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Meadors v. Ulster County

United States District Court, N.D. New York

November 21, 2013

PATRICIA MEADORS, ANN MARIE LEGG, NANCY REYES, and PATRICIA WATSON, Plaintiffs,
v.
ULSTER COUNTY; PAUL J. VAN BLARCUM, in his official capacity as Sheriff of Ulster County and individually; RICHARD BOCKELMANN, in his official capacity as Sheriff of Ulster County and individually; BRADFORD EBEL, in his official capacity as Superintendent of Ulster County Jail and individually; and RAY ACEVEDO, in his official capacity as Deputy Superintendent of Ulster County Jail and individually, Defendants

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For Plaintiffs: JOSEPH J. RANNI, ESQ., OF COUNSEL, RANNI LAW FIRM, Florida, New York.

For Plaintiffs: ROBERT E. DINARDO, ESQ., OF COUNSEL, JACOBOWITZ & GUBITS, LLP, Walden, New York.

For Defendants: EARL T. REDDING, ESQ., MATTHEW J. KELLY, ESQ., OF COUNSEL, ROEMER WALLENS GOLD & MINEAUX, LLP, Albany, New York.

OPINION

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MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

Frederick J. Scullin, Jr., Senior United States District Judge .

I. INTRODUCTION

Currently before the Court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment. See Dkt. No. 29.[1] Plaintiffs oppose this motion. See Dkt. Nos. 33-40.

II. BACKGROUND

In July 2008, Plaintiffs filed charges of discrimination with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (" EEOC" ) and the New York State Division of Human Rights (" NYSDHR" ), alleging sex discrimination and hostile

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work environment sexual harassment. See Dkt. No. 38-7 at 3; Dkt. No. 38-9 at 3; Dkt. No. 38-11 at 3; Dkt. No. 38-13 at 1. Thereafter, on May 11, 2009, Plaintiffs, corrections officers at the Ulster County Jail,[2] filed the instant action pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (" Title VII" ), New York State Human Rights Law (" NYSHRL" ), and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See generally Dkt. No. 1, Complaint. In their complaint, all Plaintiffs asserted the following causes of action: (1) disparate treatment claims against all Defendants under Title VII; (2) hostile work environment claims against all Defendants under Title VII; (3) disparate impact claims against all Defendants under Title VII; (4) retaliation claims against all Defendants under Title VII; (5) sexual discrimination claims against all Defendants under NYSHRL; (6) retaliation claims against all Defendants under NYSHRL; (7) sexual discrimination claims against all Defendants under § 1983; and (8) negligent infliction of emotional distress claims against all Defendants. See id . at ¶ ¶ 151-189. In addition, Plaintiff Legg asserted claims of pregnancy discrimination against all Defendants under federal and state law. See id . at ¶ ¶ 194-199.

III. DISCUSSION[3]

A. Procedural issues

1. Defendants' request to sever Plaintiffs' claims and hold separate trials for each Plaintiff

Although Defendants did not formally move for severance of Plaintiffs' claims, they requested this relief as part of their summary judgment motion. Under Rule 21 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a " court may [] sever any claim against a party." Fed.R.Civ.P. 21. Courts have broad discretion to decide whether to sever claims. See Oram v. Soulcycle LLC, No. 13 Civ. 2976, 979 F.Supp.2d 498, 2013 WL 5797346, *2 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 28, 2013) (citation omitted). In deciding whether severance is appropriate, courts consider the following factors, none of which is determinative: (1) whether the claims arise out of the same transaction or occurrence; (2) whether the claims present a common question of law or fact; (3) whether the claims require different witnesses and documentary evidence; (4) whether severance will facilitate judicial economy; and (5) whether severance will avoid prejudice. See Gerace v. Cliffstar Corp., No. 05-CV-65S, *3-*4 (W.D.N.Y. Dec. 15, 2009) (quotation omitted). After reviewing all of these factors, the Court finds that they weigh against severance; and, therefore, the Court denies Defendants' request for severance.

2. Failure to serve a notice of claim with regard to Plaintiffs' state-law claims

" As a 'condition precedent' to commencing a tort action against New York municipalities, or any of their officers, agents, or employees, New York General Municipal Law § 50-e requires plaintiffs to file a notice of claim within ninety days after the claim arises." Olsen v. Cnty. of Nassau,

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No. CV 05-3623, *3 (E.D.N.Y. Nov. 4, 2008) (citation omitted). New York County Law § 52 extends § 50-e's notice-of-claim requirement to any claim for damages against a " county, its officers, agents, servants or employees[.]" N.Y. County Law § 52(1). This notice-of-claim provision applies to claims that plaintiffs assert against a county and its employees pursuant to NYSHRL. See Olsen, at *3; Seale v. Madison Cnty., 929 F.Supp.2d 51, 79 (N.D.N.Y. 2013) (dismissing the plaintiff's NYSHRL retaliation claim because he did not file a notice of claim against the municipal defendant as GML § 50-e required). In addition, serving a notice of claim is a condition precedent to commencing an action against a county's employees insofar as " 'the county is required to indemnify the individual defendants.'" Seale, 929 F.Supp.2d at 72 (quotation omitted).

There is no dispute that Plaintiffs did not serve a notice of claim on any of the Defendants. Plaintiffs, however, attempt to sidestep this error by arguing that their EEOC charges satisfy the notice-of-claim requirement with respect to their NYSHRL claims. This argument is without merit. See Cody v. Cnty. of Nassau, 577 F.Supp.2d 623, 648-49 (S.D.N.Y. 2008); Wrenn v. New York City Health & Hosps. Corp., 104 F.R.D. 553, 557 (S.D.N.Y. 1985) (citations omitted). Furthermore, with respect to Defendants Van Blarcum, Bockelmann, Ebel and Acevedo, Plaintiffs' complaint lacks any factual allegations to suggest that these Defendants acted outside the scope of their employment in committing the alleged tortious acts. Therefore, Plaintiffs' failure to serve them with a notice of claim is fatal to their NYSHRL claims.

Finally, the Court denies Plaintiffs' request for leave to file a late notice of claim. The Court lacks jurisdiction to grant such relief. See Van Cortlandt v. Westchester Cnty., No. 07 CIV 1783, *23-*24 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 31, 2007) (quotation and other citation omitted); Olsen, at *10.

Accordingly, for the above-stated reasons, the Court grants Defendants' motion for summary judgment with respect to Plaintiffs' claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress and their claims of discrimination pursuant to NYSHRL.

3. Timeliness of Plaintiffs' Title VII claims

a. Disparate treatment and retaliation claims

Before commencing a Title VII action in federal court, a plaintiff must file an administrative charge of discrimination within 300 days of the alleged discriminatory or retaliatory acts. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1). An exception to the 300-day limitations period occurs, however, where there is a " continuing violation," i.e., where the alleged discriminatory act is committed under an ongoing policy of discrimination. See Lambert v. Genesee Hosp., 10 F.3d 46, 53 (2d Cir. 1993). To bring a claim within the continuing violation exception, " a plaintiff must present a '" specific discriminatory policy" . . . which amounts to more than a string of allegedly discriminatory acts committed with one motive in mind.'" Jones v. Onondaga Cnty. Resource Recovery Agency, No. 5:11-CV-113, 973 F.Supp.2d 159, 2013 WL 5346815, *6 (N.D.N.Y. Sept. 23, 2013) (quotation and other citation omitted).

In this case, it is undisputed that any alleged acts of discrimination and retaliation

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that predate September 2007,[4] the expiration of the 300-day limitations period, are time-barred and cannot form the basis of independent claims. Plaintiffs' attempts to salvage these untimely claims under the continuing violation doctrine fail because Plaintiffs have offered nothing more than the conclusory statement that Defendants have maintained " systematic motivations and methods [of discrimination], including the conscious denial of receiving complaints and knowing refusal to take action." See Dkt. No. 37 at 21-22. Therefore, the Court grants Defendants' motion for summary judgment with respect to Plaintiffs' Title VII disparate treatment and retaliation claims insofar as those claims rely on incidents that occurred prior to September 2007.

b. Hostile work environment claims

" Hostile work environment claims are different in kind from discrete [discriminatory] acts [because t]heir very nature involves repeated conduct." Natl. R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101, 115, 122 S.Ct. 2061, 153 L.Ed.2d 106 (2002) (citation omitted). A plaintiff, therefore, may base her hostile work environment claim on events outside the limitations period as long as (1) the acts occurring before the 300-day period expired are " part of the same actionable hostile work environment practice," and (2) at least one act contributing to the claim occurs within the limitations period. Id. at 120.

In the present case, Plaintiffs have adduced sufficient evidence to permit the Court to find that instances of sexual harassment that occurred before the limitations period are sufficiently related to those that occurred within the limitations period. See, e.g., Dkt. No. 1 at ¶ 42; Dkt. No. 35 at ¶ 5. Accordingly, the Court denies Defendants' motion for summary judgment with respect to Plaintiffs' Title VII hostile work environment claims insofar as Defendants argue that these claims are untimely.

4. Exhaustion of administrative remedies

" 'Before an individual may bring a Title VII suit in federal court, the claims forming the basis of such a suit must first be presented in a complaint to the EEOC or the equivalent state agency.'" Farren v. Shaw Envtl., Inc., 510 F.Appx. 44, 45 (2d Cir. 2013) (quoting Williams v. N.Y.C. Hous. Auth., 458 F.3d 67, 69 (2d Cir. 2006)). " A district court only has jurisdiction to hear Title VII claims that either are included in an EEOC charge or are based on conduct subsequent to the EEOC charge which is 'reasonably related' to that alleged in the EEOC charge." Butts v. New York Dep't of Hous. Preservation & Dev., 990 F.2d 1397, 1401 (2d Cir. 1993) (citations omitted). Unexhausted claims are " reasonably related" where (1) " the conduct complained of would fall within the 'scope of the EEOC investigation which can reasonably be expected to grow out of the charge of discrimination'" ; (2) the plaintiff is " alleging retaliation by an employer against an employee for filing an EEOC charge" ; and (3) " a plaintiff alleges further incidents of discrimination carried out in precisely the same manner alleged

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in the EEOC charge." Id. at 1402-03 (quotation and other citations omitted).

In paragraphs 77, 85, 109-114, 119-120, 133-136, and 149-150 of their complaint, Plaintiffs principally contend that Defendants retaliated against them for filing EEOC charges and/or for participating in Negron. See Complaint. In particular, Plaintiff Meadors claims that Defendants changed her work shifts to prevent her from pursuing her Master's degree, denied her leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (" FMLA" ), and failed to promote her after she filed her EEOC charge and served as a witness in Negron. See id . at ¶ ¶ 77-85. Similarly, Plaintiff Reyes alleges that Defendants discriminatory discharged her following her EEOC charge, see id . at ¶ ¶ 133-136; and Plaintiff Watson claims that Defendants reassigned her to a less desirable position after she filed her change, see id . at ¶ 149. Lastly, Plaintiff Legg avers that Corporal Charles M. Wranovics issued her first written discipline in retaliation for participation in Negron. See id . at ¶ ¶ 109-120.

Based on the foregoing, the Court concludes that the factual allegations in the challenged paragraphs are " reasonably related" to the allegations in Plaintiffs' EEOC charges. See Butts, 990 F.2d at 1402-03. Accordingly, the Court denies Defendants' motion for summary judgment with regard to Plaintiffs' Title VII claims insofar as Defendants argue that Plaintiffs have not exhausted their administrative remedies.

5. Liability of individual Defendants under Title VII

A plaintiff may only hold her employer, not individual employees, liable under Title VII. See Sheffield v. Sheriff of Rockland Cnty. Sheriff Dep't, 393 F.Appx. 808, 811 n.2 (2d Cir. 2010) (citation omitted). Therefore, the Court grants Defendants' motion for summary judgment with respect to Plaintiffs' Title VII claims insofar as Plaintiffs assert those claims against Defendants Van Blarcum, Bockelmann, Ebel, and Acevedo in their individual capacities.

B. The merits of Plaintiffs' Title VII claims

1. Summary judgment standard

Pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, " [t]he 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). If the movant satisfies its burden, the non-moving party must set forth " 'specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986) (quotation and footnote omitted).

In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, " the court must construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in the non-moving party's favor." Consol. Risk Servs. Inc. v . Auto. Dealers WC Self Ins. Trust, No. 1:06-CV-871, *10 (N.D.N.Y. July 9, 2010) (citation omitted). As in any other case, " an employment discrimination plaintiff faced with a properly supported summary judgment motion must 'do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts' . . . . She must come forth with evidence sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to find in her favor." Brown v. ...


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