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Tyrone Bennett v. Hofstra University

February 3, 2012

TYRONE BENNETT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
HOFSTRA UNIVERSITY, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER

Tyrone Bennett ("Bennett" or "the Plaintiff") commenced this action against his former employer Hofstra University ("Hofstra" or "the Defendant") alleging that he was terminated by Hofstra based on his gender and in retaliation for complaining about discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000 et seq. ("Title VI") and the New York Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. Law § 296, et seq. ("NYHRL"). Presently before the Court is the Defendant's motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) ("Fed. R. Civ. P. 56") to dismiss the complaint in its entirety. For the reasons set forth below, the Defendant's motion is granted.

I. BACKGROUND

The following facts are drawn from the parties' submissions in this case. Because the Defendant has brought this motion for summary judgment, any inferences that the Court draws from the facts as presented are viewed in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff.

A. The Parties

On August 21, 2006, the plaintiff Tyrone Bennett was hired by the defendant Hofstra University for an at-will employment position of Associate Director of the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program ("CSTEP"). CSTEP is a program that receives 100% of its funding from the New York State Education Department ("NYSED"). It's primary goal is to increase the number and quality of historically underrepresented groups in careers related to science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and licensed professions. At all relevant times during his employment, Bennett was supervised by Dr. Anthony Robinson ("Dr. Robinson"), Assistant Dean in the School of Education, Health and Human Services and Director of the Center for Educational Access and Success ("CEAS").

In his capacity as Associate Director, Bennett's responsibilities included, but were not limited to administering, coordinating, developing and managing activities for CSTEP relative to the goals of the grant. There is no dispute that Dr. Robinson had the authority to supplement or alter these responsibilities. As set forth below, from shortly after he was hired until his termination on May 11, 2009, Bennett and Dr. Robinson engaged in a number of disputes involving Bennett's attendance record; management of the CSTEP budget; and ability to work with Dr. Robinson. Throughout the course of these disputes, Bennett registered a number of complaints with Dr. Robinson and Hofstra about Dr. Robinson's performance as a supervisor and his behavior towards CSTEP students and the CSTEP generally.

B. Dispute over Bennett's Attendance Record

In his capacity as Bennett's supervisor, Bennett, and other employees in CEAS, were required to notify Dr. Robinson in advance if they were going to be late to work; needed to leave early; were going to be away from the CEAS office; or were going to be absent.

On March 13, 2007, Dr. Robinson met with Bennett. According to Hofstra, the purpose of this meeting was to discuss, among other things, numerous absences by Bennett. Subsequent to the meeting, Dr. Robinson provided Bennett with a written Incident Report outlining the areas of concern discussed at the meeting. (Rosenberg Decl., Ex. 9.) Bennett disputes that multiple absences were discussed, and contends it was limited to one absence.

Bennett and Dr. Robinson met again on April 17, 2007, at which time Dr. Robinson provided Bennett with a letter concerning his attendance. In the April 17, 2007 letter, Dr. Robinson identified two instances after the March 13, 2007 meeting in which Bennett had been absent without providing Dr. Robinson with the requisite notice. (Rosenberg Decl., Ex. 10.) In response to the April 17, 2007 letter, on April 18, 2007, Bennett sent a letter to Hofstra outlining a number of grievances with Dr. Robinson's performance as his supervisor, and disputing one of the two absences highlighted by Dr. Robinson in the April 17, 2007 letter. (Rosenberg Decl., Ex. 11.) On May 1, 2007, Dr. Robinson sent Bennett a revised version of the April 17, 2007 letter, removing the reference to the disputed absence. (Rosenberg Decl., Ex. 12.) On May 10, 2007, Bennett sent another letter to Hofstra criticizing Dr. Robinson, writing, among other things, that Dr. Robinson "has performed under expectations and administered neglect to key staff members," and has shown a "lack of judgment in a supervisory role". (Rosenberg Decl., Ex. 13.)

Subsequent to Bennett's May 10, 2007 letter, on an unspecified date, a meeting was held between Dr. Robinson, Dr. Maureen Murphy, the Interim Dean of the School of Education, Health and Human Services, and Bennett. The parties have differing accounts of what occurred at this meeting. According to Hofstra, this meeting was held to discuss Bennett's attendance problems, and at the end of the meeting, Bennett apologized to Dr. Robinson and Dean Murphy. On his part, Bennett contends that the meeting was held to discuss his complaints against Dr. Robinson raised in his April 18, 2007 and May 10, 2007 letters. Bennett further contends that he corrected Dr. Robinson about his number of absences, and that he did not apologize at the end of the meeting. Despite the alleged problems with absences, Dr. Robinson gave Bennett a positive performance review for 2007--2008 school year.

C. The Dispute Over Bennett's Management of the CSTEP Budget

The relationship between Bennett and Dr. Robinson took a turn for the worse in the fall of 2008, when Bennett, as well as other CEAS employees responsible for grant-funded programs, were assigned the additional task of preparing and monitoring the budget for their respective programs. In preparation for this new task, Bennett and the other affected employees attended a two-day training program from August 18--19, 2008. The training was conducted by Martha Giraldo-Riordan (also referred to as "Martha Giraldo or "Martha Riordan" and hereinafter referred to as "Riordan").

After receiving training in Hofstra budget procedures, Bennett subsequently entered into an agreement with a vendor called The Frink Group to purchase sweatshirts for CSTEP students. Although he obtained approval from Dr. Robinson with regard to the logo for the sweatshirts, Bennett did not follow Hofstra procedure in entering into the agreement with The Frink Group because he did not obtain prior written approval from Dr. Robinson. In addition, Hofstra contends, and Bennett disputes, that Bennett made a mistake in selecting the expense category where the sweatshirts were supposed to be entered. Nevertheless, Bennett does not dispute that he made an error with the sweatshirts and the budget, and that his error resulted in a $3,000 shortfall in the CSTEP account. As result, Hofstra had to obtain approval from the NYSED to reallocate funds in the budget in order to cover the shortfall.

On April 1, 2009, a representative from The Frink Group sent a letter to Dr. Robinson and Bennett stating that the invoice for the sweatshirts had not been paid; assessing a late fee; and threatening legal action if payment was not received within 30 days. Although the parties dispute who is to blame for the delay in obtaining the additional funds to cover the sweatshirts and the lack of communication with The Frink Group, there is no dispute that this letter stemmed from Bennett's initial error in entering into the contract prior to obtaining the requisite approval.

D. The Dispute Over Bennett's Ability to Work with Dr. Robinson

According to Hofstra, from the fall of 2008 through the first quarter of 2009, Dr. Robinson had a number of written and verbal communications with Bennett about his performance. During the period from April 3rd to April 5th 2009, Bennett, CSTEP students, and Dr. Robinson attended a statewide conference at the Sagamore ("the CSTEP Sagamore Conference"). Prior to the conference, Bennett and Dr. Robinson traded correspondence about the transportation and lodging arrangements. To the extent there is any dispute over whether these arrangements were made efficiently and in compliance with Hofstra policies, both parties blame the other.

Following the CSTEP Sagamore Conference, on April 16, 2009, Bennett sent Dr. Robinson an email reporting three complaints he had received from students about Dr. Robinson's behavior towards them at the conference, and criticizing Dr. Robinson's leadership skills ("the April 16, 2009 email"). (Rosenberg Decl., Ex. 20.)

Subsequently, also on April 16, 2009, a meeting was held between Dr. Robinson, Bennett, and Lillian Colella, the Associate Director of Human Resources, at which time concerns about Bennett's job performance and attendance were discussed. Bennett contends that he thought the April 16, 2009 meeting was one of his regularly scheduled meetings with Dr. Robinson about CSTEP, and was blindsided by the discussion of his job performance. Hofstra asserts, and Bennett denies, that Bennett was upset during the meeting and interrupted Dr. Robinson's attempt to discuss his job performance. However, Bennett admits that Ms. Colella ended the meeting after forty minutes.

Dr. Robinson memorialized the April 16, 2009 meeting in an April 20, 2009 memorandum to Bennett, with copies to Ms. Colella and Dr. David Foulk, Dean of the School of Education, Health and Human Services. This memorandum was provided to Bennett at a meeting on April 24, 2009. In addition to discussing Bennett's alleged performance and attendance issues, this memorandum set forth a Plan of Action for Bennett, which included encouraging Bennett to take a number of steps to improve his performance and encouraging him to "notify [Dr. Robinson] in advance of all [CSTEP] plans and meetings with students and organizations". (Rosenberg Decl., Ex. 14.) The memorandum concluded with the following warning: "Please understand that further disciplinary action, up to an including termination of your employment will result if your work performance does not improve." (Id.)

As indicated on the memorandum, Bennett refused to sign the document. According to Bennett, at the April 24, 2009 meeting, Dr. Robinson informed him that "[he] was not to have any dealings with the CSTEP program or any of its students until further written notice". (Bennett Aff., ΒΆ 9.) Although Bennett admits that this understanding contradicts what is stated in the memorandum's Plan of ...


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