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Saaidi v. CFAS

September 17, 2010

HUDA SAAIDI, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CFAS, LLC, INDIVIDUALLY AND D/B/A EDIFI; AND JOHN BRAAT, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gary L. Sharpe District Court Judge

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Huda Saaidi commenced this action against defendants CFAS, LLC, individually and doing business as EDIFI (EDIFI), and John Braat, alleging employment-related gender discrimination and unlawful retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,*fn1 the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL),*fn2 and the Administrative Code of the City of Albany.*fn3 (See Compl., Dkt. No. 1.) Pending is defendants' motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. (Dkt. No. 25.) For the reasons that follow, the motion to dismiss is denied, and the motion for summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part.

II. Background

EDIFI is a company "in the business of providing consulting services concerning college financial aid to families." (See Grimmick Aff., Ex. F, Employment Agreement at 1, Dkt. No. 25:9.) On February 26, 2006, EDIFI hired Huda Saaidi as a "sales counselor." (See Defs. SMF ¶ 1, Dkt. No. 25:3.) As a sales counselor, Saaidi would spend weekends in various locations throughout the United States selling EDIFI's services to college-bound students and their families. (See Def. Mem. of Law at 1, Dkt. No. 25:32.) Under Saaidi's employment agreement, Saaidi was "paid a 'draw' plus a commission based upon the number of sales [she made]." (See Defs. SMF ¶ 4, Dkt. No. 25:3.)

Saaidi alleges that soon after beginning her employment with EDIFI, she was "subjected to numerous acts of sexual harassment and discrimination based on her gender, creating a hostile work environment, and unlawful retaliation." (Compl. ¶ 22, Dkt. No. 1.) Saaidi claims she was first harassed by another EDIFI employee, Bradley Culkin, during a February 2006 business trip. (See id. at¶ 23.) According to Saaidi, "after learning that [she] was hungry but afraid to leave the hotel at night by herself," Culkin "lur[ed her] to his hotel room under the guise of having food in his room," and told her "you are my kind of girl and you and me are going to fuck one day." (Id.) Saaidi also claims that Culkin continued the harassment during another business trip "some time in 2007," when "he kissed [her] forehead" after she declined his offer "to join him and other employees at the hotel pool for drinks." (Id. at¶ 24.) According to Saaidi, she responded to his advances by stating: "It is never going to happen. You need to stop because this is making me uncomfortable." (Id. at ¶ 25.)

Saaidi further alleges that two other EDIFI employees, John Lockwood and Ryan Vaughn, also engaged in sexually harassing conduct. (See id. at ¶¶ 26-29.) As to Lockwood, Saaidi claims that while on a business trip in March 2006, he "made sexual advances toward [her] by hugging and kissing [her]," and "asked [her] if she was cold and inappropriately put his arm around her." (Id. at ¶¶ 26, 27.) Saaidi also alleges that Lockwood "insisted on walking [her] to her hotel room after she mentioned she was tired," and, once there, "kissed her hand." (Id. at 28.) As to Vaughn, Saaidi contends that he touched her in a sexually inappropriate manner during a July 7, 2006 bus trip. (Id. at ¶ 29.) According to Saaidi, she, Lockwood, and Vaughn "were engaged in flirtatious behavior" when "Vaughn took it further by putting his hand around [Saaidi's] waist and squeezed her thigh in a sexually inappropriate manner." (Id.; see also Pl. Mem. of Law at 1, Dkt. No. 29.) As to Saaidi's participation in the "flirtatious behavior," defendants allege that Saaidi "sat on [Vaughn's] lap, placed her hands inside his pants, and started to kiss and lick his neck as the bus proceeded through a tunnel." (See Def. SMF ¶ 17, Dkt. No. 25:3.)

On August 5, 2006, Saaidi verbally complained to her direct supervisor, Frank Merola, about Lockwood and Vaughn's behavior. (See Compl. ¶ 30, Dkt. No. 1.) In an e-mail dated August 9, 2006, Merola relayed Saaidi's complaint to Stacey Connors, EDIFI's Human Resources representative. (See Def. SMF ¶ 16, Dkt. No. 25:3.) In addition, both Lockwood and Vaughn filed their own complaints against Saaidi, each alleging that Saaidi initiated contact with them and that they were sexually harassed by her. (See id. at ¶¶ 17, 18.)

At some point after the complaints were filed, Saaidi requested that EDIFI alter her schedule so that she would not have to work with Lockwood or Vaughn, explaining that working with either would cause her "anxiety and stress." (See id. at ¶ 22; Pl. Mem. of Law at 2, Dkt. No. 29.) According to Saaidi, however, EDIFI ignored her schedule request and purposefully scheduled her to work with Lockwood and Vaughn, allegedly "in retaliation for her complaint, and in an effort to further harass [her]." (See Pl. Counter SMF ¶ 23, Dkt. No. 29:6; Pl. Mem. of Law at 2, Dkt. No. 29.)

Based on Saaidi, Lockwood, and Vaughn's complaints, EDIFI undertook an investigation pursuant to its sexual harassment policy. (See id. at ¶ 19.) The investigation was conducted by John Braat, EDIFI Chief Operations Officer, and Maura Kastberg, EDIFI Vice President. (See id. at ¶ 20.) In September 2006, at the conclusion of the investigation, EDIFI "admonished all three parties, including [Saadi], for their conduct and warned them to comply with company policies regarding employee conduct and sexual harassment in the future." (Id. ¶ 21.)

According to Saaidi, EDIFI's investigation was improperly handled. First, Saaidi claims that Braat and Kastberg "intimidated and coerced" her into "sign[ing] a false form containing lies that she... instigated sexual harassment towards Lockwood and... Vaughn." (See Pl. Mem. of Law at 2, Dkt. No. 29.) Second, Saaidi contends that she was "belittled and badgered for 'being in the wrong,'" and that she "was implicitly threatened with termination if she did not sign the statement."*fn4 (See id.) And third, Saaidi alleges that although "[she] identified a witness that could corroborate her statements and version of the incidents that were being investigated,... [EDIFI] made no effort to interview [the] witness[]." (Id.)

Saadi further alleges that EDIFI's unlawful treatment extended beyond Braat and Kastberg's investigation. Specifically, Saaidi claims that beginning in August 2006, she "was treated in a disparate manner in retaliation for her having filed a sexual harassment complaint with her supervisor." (Id.) She contends that EDIFI began "to deny [her] expense reports claims," "to overly criticize [her] work when there was no apparent reason for such criticism," and "to restrict [her] ability to attend various venues/events by not allowing [her] to fly out of Michigan airports." (Id. at 3.) Saaidi also claims that Merola would "proffer unsubstantiated conclusions regarding [her] demeanor or work ethic, such as consistently ask [her] why she wasn't enthusiastic or why she didn't like her job," and that he "would attend [her] presentations and stand or stare in a threatening manner in an effort to intimidate [her]." (Id.) In addition, Saaidi alleges that EDIFI improperly excluded her from attending various sales events on the basis of her low sales numbers, and that this exclusion resulted in a "significant" reduction in her earnings. (See id.; Grimmick Aff., Ex. E, Pl. Dep. at 336-338, Dkt. No. 26:8.)According to Saadi, while she was repeatedly told that she could not attend these events until her sales numbers improved, employees with lower sales figures were, without explanation, sent in her place. (See Pl. Mem. of Law at 4, Dkt. No. 29.) Furthermore, Saaidi also claims that she complained to Merola of retaliatory conduct, but was told not to bring it up because "[Braat] would see [her] as a troublemaker." (See id. at 2.)

In March 2007, Saadi was granted an educational leave of absence from her employment with EDIFI. (See Defs. SMF ¶¶ 24, 25, Dkt. No. 25:3.) In August 2007, Saadi requested reinstatement with EDIFI and was rehired as a sales counselor soon thereafter. (See id. at ¶ 26, 27.) Then, on December 13, 2007, Saaidi filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) and the New York State Division of Human Rights, alleging unlawful retaliation. (See id. at ¶ 28.) In her complaint, Saaidi claimed that as a result of her 2006 complaint of sexual harassment, she was "falsely accused of sexual harassment and other wrongdoing," and that "she was not being regularly scheduled for venues upon return from [her] leave of absence." (Grimmick Aff., Ex. U, EEOC Compl. at 1, Dkt. No. 25:24.) Saaidi also stated that "although [she] was scheduled for a venue on 10/20-21/2007, [she] was denied attendance at five sessions, severely limiting her sales potential," and that she "believe[d] that management [was] trying to force [her] to quit." (Id.)

Saaidi alleges that similar retaliatory treatment persisted after the filing of her EEOC complaint. Saaidi claims, for instance, that in March 2008, Merola continued to tell her that she would not be sent on sales events until her numbers improved. (See Pl. Mem. of Law at 4, Dkt. No. 29.) In Saaidi's view, Merola's explanation in this regard was pretextual since "she could not get her 'numbers up' unless she attended [the sales events]." (See id. at 3-4)

Ultimately, in April 2008, Saaidi left her employment with EDIFI and applied for unemployment benefits. (See Defs. SMF ¶ 35, Dkt. No. 25:3; Compl. ¶ 45, Dkt. No.1.) Then, on July 28, 2008, Saadi received a "right to sue" letter from the EEOC. (See Grimmick Aff., Ex. BB, Right to Sue Letter, Dkt. No. 25:31.) On October 14, 2008, Saaidi commenced this action against EDIFI and Braat, alleging claims of hostile work environment, constructive discharge, and unlawful retaliation, all under Title VII and ...


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