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Leon v. Columbia University Medical Center

United States District Court, Second Circuit

December 17, 2013



NELSON S. ROMN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Vladimir Leon ("Plaintiff") commenced this action pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§2000e et seq., the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. EXEC L. §296, and the New York City Human Rights Law, N.Y. City Admin. Code §§8-101 to 131 ("NYCHRL") against Defendant Columbia University Medical Center (the "University" or "Defendant"), alleging that his termination from employment with Defendant was due to race and national origin discrimination and that his discharge was in retaliation for attempting to secure tuition benefits under a collective bargaining agreement between Columbia University and Plaintiff's union. Defendant counters that Plaintiff's termination was due to a lack of grant funding available to support Plaintiff's position.

Defendants now move, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, for summary judgment, asserting there is no genuine issue of material fact and that Defendant is entitled to judgment on all of Plaintiff's claims. For the following reasons, Defendant's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.

I. Background

The facts are taken from the parties' Local Civil Rule 56.1 statements and supporting materials, and are not in dispute, except where noted.

Plaintiff Vladimir Leon is a Black male of Haitian descent. He was hired by Columbia University in July 2006 as a Research Assistant in the Stroke Division of Columbia's Department of Neurology. Defendant's Statement of Undisputed Material Facts Pursuant to Local Civil Rule 56.1 (hereinafter "56.1"), ¶¶ 2. Dr. Mitchell Elkind, an Associate Professor and Physician at Columbia, hired Plaintiff and supervised him throughout the duration of his employment. Id at ¶¶ 3-4. Plaintiff began reporting to Janet DeRosa ("DeRosa"), a Senior Staff Associate in the Stroke Division, in 2007. Id at ¶ 6.

Plaintiff's primary employment responsibilities were related to the Northern Manhattan Study ("NoMaS"), an observational epidemiologic study of a closed cohort of patients aimed at assessing the risk factors and outcomes of stroke in the population living in the Northern Manhattan Area. Id at ¶¶ 8-9. Plaintiff's principal role with regard to NoMaS involved storing, processing, inventorying and shipping blood specimens, ordering supplies, maintaining laboratory equipment, and maintaining databases. Id at ¶¶ 8, 13. The NoMaS study is funded principally through a grant from the National Institutes of Health ("NIH"), which is renewed in five-year increments and is additionally resubmitted yearly as a non-competitive renewal application. Id at ¶¶ 10-12. The study is approximately sixty-nine percent Hispanic. Id at ¶ 10. In addition to Mr. Leon, the study employed other research assistants whose main duties were to interact with the patients and gather information directly from patients. Id at ¶¶ 24-25. Accordingly, the research assistants in patient-related positions were required to be fluent in English and Spanish since 2006. Id at ¶ 26.

Following the departure of Plaintiff's former supervisor in 2007, Plaintiff claims that he began to be bullied by the other employees, his co-workers in the study, particularly because he was Haitian. Id at ¶ 32. Plaintiff perceived that he was "regarded differently" by the other employees, who were Dominican. Pl.'s Response to 56.1 ¶ 30. Allegedly, the Dominican employees belittled Plaintiffs' Spanish speaking ability, made racial comments about blacks being less intelligent, and comments within Plaintiff's earshot about President Obama. 56.1 at ¶ 32. Plaintiff reported these occurrences to DeRosa sometime in 2008 or 2009 and was told that he should "not worry about it, " and that she "would take care of it." Id at ¶ 33.

In March 2009, Plaintiff was approached by Elizabeth Wang, the Division Administrator, in the hallway, who questioned why Plaintiff had a purchasing card. Pl.'s Response to 56.1 ¶ 30. When Plaintiff responded that Dr. Elkind had provided the card to Plaintiff to make necessary purchases for the lab, Ms. Wang told Plaintiff that he was not authorized to have a purchasing card and removed it from his possession. Id. Plaintiff believes that following this incident, "Ms. Wang and others in the hallway laughed at his discomfort." Id. Plaintiff wrote an email to DeRosa regarding the purchasing card and the way he was treated by Ms. Wang, which he described as "punishment" and "a discriminatory decision." Id. In a series of emails between Plaintiff, DeRosa, Dr. Elkind and Consuelo Mclaughlin, DeRosa explained that there was a change in Department policy in order to streamline purchasing activities in the Stroke Division, which was why Plaintiff would no longer hold a purchasing card. Gerard Dec. Ex. 2.

Plaintiff first approached DeRosa sometime during the spring semester of 2010[1] to ask that she sign a form entitled "Job-Related Graduate Course Certification Form" certifying that certain classes he was taking at Columbia be granted preferential tax treatment. DeRosa Dec. Ex. C. As a Columbia employee and 1199 member, Plaintiff was entitled to certain tuition assistance benefits in connection with courses taken at Columbia, if the courses were deemed to be job-related. 56.1 ¶ 34. In April 2010, after Plaintiff left the form for DeRosa's signature, she replied by email that she would need more information from Plaintiff before she would sign the form. DeRosa Dec. Ex. B. After meeting on April 26, 2010, DeRosa reviewed further information and ultimately refused to approve one of Plaintiff's courses as job-related. Subsequently, Plaintiff went to Dr. Elkind with the form, explained that DeRosa would not sign the form and asked Dr. Elkind to sign it, which he did.

In 2007, the grant renewal application submitted to NIH provided that the study would not draw, process, or inventory blood past March 2009. 56.1 ¶ 16. Although the grant funding for his activities had run out, Plaintiff remained in his position past March 2009 through carryover funding from NoMaS as well as other available funds. Id at ¶ 19. The sub-award agreement for the year beginning in April 2010 and running through May 2011 provided that none of Plaintiff's salary would be funded through the grant from NIH. Id at ¶ 20. As a matter of Columbia University policy, faculty must obtain outside funding to support research staff. Id at ¶ 22. Dr. Elkind made the decision to end Plaintiff's employment because of lack of funding and he communicated that decision to DeRosa in or about February or March 2010. Id at ¶¶ 21-23.

After the decision was made to terminate Plaintiff's employment, the union representative, Bennett Battista, without authorization from Defendant, called Plaintiff and told him that he was being fired. Id at ¶ 38. Upon receiving this news, Plaintiff called Dr. Elkind and during the course of the conversation, Plaintiff said that the way his termination had been handled was unprofessional and suggested that this kind of treatment is why people commit suicide. Id at ¶ 39; Leon Tr. 131:11-139:19. Dr. Elkind then reported Plaintiff's comment to the Department Administrator, causing management to become concerned. 56.1 ¶ 40. Plaintiff was referred to the Employee Assistance Program, the result of which was that the University asked Plaintiff to provide documentation that he was fit to continue working during his four-week notice period. Id at ¶ 41. Although Plaintiff submitted two doctor's notes saying he was physically fit, he did not provide any medical confirmation that he was psychologically fit to work. Id at ¶ 42. Plaintiff was unaware that the University required notification of his psychological fitness. Due to his failure to provide documentation satisfactory to the University, Plaintiff was not allowed to work the duration of his notice period. Leon Dec. ¶ 20.

At the time of Plaintiff's termination, there were four other research assistants in the Stroke Division who were more junior than Plaintiff. Pl.'s Response to 56.1 ¶ 24; Gerard Dec. Ex. 6. The more junior research assistants performed patient-related research, meaning that they interacted directly with the patient cohort. 56.1 ¶ 26. Although Plaintiff can understand some Spanish, he is not fluent in Spanish, a requirement of the other research positions. Id at ¶ 27. According to the Collective Bargaining Agreement between Columbia and Plaintiff's Union, 1199 United Healthcare Workers East, employees in a research project who have the same job classification are to be laid off in reverse order of seniority. Gerard Dec. Ex. 1, COL 0000449. However, "the placing of one employee in another employee's job in the same job classification for the purpose of retaining the more senior employee shall be permitted to occur only... provided the more senior employee is able to perform the available work." Id.

Although Plaintiff has attempted to apply for positions with Columbia University since his discharge, he has not received any response regarding any of them.

II. Discussion

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Motions for summary judgment are governed by Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which states, in pertinent part, "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). The moving party bears the initial burden of pointing to evidence in the record, "including depositions, documents... [and] affidavits or declarations, " Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A), "which it believes demonstrate[s] the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The moving party may support an assertion that there is no genuine dispute by "showing... that [the] adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(B). If the moving party fulfills its preliminary burden, the onus shifts to the nonmoving party to raise the existence of a genuine issue of material fact. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986).

A genuine dispute of material fact exists when "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; accord Benn v. Kissane, 510 F.App'x 34, 36 (2d Cir. 2013); Gen. Star Nat'l Ins. Co. v. Universal Fabricators, Inc., 585 F.3d 662, 669 (2d Cir. 2009); Roe v. City of Waterbury, 542 F.3d 31, 35 (2d Cir. 2008). Courts must "constru[e] the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw[] all reasonable inferences in its favor." Fincher v. Depository Trust & Clearing Corp., 604 F.3d 712, 720 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting Allianz Ins. Co. v. Lerner, 416 F.3d 109, 113 (2d Cir. 2005)). In reviewing the record, "the judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, " nor is it to determine a witness's credibility. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249; see also Kaytor v. Elec. Boat Corp., 609 F.3d 537, 545 (2d Cir. 2010) ("The function of the district court in considering the motion for summary judgment is not to resolve disputed questions of fact."). Rather, "the inquiry performed is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is the need for a trial." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. Summary judgment should be granted when a party "fails to make ...

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