contacted by Guthrie about an interview for a position called Senior Technical Manager -- Transnational Auditors Committee ("STM/TAC"). The purpose of the position was, essentially, to act as a liaison and relationship manager between IFAC and certain high-profile member organizations. She was interviewed by Guthrie and Ball.*fn2 Barrett also met with Dixon, but Plaintiff states that it was merely an introductory meeting and not an interview. Thereafter, Guthrie recommended that IFAC extend an offer of employment to Dixon, and Ball decided to hire her. Through the interview process, or at some point early in her employment, the Defendants all became aware of Plaintiff's age, race, and national origin. Dixon accepted employment with IFAC on March 6, 2006.

Plaintiff was sent a letter from Ball on February 27, 2006, which extended an offer of employment for the STM/TAC position. See Umoh Decl., Ex. 4 (Letter from Ball to Dixon, Feb. 27, 2006). The attached job description indicated that Dixon's official supervisor would be Ball. The letter stated that the employment agreement would start in March 2006, "and continue for three years, with an option to renew for additional periods, should both parties be agreeable."

Id., ¶ 2. It also stated that, due to the "crucial role" of this position, "[i]t is therefore anticipated that, as a matter of professional courtesy, should you or IFAC choose to terminate this agreement before the end of the three year contract period, notice of at least three (3) months will be provided." Id. at ¶ 10. The letter also stated that "[t]his contract is subject to the terms and conditions of employment outlined in the IFAC Employee Handbook." Id. The letter itself contained no specific termination conditions. However, the IFAC Employee Handbook stated in two separate locations that New York is an "at will" employment state and that this meant "you have the right to terminate your employment at any time," and, "[c]onversely, IFAC can also choose to terminate your employment at any time." Schatz Decl., Ex. A at i, 4 (IFAC Employee Handbook, dated Feb. 18, 2004).*fn3 Under grounds for "misconduct resulting in disciplinary action" that included termination, the handbook listed, inter alia, "unsatisfactory job performance or inability to cooperate with other employees." Id. at 8. Dixon signed the employment agreement letter and admits that she received and read a copy of the handbook prior to accepting the employment offer.

For the first eight months of her employment Dixon "shadowed" Guthrie to assist in learning her new position, and because some of his current responsibilities would be shifted to her position. Guthrie found her job performance "satisfactory" and her work on certain reports to be "adequate." She received an "exceeds expectations" mark for "cultivation of relationships" on her 2006 evaluation, and also received a certificate, which all IFAC employees received, that described her as "hardworking, talented, and energetic." At the end of 2006, she received a $5,000 raise and $1,000 bonus. On the other hand, Defendants describe a litany of acknowledged and otherwise unrefuted concerns about her job performance, with a particular focus on her interpersonal skills. In April, 2006, Guthrie informed Dixon that an interaction between herself and an administrative assistant, Neil Berenholz, caused him to become so upset that he cried. Her November 2006 annual performance evaluation, while containing some positive feedback and the aforementioned "exceeds expectations" check mark for certain items, her overall performance was deemed to "meet expectations" and specifically indicated that she needed to improve her interpersonal relationships, particularly with employees that worked below her. In January and March 2007, a variety of IFAC employees, none of whom are defendants, lodged complaints with the human resources department about Plaintiff, all of which focused on her management skills and job performance.*fn4 At some time in mid-June 2007, an IFAC employee, Christine Lopez, left work early after a negative interaction with Dixon. On June 28, 2007, after another incident between Dixon and Berenholz that led to him also leaving work early, the Human Resources Manager, Dawn Tishkoff, notified Guthrie of the incident, and the two met with Dixon to discuss their concerns. According to Tishkoff, Plaintiff was warned that her behavior was unacceptable and could lead to discipline or termination.

A day later, on June 29, 2007, Ball met with Plaintiff at her request. It was at this meeting that Plaintiff allegedly complained about discriminatory treatment. According to Dixon, she complained of discriminatory behavior from both Guthrie and Barrett. She points to essentially three discrete incidents: (1) Barrett once said to Dixon that "she can't believe that IFAC could hire a black Jamaican woman at 48 years of age;" (2) Guthrie would yell at Dixon and use Dixon's garbage can in her office to dispose of his trash; and (3) she did not receive sufficient administrative support compared to others.*fn5 Defendants do not concur with Plaintiff's description of the meeting, and there are no contemporaneous records that describe what occurred. On that same day, Tishkoff sent a memo to Ball and another IFAC employee that described in detail the litany of complaints about Dixon that stretched from October 2006 to June 2007. Ball conducted a follow-up meeting with Dixon on July 26, 2007. Prior to that meeting, Ball received an e-mail from Tishkoff that described "talking points" for the meeting; this consisted essentially of a further description of complaints lodged about Dixon's management and performance. The recommended focus of the meeting was to explain that while Plaintiff was having communication problems with her co-workers, she should be encouraged to improve her performance and "turn this around." Tishkoff Decl., Ex D. Dixon continued to work for IFAC after these meetings.

In October 2007, Dixon received her second annual performance evaluation from Guthrie. According to Guthrie, her performance had deteriorated and her management skills had not improved. In addition, Dixon failed to complete the "self-review" portion of her evaluation by the agreed-upon deadline which she herself set, and ultimately never provided it. On or about October 24, 2007, Ball decided to terminate Dixon. Dixon did not raise any concerns about discriminatory or retaliatory conduct at the meeting where she was terminated. On August 21, 2008, Dixon filed a charge of retaliation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") but failed to include age, race, or national origin discrimination in her charge, though she insists it was supposed to have included those charges. On December 23, 2008, the EEOC determined that the evidence did not show a violation of the law, and declined to investigate further. Dixon filed this action on March 24, 2009.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Legal Standard

"Summary judgment will be granted if the moving party shows that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Salamon v. Our Lady of Victory Hosp., 514 F.3d 217, 226 (2d Cir. 2008) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). A material fact is one that will affect the outcome of the suit, and a dispute about a material fact occurs where there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable fact finder to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See Sista v. CDC Ixis North America, Inc., 445 F.3d 161, 169 (2d Cir. 2006). Evidence must be viewed in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, and all inferences must be drawn in their favor. See White River Amusement Pub, Inc. v. Town of Hartford, 481 F.3d 163, 167 (2d Cir. 2007). A party opposing summary judgment "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of the adverse party's pleading, but.must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Sista, 445 F.3d at 169; Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). Although district courts are encouraged to take caution with employment discrimination cases on a motion for summary judgment, "[e]ven ...


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