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John Littlefield v. Autotrader.Com

July 7, 2011

JOHN LITTLEFIELD, PLAINTIFF,
v.
AUTOTRADER.COM, DEFENDANT .



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John T. Curtin United States District Judge

By order of United States District Judge Richard J. Arcara dated June 28, 2011 (Item 21), this matter has been reassigned to the undersigned for all further proceedings.

In this action, plaintiff John Littlefield seeks declarative relief and damages against defendant AutoTrader.com ("AutoTrader") for employment discrimination on the basis of his gender, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e) et seq. ("Title VII"), and the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. Law § 290 et seq. ("NYSHRL"). Defendant has moved for summary judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. For the reasons that follow, defendant's motion is granted.

BACKGROUND

AutoTrader is in the internet automobile advertising business and operates a consumer website that aggregates information concerning classified listings fromdealerships and private owners nationwide. Plaintiff began working for AutoTrader in late August 2007 as an advertising consultant in the Buffalo, New York area. He was interviewed and selected for the position by Mario Rector, defendant's Upstate New York District Sales Manager (see Item 1, ¶ 8; Item13-9, Ex. A).

In mid-October, 2007, Mr. Rector organized and managed a week-long concentrated sales effort, referred to by defendant as a "Sales Blitz," to increase business and revenues in the Rochester, New York area. Mr. Rector assigned four AutoTrader employees from the Upstate New York District and four additional employees from other areas to work together in two-person teams. Plaintiff was assigned to work with Robin Long, an advertising consultant who at the time worked for defendant in the Mid-Atlantic Region, headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia.

On the evening of October 16, 2007, Ms. Long reported to Mr. Rector that, during the two days she was teamed with plaintiff on the Rochester Sales Blitz (October 15 and 16), plaintiff had made a number of inappropriate remarks to her which she regarded as offensive. Specifically, Ms. Long reported that plaintiff suggested to her they could get more deals if she undid another button on her blouse; plaintiff stated that he thought "all of the girls on the Sales Blitz team were cute," and that he believed this was how they got to be on the Sales Blitz team; and, while they were driving past an adult entertainment club, plaintiff told Ms. Long that he thought she would make a "good stripper." (Item 13-9, ¶¶ 9-10; Item 13-11, ¶¶ 6-7). Ms. Long also reported to Mr. Rector that plaintiff made similar comments about her while they were talking on speakerphone to two other AutoTrader employees assigned to the Rochester Sales Blitz, Eric Fuller and Kitty Lemacks (Item 13-11, ¶ 6).

That same evening, Mr. Rector spoke with both Mr. Fuller and Ms. Lemacks, who confirmed that they heard plaintiff make inappropriate comments about Ms. Long during their conversation over the speakerphone. Mr. Rector next spoke with Patrick Svoboda, AutoTrader's Regional Sales Manager, and Lloyd Hecht, AutoTrader's Northeast Director, to discuss these developments. They agreed that plaintiff's conduct, as confirmed by three co-workers, was inappropriate and justified termination of his employment under AutoTrader's published equal opportunity and anti-harassment policies. Mr. Rector then contacted plaintiff and advised him that Ms. Long had complained about his comments, and that he should not return to work the following day but instead should contact AutoTrader's Human Resources Manager John Cato (Item 13-9, ¶¶ 12-16).

Mr. Cato spent most of the next day, October 17, 2007, investigating the circumstances of Ms. Long's complaint. Mr. Cato spoke with plaintiff, Mr. Rector, Ms. Long, Mr. Fuller, and Ms. Lemacks. He also reviewed emails from Mr. Rector regarding the incident involving Ms. Long, as well as a prior incident involving another female AutoTrader employee, Elizabeth DiPasquale, who had complained about inappropriate comments made by plaintiff in September 2007, soon after he began working for defendant. Based upon his investigation, Mr. Cato concluded that plaintiff had in fact made unwelcome, unsolicited, and sexually inappropriate remarks to Ms. Long on October 15 and 16, 2007, and that there was no reason to change the determination made by Mr. Rector, Mr. Svoboda, and Mr. Hecht that plaintiff's employment should be terminated. Mr. Cato contacted plaintiff and advised him of this decision. Plaintiff's employment was terminated on October 17, 2007, less than two months after he began working for AutoTrader (see Item 13-8, ¶¶ 9-24 & Exs. B, C).

Plaintiff filed this action on May 12, 2009,*fn1 alleging that defendant intentionally discriminated against him by subjecting him to discriminatory terms and conditions of employment, including differential treatment, harassment, and termination based on his sex. He alleges that while he was attending job training sessions in Andover, Massachusetts, he was subjected to unwelcome comments, physical touching by female employees, and displays of photos and video clips of a sexual nature, all in the presence of AutoTrader employees and management personnel, but no disciplinary action was taken (see Item 1, ¶¶ 9-13). He also alleges that it was Ms. Long (not plaintiff) who made inappropriate comments about the adult entertainment club; that she talked about "wild" pictures of herself and her friends, and about the way she used her voice and clothing in a suggestive manner to facilitate sales; and that she spent a significant portion of the day engaged in non-work-related telephone conversations with a male friend, all without disciplinary action (id. at ¶¶ 14-15). Plaintiff claims that by terminating his employment without taking any disciplinary action against Ms. Long or any other female employee, defendant discriminated against him on the basis of sex, in violation of Title VII and the NYSHRL.

Defendant moves for summary judgment dismissing the complaint on the ground that plaintiff can neither establish a prima facie case of gender discrimination nor prove that AutoTrader's stated reasons for terminating his employment were a pretext for unlawful discrimination, under the standards governing claims brought pursuant to Title VII and the NYSHRL.

DISCUSSION

I. Summary Judgment

Under Rule 56, "[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). An issue of fact is material if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A factual dispute is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id.; see also Hamilton Bank, N.A. v. Kookmin Bank, 245 F.3d 82, 89 (2d Cir. 2001).

In reaching a summary judgment determination, the court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Aetna Cas. and Sur. Co. v. Aniero Concrete Co., 404 F.3d 566, 574 (2d Cir. 2005). The moving party bears the initial burden of establishing that there are no genuine issues of material fact. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970). That burden may be satisfied by pointing out the absence of evidence to support the non-movant's claims. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). Once this initial showing is made, the non-moving party may defeat summary judgment only by producing evidence of specific facts that raise a genuine issue for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256; Samuels v. Mockry, 77 F.3d 34, 36 (2d Cir. 1996). Mere conclusory allegations are insufficient, and "[t]here must be more than a 'scintilla of evidence,' and more than 'some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts'" to defeat a motion for summary ...


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