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Debra Slade v. Alfred University

September 6, 2011

DEBRA SLADE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ALFRED UNIVERSITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Richard J. Arcara United States District Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Pending before the Court is a motion by defendant Alfred University ("Alfred") to dismiss portions of plaintiff's complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ("FRCP").*fn1 Out of four causes of action in the complaint, Alfred seeks to dismiss the second cause of action and part of the fourth cause of action. Alfred wants to dismiss the second cause of action because it alleges a failure to pay an employee benefit in violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001--1461, even though the benefit in question does not fall under ERISA.

Alfred also wants to dismiss so much of the fourth cause of action that alleges retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17, because she did not exhaust her administrative remedies for that issue. Plaintiff contends that ERISA covers the employee benefit in question and that her claim of Title VII retaliation is reasonably related to the sexual harassment that she set forth in her verified complaint to the New York State Division of Human Rights ("SDHR").

The Court has deemed the motion submitted on papers pursuant to FRCP 78(b). For the reasons below, the Court denies the motion.

II. BACKGROUND

This case concerns allegations that Alfred discriminated against plaintiff on the basis of sex, disability, and the desire to use an ERISA employee benefit. According to the complaint, plaintiff began working for Alfred in March 1998 in an administrative position titled Account Clerk. Plaintiff worked continuously for Alfred until her termination on or around October 28, 2009. Plaintiff received a promotion in 2001 to the position of Research Account Specialist and obtained excellent employment reviews at all times during her employment at Alfred. The excellent employment reviews did not change even after plaintiff received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder in 2001. During her time with Alfred, one of plaintiff's employment benefits was eligibility for participation in a program called the Alfred University Tuition Remission Plan (the "Plan"). Under the Plan, any dependent children that plaintiff had would receive full tuition remission, minus financial aid received from other sources, if they gained admission to Alfred and chose to attend college there. The ability to join the Plan mattered to plaintiff because she had two children, ages eight and six, when she started working at Alfred.

The problems that plaintiff allegedly experienced with Alfred stemmed from two different sources starting around 2008. The first source concerned sexual harassment. In 2008, a man named Jeffrey Porter ("Porter") became the head of an entity at Alfred titled the Office of Sponsored Research Administration. The complaint does not explain what this office does, but the record suggests that plaintiff worked in this office and that Porter became her supervisor. Beginning around December 2008, Porter made intermittent remarks to plaintiff about her clothing that had a sexually suggestive tone. The complaint describes one specific incident when Porter allegedly told plaintiff that he wanted to see her pose as a "nude model" in the manner of the models used in art classes. When plaintiff told Porter that she did not welcome his comments, he "began a relentless retaliatory campaign against Plaintiff, which was wholly endorsed and ratified by Defendant." (Dkt. No. 1 ¶ 35.) The sexual harassment that plaintiff allegedly endured aggravated the symptoms of her bipolar disorder.

The second source of friction between plaintiff and Alfred concerned an unspecified construction project that began around April 2009. According to plaintiff, the construction work "created a significant amount of noise, dust, and septic fumes in Plaintiff's work area." (Id. ¶ 37.) The construction work allegedly caused plaintiff to develop health problems including severe and chronic migraine headaches, sinusitis, blurred vision, respiratory problems, fatigue, and stress. Plaintiff asked Alfred for some sort of accommodation while the construction work continued. Alfred promised to move plaintiff to another building but never followed through on the promise. The continued exposure to the construction project caused plaintiff to take large amounts of paid time off that she claims were protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601--2654. Alfred allegedly reacted to plaintiff's absences in two ways. Alfred refused to recognize some or all of plaintiff's leave time as protected by the FMLA. Additionally, Alfred began to use plaintiff's absences as a pretext for discipline and eventual termination in ways that similarly situated male employees did not have to experience. Alfred finally fired plaintiff on or around October 28, 2009.

Plaintiff's termination coincided with one other issue that allegedly rose in the last weeks of her employment. On or around October 14, 2009, plaintiff filed a claim to receive benefits under the Plan. The complaint does not say so explicitly, but the filing of this claim implies that at least one of plaintiff's two children had chosen to matriculate at Alfred. Plaintiff believes that she was fired just two weeks after filing this claim in part because Alfred sought to avoid paying her any benefits under the Plan.

In response to her termination, plaintiff filed a verified complaint with SDHR on March 5, 2010. Plaintiff filed the SDHR complaint pro se and used a standard form that SDHR provides. In her complaint, plaintiff checked off that she experienced discrimination on the basis of disability; on the basis of sexual harassment; and on the basis of retaliation stemming from her complaints about the construction project and her claim for benefits under the Plan. Under a section of the verified complaint titled "Acts of Discrimination," plaintiff checked off that the discrimination that she experienced consisted of termination, sexual harassment, other forms of harassment, a denial of leave time or other benefits, a denial of accommodation for disability, and disciplinary notices. Plaintiff also attached to the complaint three typewritten pages of notes that provided details of her complaints about leave time, sexual harassment, and other harassment. In a decision dated November 10, 2010, SDHR dismissed plaintiff's complaint. In a letter dated February 9, 2011, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") issued a "right to sue" letter that adopted SDHR's findings.

After her agency proceedings ended, plaintiff commenced this action by filing her complaint on August 12, 2011. The complaint contains four causes of action. In the first cause of action, plaintiff accuses Alfred of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101--12213, by failing to accommodate her disability and by wrongfully terminating her because of that disability. In the second cause of action, plaintiff accuses Alfred of violating ERISA by terminating her to avoid paying benefits under the Plan. The heart of the second cause of action is plaintiff's belief that the Plan is a qualifying employee benefits plan under ERISA. In the third cause of action, plaintiff accuses Alfred of interfering with her right to take leave protected by the FMLA and of retaliating against her for attempting to exercise her rights under that statute. In the fourth cause of action, plaintiff accuses Alfred of sexual harassment and retaliation in violation of Title VII.

Through the pending motion, Alfred seeks to dismiss two parts of plaintiff's complaint. Alfred wants the second cause of action dismissed because the Plan is simply an unfunded scholarship program that does not fall within the scope of ERISA. Alfred also wants the fourth cause of action dismissed to the extent that it alleges Title VII retaliation in addition to sexual harassment. Alfred seeks this partial dismissal because plaintiff did not allege Title VII retaliation in her SDHR complaint, meaning that she never exhausted her administrative remedies as to that issue. Plaintiff opposes Alfred's motion by noting that the Plan does in fact fall within the scope of ERISA. Plaintiff also argues that, at worst, her claim of ...


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