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Mandavia v. Columbia University

United States District Court, Second Circuit

June 3, 2013

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, et al., Defendants.


J. PAUL OETKEN, District Judge.

This is an employment discrimination case brought by Chirag Mandavia ("Plaintiff") against his former employer, Columbia University ("Columbia"). Plaintiff also alleged claims against a number of other individuals and entities, but the Court dismissed those claims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) in an opinion published on December 12, 2012. See Mandavia v. Columbia Univ., No. 12 Civ. 2188, 2012 WL 6186828 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 12, 2012). In that ruling, examining the factors outlined in Bormann v. AT & T Communications, Inc., 875 F.2d 399, 403 (2d Cir. 1989), the Court denied Columbia's motion to dismiss on the basis of an agreement in which Plaintiff purported to waive all claims against Columbia arising from the events at issue in this case ("the Agreement"). Mandavia, 2012 WL 6186828, at *9-12. The Court added, however, that it "would entertain a targeted summary judgment motion focused on the Agreement's validity." Id. at *12. On February 20, 2013, Columbia moved for summary judgment on the basis of the Agreement. For the reasons that follow, Columbia's motion is granted.

I. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate in a case where the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, demonstrates "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 Vacold, L.L.C. v. Cerami, 545 F.3d 114, 121 (2d Cir. 2008). The moving party bears the burden of showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). A fact is "material" only if it will affect the outcome of the suit under governing law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). For there to be a "genuine" issue about the fact, the evidence must be such "that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. In determining whether there is a genuine issue of material fact, the Court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all permissible inferences in favor of the non-moving party. See Sec. Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Old Dominion Freight Line, Inc., 391 F.3d 77, 83 (2d Cir. 2004). "Resolutions of credibility conflicts and choices between conflicting versions of the facts are matters for the jury, not for the court on summary judgment." United States v. Rem, 38 F.3d 634, 644 (2d Cir. 1994) (citations omitted). Where there is no evidence in the record "from which a reasonable inference could be drawn in favor of the non-moving party on a material issue of fact, " summary judgment is proper. Catlin v. Sobol, 93 F.3d 1112, 1116 (2d Cir. 1996). While the nonmoving party can defeat summary judgment by presenting evidence sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact, it is well-established that "[m]ere speculation and conjecture [are] insufficient to preclude the granting of the motion." Harlen Assocs. v. Vill. of Mineola, 273 F.3d 494, 499 (2d Cir. 2001).

II. Background

Plaintiff Chirag Mandavia was employed as a senior technician at Columbia's Department of Microbiology & Immunology. While employed there, he was a member of 1199 SEIU Union Healthcare Workers East ("the Union"). A collective bargaining agreement ("the CBA") governed the terms and conditions of Plaintiff's employment.

On March 30, 2011, Mary Ann Carlese, Director of Labor Relations at the Columbia University Medical Center, learned that Plaintiff's employment was to be terminated following an internal investigation into complaints of sexual harassment. That day, she informed Bennett Battista, Plaintiff's union representative, of Columbia's decision to terminate Plaintiff's employment. Battista is not an attorney and strongly discouraged Plaintiff from hiring outside counsel. Plaintiff states that Battista "threatened him that he would stop communicating the will of the University, if an outside attorney were engaged." Battista therefore represented Plaintiff in his negotiations with Columbia. Early in that process, Carlese informed Battista that Columbia would be willing to offer Plaintiff the opportunity to resign in lieu of being terminated in exchange for signing a separation agreement and release.

Carlese states that, "[t]hrough the following weeks, Battista, in the capacity of Mandavia's representative, and I, as representative for Columbia, engaged in negotiations and exchanged proposals toward such an agreement." The CBA provided that the only benefit to which Plaintiff was entitled upon the separation of his employment was payment for the three weeks of vacation and personal days that he had accrued. On April 8, 2011, Battista proposed that in consideration for a release of claims against Columbia, Plaintiff remain on Columbia's payroll for eight weeks (including the three weeks he was owed), obtain neutral references, remain eligible to apply for other positions at Columbia, undergo training and write an apology, avoid contact with other staff in his Department, and have his record expunged. Carlese memorialized these proposed terms in an e-mail to Sheila Garvey, Assistant Vice President of Labor Relations, on April 7, 2011. In that e-mail, Carlese indicated that she had spoken with "Diane, " who was opposed to allowing Plaintiff to apply for other jobs at Columbia. Columbia rejected Plaintiff's proposal for eight weeks' salary to be paid over time on the ordinary payroll. It also objected to his request for a letter of recommendation from Dr. Figurski and his request for permission to apply for other positions at the university. Columbia did, however, express willingness to pay Plaintiff an additional two weeks' salary beyond his three weeks of accrued vacation and personal days. Battista replied that a recommendation letter from Figurski and the ability to remain on Columbia's payroll for an extended period of time were necessary conditions to any waiver of Plaintiff's claims. Carlese reports that, "[a]fter a series of exchanges, Columbia ultimately agreed to grant Mandavia's request for a letter of recommendation" and presented Battista with a proposed draft of that letter.

Negotiations continued and, on April 13, 2011, Battista told Carlese that Plaintiff would agree to a release of claims in exchange for the ability to remain on Columbia's payroll for five weeks, neutral references from the Human Resources department, the recommendation letter from Figurski, and Columbia's representation that it would not contest his application for unemployment benefits. Carlese memorialized these proposed terms in an e-mail to Garvey on April 13, 2011. Carlese explains that she "advised Battista that Columbia would consent to the proposed terms, except that Columbia would only keep Mandavia on the payroll for the period of three weeks representing his accrued vacation and personal days and would pay him the additional two weeks' salary in a lump sum."

Plaintiff maintained a difficult relationship with Columbia and Battista throughout the negotiations. He explains that "Battista had no or little say in the proceedings, and was essentially a pawn' in Columbia's scare tactics and was only being used to communicate and assert Columbia's will." He adds that "Carlese... never communicated directly with the Plaintiff... [she communicated] the University's will to Battista." Further, Plaintiff describes his contacts with Battista as "brief, sporadic and chaotic, " noting that he was "completely isolated." In his view, "the Union, through Battista, whether knowingly or unknowingly, acted as an agent for Columbia University and did nothing to avert the termination of his employment or investigating the matter, choosing instead to employ arm-twisting tactics combined with the promise of minor rewards in order to trick the Plaintiff into accepting Columbia's Agreement."

Ultimately, final terms were memorialized in the Agreement, which Plaintiff executed on April 20, 2011 and Carlese executed on April 21, 2011. The Agreement provides in full:

Following sets forth the agreement dated April 20, 2011 between Columbia University and 1199 SEIU/SSA Area (Union) relating to the employment status of Chirag Mandavia, a Senior Technician in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology. This memorandum shall settle all controversy related to this matter.
1. Mr. Mandavia will resign effective immediately. Mr. Mandavia has fifteen (15) days of unused vacation and personal leave. Mr. Mandavia agrees to schedule all unused vacation and personal days prior to his last day of employment (April 21 through May 11, 2011). Therefore, Mr. Mandavia's last day of employment will be May 11, 2011.
2. Upon separation from employment with the University, the Department agrees to pay Mr. Mandavia two (2) weeks of additional pay less applicable payroll taxes.
3. University will not contest his application for unemployment benefits. Eligibility for such benefits will be determined by the N.Y.S. Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security.
4. The University agrees to provide a letter of reference written by Dr. David Figurski (attached). Mr. Mandavia agrees that he will not give Dr. Figurski as a telephone reference. In response to outside inquiries and in accordance with University policy, Human Resources will verify only position title, dates of employment and department.
5. Mr. Mandavia is not eligible for future employment within Columbia University and Mr. Mandavia agrees he will not apply for positions within the University
6. As required by your H1B visa, if you request it, we will provide you with a non-refundable ticket to return to the last country of residence. Please inform the Departmental Administration, Edie Schumansky, in writing, by the last day of your employment (May 11, 2011) if you wish a ticket purchased or not. Please contact the International Affairs Office with regard to your immigration status. Your immigration status is based on the employer/employee relationship you have with Columbia University and ...

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