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Zamot v. Monroe County Dep't of Human Services

September 21, 2010

LUIS R. ZAMOT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MONROE COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Marian W. Payson United States Magistrate Judge

DECISION & ORDER

PRELIMINARY STATEMENT

Plaintiff Luis Zamot, acting pro se, has filed suit against his former employer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. Zamot alleges that he was subjected to a hostile work environment based upon his gender during his employment as a legal assistant with the Monroe County Department of Human Services (the "DHS"). (Docket # 1). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the parties have consented to the disposition of this case by a magistrate judge. (Docket # 13).

A bench trial was conducted before this Court in November 2009.*fn1 Zamot testified on his own behalf and elicited testimony from three witnesses with whom he worked in the DHS: legal assistant Kimberly Sekelsky; senior legal assistant Margaret Michniewicz; and senior examiner Robert Snead. The defense called four witnesses: New York State Administrative Law Judges Katharine Volk and Victoria Venn; Craig Roth, the supervisor of the DHS's Fair Hearing Office; Amy Doescher, a legal assistant; and Susan Walsh, former Deputy Director of the Monroe County Department of Human Resources. Based upon the findings of fact set forth below, and for the reasons explained more fully below, judgment is granted in favor of the defendant.

FINDINGS OF FACT

I. Zamot's Hiring and First Two Days in the Fair Hearing Office

In May 2005, the County of Monroe (the "County") hired Zamot as a legal assistant assigned to the DHS's Fair Hearing Office (the "FHO"). (Tr. A 10; Tr. B 36; Exhibit ("Ex.") 1). Zamot was responsible for representing the County at administrative hearings, known as "fair hearings," held before New York State administrative law judges to determine whether the County is properly administering various public assistance and benefits programs.*fn2 (Tr. B 44, 78-80). Zamot later learned that the decision to hire him was made not by the FHO, but by the County's Law Department. (Tr. A 10, 31).

When he was hired, Zamot was the only male legal assistant in the FHO, but not the only male employee in the office. Craig Roth, a male, was Zamot's supervisor and Robert Snead, another male, joined the FHO as a senior examiner in February 2006. (Tr. A 20-21, 171; Tr. B 112). Throughout his twenty-seven month tenure in the FHO, all of Zamot's fellow legal assistants were women. (Tr. A 18, 171; Tr. C 14-15).

Zamot's first day of work was May 31, 2005. (Tr. A 10). On that date, he reported directly to the building in which fair hearings were held in order to observe senior legal assistant Margaret Michniewicz ("Michniewicz") represent the County in hearings that day. (Tr. A 10). Before the hearings began, Zamot met Michniewicz and another legal assistant, Kimberly Sekelsky ("Sekelsky"). (Tr. A 11, 90, 119). Zamot recalled that Sekelsky left the building before any hearings began, which Zamot believed revealed that her only purpose there had been to socialize with Michniewicz. (Tr. A 12, 16; Tr. C 2-3). Sekelsky credibly explained, however, that she was there that morning because she had a case that was scheduled on the calendar, but the client did not appear and the hearing was cancelled. (Tr. A 90-91).

The interaction between Zamot and Michniewicz that morning left them with very different impressions. Michniewicz testified that Zamot "made a very good first impression." (Tr. A 134). Specifically, she remembered that "he seemed confident, . . . dress[ed] well [and] sp[oke] well." (Id.). Zamot, by contrast, recounted several incidents that left him with an unfavorable impression of Michniewicz and the FHO environment he was joining. He testified, for example, that Michniewicz had appeared upset with him when she noticed him reviewing her case files -- an action that he took when one of the judges asked him to look for a file while Michniewicz was absent from the hearing room. (Tr. A 15-16). Zamot also testified about two comments that he found off-putting. First, in response to his observation that he was looking forward to helping clients, Michniewicz stated that their work was not "social work" and reminded him that their duty was to follow the regulations. (Tr. A 11, 124). The second comment that Zamot found disconcerting was Sekelsky's statement that she hoped he would not mind "talking loud over the cubicles [in the FHO office] . . . because there's a lot of conversation going on." (Tr. A 12, 14).

The following day, Zamot reported to the County's FHO office. (Tr. A 17). Because Zamot had spent his entire first day away from the office, Michniewicz took him around the office to introduce him to the other legal assistants. (Tr. A 18). She introduced him as the "new Barb," referring to the name of the legal assistant whom Zamot had been hired to replace. (Tr. A 18, 135-36). Michniewicz explained that it was common practice in the FHO to introduce a new employee by reference to the former employee whom the new employee was replacing, and she did not intend her introduction to be offensive. (Tr. A 135-37). Several witnesses testified that "Barb" had been a well-liked and well-respected employee. (Tr. A 157-58; Tr. B 129).

Zamot testified that Michniewicz's introduction made him uncomfortable and he corrected her during her third introduction, stating, "my name is Luis."*fn3 (Tr. A 18). Michniewicz testified that Zamot merely corrected her pronunciation of his first name because she had called him "Louis," rather than "Luis." (Tr. A 138). Zamot described the effect that Michniewicz's introduction had on him: "[T]hat gave me another flavor, another indication as to . . . the beginning of a hostile environment. . . . It did not leave a good flavor in terms of . . . interpersonal relationships within the unit." (Tr. A 18).

When Zamot later learned that his hiring decision had been made by the County's Law Department, he concluded that the FHO staff's unwelcoming attitude must have reflected their frustration over their lack of input into the decision to hire him. (Tr. B 21). To the contrary, however, both Michniewicz and Craig Roth ("Roth"), Zamot's supervisor, testified credibly that Zamot's hiring was greeted enthusiastically by the staff, who were eagerly awaiting the hiring of another colleague with whom to share their workload. (Tr. A 132; Tr. B 129). Roth also noted that it was not unusual for employees to be hired for the FHO without input from FHO staff. (Tr. B 127).

II. Zamot's Relationships with his Colleagues

A. The Office Atmosphere

When Zamot began working in the FHO, he was assigned to a cubicle between Sekelsky and Amy Doescher ("Doescher"), another FHO legal assistant. He quickly became aware that Sekelsky's cubicle was a location where other legal assistants would gather to converse, sometimes in quiet tones. (Tr. A 19, 20, 100-101). Zamot refrained from joining their conversations, which he found distracted him from his work. (Id.). In addition, Sekelsky frequently discussed cases with Doescher by speaking over Zamot's cubicle; Zamot never told her that their conversations bothered him. (Tr. A 104).

On August 13, 2005, Zamot complained to Roth about the noise around his cubicle and requested permission to use "comp time" to complete work that he had been unable to finish because of the noise. (Tr. A 20, 171). According to Zamot, Roth replied by asking Zamot whether he had thought about "getting ear plugs." (Tr. A 20). According to Roth, he replied that Zamot should ask them to speak more softly. (Tr. B 130).

In the spring of the following year, Doescher resigned her employment and Sekelsky received Roth's permission to move to another cubicle in a different area within the office. (Tr. A 44, 102-103, 108-109). Sekelsky explained that she moved because she "no longer had anyone to discuss cases with." (Tr. A 103). Zamot did not indicate to Sekelsky that her move upset him. (Tr. A 103-04).

B. August 2005 Dispute with Michniewicz

On August 31, 2005, while Roth was on vacation and Michniewicz was acting supervisor, Zamot approached Michniewicz near her cubicle to discuss a case. (Tr. A 22). Before he spoke, Michniewicz told him that she had something that she wanted to "take up" with him and proceeded to question him about why he had not adequately prepared a case, which had caused her to be unprepared for a hearing. (Tr. A 24-25, 141, 152). According to Zamot, he apologized and sought clarification concerning what he should have done to prepare the case, but Michniewicz reacted angrily and condescendingly. (Tr. A 25). Zamot testified that he told Michniewicz that she sounded angry, to which she replied, "I know your tricks," "I have taken management courses, as well" and "you're trying to interrupt me." (Tr. A 25). By contrast, Michniewicz described Zamot's response as defensive and antagonistic. (Tr. A 142).

Zamot later returned to Michniewicz's cubicle to ask Michniewicz when she first noticed that the case had not been prepared. (Tr. A 25). When Michniewicz gave him the date, Zamot responded that she had had enough time to communicate with him about the case before the hearing. (Id.). Michniewicz repeatedly emphasized that it was his responsibility to prepare the case and eventually told him to leave her cubicle. (Tr. A 26). Zamot characterized Michniewicz's behavior as a "bullying tactic [designed to] display[] power, control ...


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