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Kim v. Columbia University

July 1, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Robert P. Patterson, Jr., U.S.D.J.


Plaintiff John Kim filed this lawsuit against Columbia University in July 2006, alleging unlawful employment discrimination on the basis of his race and his age, resulting in the termination of his employment. Defendant Columbia University moved for summary judgment on February 11, 2010.


The Plaintiff enrolled as a student at the School of Engineering and Computer Science at Columbia University in 1986. (Deposition of John Y. Kim, October 30, 2009 ("Kim Depo."), 95.) At the same time, he was hired as a consultant at the Dohr Computer Lab at Columbia Business School. (Id., 96-97.) In October 1987, he took a position as a Local Area Network Coordinator at Columbia Business School, a position that paid $19,000 as annual salary. (Id., 98.) In June 1988, he was promoted to Manager of Microcomputer Systems, in the computing activities center at the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University. (Id., 101.) The new position made Plaintiff an administrative officer of the University and entitled him to an annual salary of $28,000.

(Id.) On May 31, 1989, he was given a raise from $28,000 to $33,500 annual salary. (Id., 103.) On June 21, 1990, the Plaintiff was promoted to Assistant Director of Microcomputer Systems and Computing Activities and was given a raise, so that his new salary was $42,000 per year. (Id., 104.) In June 1991, he was given another raise, which brought his annual salary to $44,100. (Id., 105.) The Plaintiff was released from his employment, effective April 6, 1992. (Defendant's Exhibit ("D. Ex.") E.)

The Plaintiff self identifies as Asian-American. (Id., 107.) He was born on September 26, 1948, making him thirty-eight years old when he was hired by Columbia University, and forty-four years old when he was released from his employment. (D. Ex. H.)

On March 27, 1991, the Plaintiff's Supervisor, Richard Sacks, Executive Director for Information Technology issued a warning letter to the Plaintiff. (D. Ex. L.) In the letter, Sacks stated: (1) that in November 1990 the Plaintiff had previously disappeared from his job for two days without notice; (2) that the Plaintiff had been warned after that disappearance; (3) that the Plaintiff engaged in "bouts of inappropriate and uncivil behavior toward other members of the staff"; and (4) that the letter was a "formal and final warning," which notified Plaintiff that "[a]ny further behavior of the kind that has been discussed will result in [Plaintiff's] immediate dismissal." (Id.) Sacks also testified about these instances of "uncivil, verbally abusive behavior" directed at other staff members in his deposition for this case. (Deposition of Richard Sacks, September 14, 2009 ("Sacks Depo."), 73-74.) He described two instances in which the Plaintiff "went ballistic at other staff members and [was] yelling at them and screaming at them and verbally abusing them in the kinds of sort of personal characterizations." (Id., 74-75.) In testimony before the New York State Division on Human Rights (SDHR), the Plaintiff disputed this characterization, testifying that he had not been warned in November 1990 and that he had not behaved uncivilly towards his co-workers as described in Sacks' letter. (Transcript of John Kim's Testimony before the New York State Division on Human Rights ("Kim Tr."), 801-04, 1047-48.) Plaintiff also testified at the SDHR proceeding that he was asked "to perform floating general labor, by having [him] take the trash out [and] move the furniture," and that he was the only staff member at his level who was asked to perform these "menial" tasks. (Kim Tr. 2508-09.)

In July 1991, James Haggard replaced Sacks as the Executive Director for Information Technology. (Kim Tr. 48.) Haggard had testified that he instituted certain department-wide policies that required employees to fill out a form known as an internal purchase order (IPO) before making any purchases. (Transcript of James Haggard's Testimony before the New York State Division on Human Rights ("Haggard Tr."), 1332-33.) Haggard employed Vanessa Clark, a student at the business school, as a certified public accountant, to assist him in overseeing and controlling the budget. (Id., 1328-29). Haggard testified that Kim was resistant to these changes, and that he refused to complete the IPOs as required. (Id., 1359.)

Clark testified that, on March 19, 1992, she went to the Plaintiff's office to discuss some equipment that had been purchased for which she could not locate an IPO. (Deposition of Lori Vanessa Clark, September 15, 2009 ("Clark Depo."), 10-12.) She testified that Plaintiff admitted that he had not completed an IPO, and that he then became upset, "got very angry and raised [his] voice." (Id., 10.) She testified that she then left his office to return to hers, and as she left, the Plaintiff either threw or kicked a box towards her. (Id., 19.) The box did not hit Clark, but instead hit the doorframe of her office. (Id., 31.) Haggard also testified that he heard raised voices and saw an empty box near Clark's office door when he went to investigate. (Kim Tr. 2485-89.) The Plaintiff disputes this characterization, and asserts that it was Clark who raised her voice and "screamed and yelled" and that he did not throw a box toward Clark. (Id., 1051, 2506-07.)

Clark reported the incident to Haggard, who reported the incident to Rona Carr, the head of human resources at the Business School, and to his direct supervisor, Associate Dean Gerry Lewis. (Haggard Tr. 1344, 1348-51.) Carr recommended immediate suspension of the Plaintiff for a period of two weeks, which was agreed to by Dean Lewis. (Id., 1350-51.) The next morning, Haggard and Carr presented the Plaintiff with a "final warning" letter suspending him and "informed him that the behavior that he had demonstrated was clearly unacceptable." (Id., 1352.)

Haggard testified that after the suspension, Carr informed him of the prior "final warning" letter and that he had not known about this letter prior to the suspension. (Id., 1365.) After further discussions with Carr and Dean Lewis, Haggard concluded that it would be necessary to terminate the Plaintiff's employment. (Id., 1367.) He based his decision on Clark's account of the March 19, 1992 incident, Sacks' letter, the counsel of Carr and Dean Lewis, and his discovery, during Kim's suspension, that Kim had been repeatedly violating his internal policy for the purchase of equipment.*fn1 (Id., 1365-67, 1719-21.) Upon the Plaintiff's return to work on April 6, 1992, he was notified that his employment with Columbia was terminated. (Id., 1367-68; D. Ex. E.) Plaintiff has not been employed since his release from employment with Columbia in 1992. (Kim Tr. 973.) He has applied for jobs, but has met with no success. (Kim Tr. 984-85, 1009; Kim Dep. 50-51, 139.)

Plaintiff testified that, following the termination of his employment, Columbia replaced him with an individual who was nineteen years old and not Asian-American. (Id., 2444, 2590). Plaintiff also testified that in 1992, he was the only Asian-American working at his pay grade level (or at any higher levels) in the Graduate School of Business. (Id., 2557.) He also testified that he was the only Asian-American in his work unit and that, to the best of his knowledge, he was the oldest person in his work unit. (Id., 2589.) Haggard testified that, after the termination of the Plaintiff's employment, "there was . . . a reorganization of responsibilities" and that he ultimately hired several different people to replace the Plaintiff. (Deposition of James Haggard, September 15, 2009 ("Haggard Depo."), 93.) Sacks testified that there was at least one other Asian-American in the Plaintiff's work unit during Sacks' tenure as Executive Director for Information Technology. (Transcript of Richard Sacks' Testimony before the New York State Division on Human Rights ("Sacks Tr."), 850-51.)

Soon after his termination, Plaintiff wrote to Columbia University's Vice President for Personnel Management and Human Resources, requesting a formal hearing to contest his suspension and termination. (D. Ex. O.) On April 29, 1992, the Plaintiff also filed an internal discrimination complaint, alleging discrimination on the basis of his race, age, and unspecified disability. (D. Ex. P.) A committee convened in June 1992 to consider the grievance, combined with the discrimination complaint. (D. Ex. R.) The committee interviewed Carr, Lewis, Haggard, Clark, and Kim. (D. Ex. T.) The committee prepared a draft report on June 25, 1992 that concluded: (1) "the department's action to release Mr. Kim from employment was not carried out according to proper procedure"; and (2) "[t]he department's decision that Mr. Kim's release was required may be supportable." (Id.) A second draft report was prepared on July 13, 1992, which stated that "the Graduate School of Business acted properly first in its suspension and then in its release of John Kim." (D. Ex. U.) A draft report prepared on September 28, 1992 contained the exact same conclusion. (D. Ex. V.) The final report was sent to Senior Vice President Joseph Mullinix on October 16, 1992, concluding that the suspension and release of the Plaintiff were proper. (D. Ex. W.) One committee member, former Dean of the Business School, Professor John C. Burton,*fn2 dissented from this conclusion, and wrote separately to express ...

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