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Cummings-Fowler v. Suffolk County Community College

November 2, 2010

MICHELLE CUMMINGS-FOWLER , PLAINTIFF,
v.
SUFFOLK COUNTY COMMUNITY COLLEGE, JAMES CANNIFF, AND RICHARD BRITTON. DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Spatt, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER

On August 19, 2009, Michelle Cummings-Fowler ("the Plaintiff") commenced this lawsuit against her former employer, Suffolk County Community College ("SCCC"), and her former supervisors, James Canniff ("Canniff") and SCCC Dean Richard Britton ("Britton") (collectively "the Defendants"), alleging discrimination claims under 42 U.S.C. § 2000-e ("Title VII"), N.Y. Executive Law § 296(6) ("New York Human Rights Law" or "NYHRL"), and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983"). By a previous Order dated March 2, 2010 ("March Order"), this Court dismissed the NYHRL claims as time-barred. The Court also dismissed the Plaintiff's Title VII and Section 1983 hostile work environment causes of action, without prejudice and with permission to amend the complaint. The Defendants have moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint as to Canniff because they contend that the Plaintiff's Section 1983 claim against Canniff individually-and potentially the Title VII claims-are time-barred based on the Plaintiff's failure to provide a date for any of Canniff's allegedly discriminatory statements. For the reasons that follow, the Defendants' motion is granted as to the Section 1983 hostile work environment claim against Canniff. However, to the extent the Defendants also seek dismissal of the Title VII hostile environment claim or the additional Section 1983 claim against Canniff, that request is denied.

I. BACKGROUND

The background of this case is set forth more fully in the March Order. Familiarity with the facts in that decision is presumed. In short, the Plaintiff, a 45 year-old African-American woman, was hired by SCCC as an adjunct faculty member in 1997. Over the course of her employment, the Plaintiff alleges that she was passed over for a number of promotions in favor of less qualified white individuals, and that she was subject to inappropriate racial comments and other disparate treatment by her supervisors, Canniff and Britton. The Plaintiff contends that SCCC discriminated against her on the basis of race in: (1) failing to promote her; and (2) subjecting her to a hostile work environment. The Plaintiff also alleges that SCCC violated Section 1983 by failing to investigate and address her allegations of racial discrimination. In addition, the Plaintiff asserts that the individual Defendants are liable under Section 1983 for violating her constitutional rights under the Equal Protection Clause.

A. First Motion to Dismiss

On October 23, 2009, the Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, alleging, among other things, that Plaintiff's Section 1983 and Title VII claims were time-barred. With regard to the Title VII cause of action, the Court permitted the Plaintiff the opportunity to amend her pleading "to provide information concerning when the statements or acts giving rise to her hostile work environment claim were made" and held that "[i]f any of these alleged statements occurred on or after June 29, 2007, then the Plaintiff's hostile work environment claim will be considered timely." (March Order at 7.)

With regard to the Section 1983 claims, the Court noted that although the complaint was unclear, the Plaintiff appeared to be asserting two Equal Protection violations: one for discriminatory hiring practices based on the failure to promote and the second for hostile work environment based on the alleged inappropriate racial comments. As to the cause of action based on discriminatory hiring practices, the Court held that only the April 1, 2008 hiring decision was actionable. (Id. at 12.) However, the Court held that the complaint lacked sufficient detail for Plaintiff to maintain a cause of action for a hostile work environment under Section 1983 because it failed to identify whether any of the allegedly racist statements occurred during the statutory period. (Id.) The Court permitted the Plaintiff the opportunity to amend her pleading, stating that "[i]f the Plaintiff's amended complaint demonstrates that at least one of the alleged racist comments was made on or after August 19, 2006, then the Plaintiff will not be time-barred from asserting that the Defendants violated her rights under the Equal Protection Clause by subjecting her to a hostile work environment." (Id. at 14.)

B. The Amended Complaint

In the initial complaint, the allegations relating to inappropriate racial comments and disparate treatment relevant to Plaintiff's hostile work environment claims under Title VII and Section 1983 were set forth in three paragraphs that stated "during the course of Plaintiff's employment, Dr. Canniff has made inappropriate racial comments, and has subjected Plaintiff to disparate treatment due to her race/color," that Canniff referred to other employees with doctorates as "Doctor" but referred to the Plaintiff as "young lady," or "Michelle," and that after complaining about Canniff's behavior to Britton, he told the Plaintiff "that she should 'let it go,' that 'you people are taking over,' and that 'Randy [Dr. Manning, a black male] is one of us; he just looks like you.'" (Compl. ¶¶ 28--30.)

On March 22, 2010, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint ("Amended Complaint") in which the above referenced paragraphs were re-numbered as 18--20. The only substantive change to the factual allegations pertaining to the discriminatory statements was the addition of "July 2007" as the date for when Plaintiff allegedly complained to Britton and when he allegedly made inappropriate comments. The Plaintiff did not provide any additional information relating to Canniff's allegedly racist remarks.

On May 7, 2010 the Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint specifically as to the Section 1983 claims against Canniff because the Plaintiff's Amended Complaint failed to provide a date for any of Canniff's allegedly inappropriate racial comments.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review - Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6)

Under the now well-established Twombly standard, a complaint should be dismissed only if it does not contain enough allegations of fact to state a claim for relief that is "plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1974, 167 L.Ed. 2d 929 (2007). The Second Circuit has explained that, after Twombly, the Court's inquiry under Rule 12(b)(6) is guided by two principles. Harris v. ...


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