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William Dieck v. Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum

September 22, 2011

WILLIAM DIECK, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SUFFOLK COUNTY VANDERBILT MUSEUM, CAROL GHIORISHI-HART AND STEVEN GITTELMAN, DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

In this employment discrimination case, Plaintiff William Dieck ("Plaintiff") alleges that Defendants Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum (the "Museum"), Carol Ghiorsi Hart ("Hart")*fn1 and Steven Gittelman ("Gittelman") fired him and replaced him with a recently-hired, substantially younger employee. Plaintiff asserts claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (the "ADEA") and Sections 296 and 297 of the New York State Human Rights Law (the "NYSHRL").

Defendants have moved for summary judgment; for the reasons that follow, their motion is GRANTED.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff began working at the Museum in 1999 and was promoted to Director of Operations six months later. (Def. 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 1-2.) As Director of Operations, Plaintiff was responsible for supervising between 35 and 40 Museum employees. (Def. 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 3.) These employees included the wood shop personnel, the grounds crew, and the security staff, was well as the Museum's historic carpenter. (Def. 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 4.) Although he has some training as a historic carpenter, Plaintiff would generally not perform carpentry work himself. (Pl. Dep. 71-72.) His annual salary was $42,500 and he did not receive health benefits. (Id. at 11.) During his employment, Plaintiff was never told that his supervisors were unhappy with his performance. (Id. at 71.)

In February 2008, Hart posted a job opening for a position titled "Museum Restoration Supervisor." (Def. 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 9.) According to the job post, this position's responsibilities included: performing "craftsman level work in the restoration and preservation of historic buildings, and in exhibit fabrication"; assisting "the Executive Director in evaluating conditions of the historic buildings and landscape, suggesting methods of restoration based upon consultation with curators and archival research"; supervising "grounds maintenance crew in specific procedures consistent with historic preservation"; supervising and assisting "master gardeners in restoration and maintenance of gardens and landscapes"; and assisting the "Director of Operations at times of high seasonal needs with maintenance of grounds and special projects." (Def. Ex. H, Museum Restoration Supervisor Position Announcement.) In the section describing the skills and characteristics required for the job, the announcement included "ability to lead the work of subordinate employees and volunteers in a manner conducive to full performance and high morale." (Id.) To be considered for the job, candidates must have had either a college degree plus two years of supervisory experience or four years of supervisory experience at a historic property or museum. (Id.)

In March 2008, Hart hired Peter Newman, who was in his late twenties, to fill the newly-created position. (Def. 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 12, 16.) Newman had previously worked at the Museum; between 2000 and 2004, he worked as a groundskeeper and also performed some carpentry work. (Id. ¶ 8.) Shortly after Newman re-joined the staff, Hart met with both Newman and Plaintiff to re-structure their supervisory duties. Newman, who was considered a historic carpenter, would report directly to Hart, even though the Museum's historic carpenters traditionally had reported to the Director of Operations. (Pl. Dep. 30-31.) In the new position, Newman would also supervise the master gardeners. (Id.) Newman was paid $32,000 annually plus health benefits worth approximately $8,400, for a total compensation package worth $40,400 per year. (See Newman Dep. 14; see also Hart Dep. 9, 64.)

Around the time that it hired Newman, the Museum was experiencing significant financial troubles, (see Def. 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 21), and had cut a large number of employees. For example, it let go between 20 and 25 of its security guards in favor of an outside security force. (Id. ¶ 5.) As a result of downsizing, by the time he was fired Plaintiff was only supervising three employees, down from the 35-40 that had been under his watch earlier in his career. (Id. ¶ 17.) Among Plaintiff's subordinates who were terminated were a 70-year-old manager of buildings and grounds and a 30-year-old mechanic. (Pl. Dep. 25-27.) Plaintiff acknowledges that the Museum's downsizing was a response to its money woes. (Def. 56.1 Stmt. ¶21.)

Plaintiff was fired on either March 30 or 31, 2008, approximately two weeks after Newman was hired as the Museum Restoration Supervisor. (See Def. 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 48-49.) Hart delivered the bad news, and she told Plaintiff that he was being let go so that the Museum could use the money it saved to buy a new flooring platform to host wedding receptions. (Id. ¶ 50.) Hart did not say that age was a factor in her decision to fire Plaintiff, (id. ¶ 57), and neither side points to evidence that anyone commented directly or indirectly about Plaintiff's age.

Although Hart cited the Museum's need for a new flooring platform when she fired him, Plaintiff maintains that, for the following reasons, the Museum's financial distress was not as severe as Defendants claim. First, the Museum was able to bring its security force back in-house in November 2008, just eight months after Plaintiff was fired. (Def. Ex. D, Hart Dep. 47-48.) Second, there is evidence that the Museum planned to hire additional employees around the time that Plaintiff was fired. (Pl. Exs. K, L.) Third, Plaintiff claims that, contrary to what Hart told him when he was fired, the Museum already had money in its budget for a new flooring platform. In support of this claim, Plaintiff relies on an April 3, 2008 email from Hart to Gittelman that includes a footnote that she had budgeted $40,000 for the new floor and that she was ready to place the order, provided the Museum could arrange to spread payments through June 1. (Pl. Ex. P.; Pl. Opp. 9.) She also explains that the Museum was $71,603 ahead of its budget. (Pl Ex. P.)

This email does not say how much the floor cost, how the Museum came to be ahead of its budget, or what impact, if any, Plaintiff's firing had on the Museum's cash projections. Fourth, Plaintiff notes that the Museum eventually paid Newman an amount (factoring in wages and benefits) comparable to what it had paid Plaintiff. In Plaintiff's view, this undercuts the Museum's claim that money woes prompted Plaintiff's firing. (Pl. Opp. 10.)

DISCUSSION

Plaintiff alleges that his termination was the result of unlawful age discrimination because he was two weeks shy of his sixtieth birthday when he was fired and because Newman, who was 35 years younger than Plaintiff, was hired to perform the functional equivalent of Plaintiff's job less than two weeks before Plaintiff was fired. Because Plaintiff has not proffered evidence to convince a reasonable jury that age was a motivating factor ...


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