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Netter Thomas v. David Sagaties

November 23, 2011

NETTER THOMAS,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
DAVID SAGATIES, ET AL.,
DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John G. Koeltl, District Judge:

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

The plaintiff, Netter Thomas, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against David Sagaties, Dr. Kamlesh Verma, Christine Madingo, and Dr. Donald Sawyer, who were employed by the New York State Office of Mental Health ("OMH") at all relevant times, and against Bryan Hilton and Patrick Griffin, who were employed by the New York State Department of Corrections ("DOCS") at all relevant times (collectively "the defendants"). She alleges that the defendants terminated her employment in retaliation for the exercise of her right to free speech protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. The defendants now move for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

I.

The standard for granting summary judgment is well established. "The 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); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322--23 (1986); Gallo v. Prudential Residential Servs., Ltd. P'ship, 22 F.3d 1219, 1223 (2d Cir. 1994). "[T]he trial court's task at the summary judgment motion stage of the litigation is carefully limited to discerning whether there are any genuine issues of material fact to be tried, not to deciding them. Its duty, in short, is confined at this point to issue-finding; it does not extend to issue-resolution." Gallo, 22 F.3d at 1224. The moving party bears the initial burden of "informing the district court of the basis for its motion" and identifying the matter that "it believes demonstrate[s] the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. The substantive law governing the case will identify those facts that are material and "[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Anderson v.Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); see also White v. Dep't of Corr. Services, No. 08 Civ. 0993, 2011 WL 4527320, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2011).

In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, a court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences against the moving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (citing United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654 (1962)); see also Gallo, 22 F.3d at 1223. Summary judgment is improper if there is any evidence in the record from any source from which a reasonable inference could be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party. See Chambers v. TRM Copy Ctrs. Corp., 43 F.3d 29, 37 (2d Cir. 1994). If the moving party meets its burden, the nonmoving party must produce evidence in the record and "may not rely simply on conclusory statements or on contentions that the affidavits supporting the motion are not credible...." Ying Jing Gan v. City of N.Y., 996 F.2d 522, 532 (2d Cir. 1993); see also Scotto v. Almenas, 143 F.3d 105, 114--15 (2d Cir. 1998) (collecting cases); White, 2011 WL 4527320, at *1.

II.

The following facts are undisputed except where otherwise noted. In March 2008, the plaintiff began her provisional employment as a Licensed Master Social Worker ("LMSW") with the Behavioral Health Unit ("BHU") at Sullivan Correctional Facility ("Sullivan"). (Defendants' 56.1 Statement ("Defs' 56.1") ¶ 1; Plaintiff's 56.1 Response ("Pl.'s 56.1") ¶ 1). During the course of the plaintiff's employment, defendant Hilton served as Assistant Deputy Superintendant at Sullivan, defendant Verma served as one of the plaintiff's supervisors, defendant Griffin served as Deputy for Security at Sullivan, defendant Mandigo served as Associate Personnel Administrator for the New York State Office of Mental Health ("OMH"), and defendant Sawyer was Executive Director of OMH. (Compl. ¶¶ 3-6). Defendant Sagaties was Unit Chief for BHU from June 2008 until March 2011. (Knudsen Decl. Ex. D ("Sagaties Aff.") ¶ 1). The BHU is a jointly-operated program of OMH and the Department of Correctional Services ("DOCS"), and is designed "to provide treatment services to inmate-patients with serious mental illnesses who are actively serving sanctions in a Special Housing Unit ("SHU")." (Defs' 56.1 ¶ 2; Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 2). BHU employees, including the plaintiff during her employment, meet as a treatment team to discuss inmate-patient progress. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 2; Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 2). As an LMSW, the plaintiff was primarily responsible for providing counseling services to BHU's inmate-patients. (Compl. ¶ 9; Answer ¶ 6).

The defendants claim that beginning in April 2008, Verma began receiving complaints about the plaintiff, and met regularly with the plaintiff to discuss her behavior and job performance. (Defs' 56.1 ¶ 4). In support of this assertion, the defendants cite memoranda and e-mails that recount alleged incidents of insubordination, disrespect toward co-workers and DOCS staff, and failure to abide by established BHU and DOCS security and conduct policies. (Knudsen Decl. Ex B). On June 4, 2008, Verma issued a formal counseling to the plaintiff. (Verma Aff. ¶ 9). A memorandum regarding the counseling, issued to the plaintiff, summarized the plaintiff's alleged behavior issues and various informal counseling meetings. (Knudsen Decl. Ex B at 52-53). The plaintiff was instructed to abide by her performance standards, which included sustaining appropriate relationships with co-workers and inmate-patients, and was warned that further inappropriate behavior would not be tolerated. Id. On June 26, 2008, the plaintiff received a second formal counseling, the memorandum of which summarized an instance in which the plaintiff had allegedly left her group of inmate-patients unattended and a second incident where the plaintiff allegedly failed to arrive for her group session. Id. at 48-49. The plaintiff was advised that she needed to show "immediate improvement" in the area of respecting others. Id.

The plaintiff's probation period report, presented to her on July 25, 2008, reiterated the need for the plaintiff to improve in the areas of "relationship with people," "reaction to supervisor[s]" and "analytical and problem solving abilities." Id. at 2. On October 4, 2008, Sagaties forwarded to Mandigo a report from Hilton of an incident of the plaintiff's alleged insubordination, and added that with the plaintiff's previous behavior issues and unsuccessful counseling, he believed termination was the appropriate course of action. Id. at 29. In response, Mandigo sent Sawyer a summary of the plaintiff's alleged misconduct and history of formal counseling, and requested permission to proceed with the termination. Id. at 19. On October 8, 2008, Sawyer approved the plaintiff's termination. Id. On October 10, 2008, the plaintiff was informed of her termination, which was to take effect eight days later. (Defs' 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 22; Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 22).

While the plaintiff does not dispute the timeline set forth by the defendants, she alleges a very different version of events. The plaintiff alleges that she "repeatedly observed and complained to her supervisors and [DOCS staff] about inappropriate, punitive treatment" of inmate-patients, and that she continually notified her supervisors of this ongoing abuse. (Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 10, 13). Specifically, the plaintiff alleges that on May 8, 2008, the plaintiff reported to a Unit Chief at BHU that an African-American inmate-patient was being treated unfairly because of his race. (Knudsen Decl. Ex A ("Thomas Dep.") at 104-08). The plaintiff also raised concerns about officers at Sullivan being racist against African-Americans inmate-patients and staff, including the plaintiff, although the plaintiff later sent an e-mail to a Unit Chief at BHU, stating that the plaintiff "had no issues with the correction officers . . . [nor] with the way in which they have treated [her]." (Knudsen Decl. Ex G ("Stapholz Aff.") at 57). Additionally, during a September 4, 2008, meeting of the treatment team, the plaintiff raised concerns about the disparate, racially-motivated treatment and punishment of inmate-patients, as well as what the plaintiff perceived to be Griffin's unilateral decision making. (Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 17; Defs' 56.1 ¶ 17). When asked by Sagaties for specific instances of unilateral decision making, the plaintiff did not name any specific incidents, (Knudsen Decl. Ex B at 33-34), although she now contends this was because Sagaties already knew the incidents to which she was referring and also because she feared naming inmate-patients could jeopardize her safety. (Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 17).

With respect to her alleged behavioral issues, the plaintiff disputes that her meetings with Verma were convened to correct the plaintiff's behavioral issues. Id. ¶¶ 4-8. Instead, the plaintiff asserts that the meetings focused on the curbing the plaintiff's desire to advocate for the allegedly abused inmate-patients. Id. The plaintiff alleges that the various memoranda and e-mails circulated regarding the plaintiff's alleged inappropriate behavior, in addition to the plaintiff's probation period report, were filled with misinformation and "code words" designed to alert Sagaties, Sawyer and others that the plaintiff was attempting to stop inmate-patient abuse. (Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt ¶¶ 19, 28-33).

The plaintiff claims that Hilton and Griffin pressured the plaintiff's supervisors to recommend her for termination, and that Hilton was "trying to cast [the] plaintiff in a negative light." Id. ¶¶ 14, 26c. The plaintiff alleges that Mandigo's October 8, 2008, e-mail deliberately misrepresented events that occurred during the plaintiff's employment in an attempt to "railroad" her. Id. ¶ 26; (Thomas Dep. at 121). The plaintiff claims that all of the defendants "feared her whistle-blowing activity," such that they felt compelled to "suppress that [activity] and rid the facility of her," by feeding Sawyer false information in order to cause her termination. (Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt ¶ 22).

III.

The plaintiff claims that she was discharged in retaliation for her complaints about the disparate, racially motivated treatment of inmate-patients at Sullivan in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments of ...


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