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Benbow v. State University of New York-New Paltz

United States District Court, N.D. New York

May 8, 2014

LINDA BENBOW, Plaintiff,


LAWRENCE E. KAHN, District Judge.


In this employment discrimination case, Defendant State University of New York-New Paltz ("SUNY-NP" or "Defendant") has moved pursuant to Federal Rule of Procedure 12(b)(6) to dismiss pro se Plaintiff Linda Benbow's ("Plaintiff") Amended Complaint. See Dkt. Nos. 27 ("Motion"); 24 ("Amended Complaint"). For the following reasons, the Motion is granted in part and denied in part.


The parties are presumed to be familiar with the background of this case. For a complete statement of Plaintiff's allegations and claims, reference is made to the Amended Complaint. Plaintiff is an African-American woman. Am Compl. ¶ 9. She began working for Defendant in 1999 as an adjunct instructor in the Black Studies department. Id . ¶ 8. A year later, she became a full-time lecturer in the Sociology department ("Department"). Id . ¶ 9. Plaintiff was the first and only African-American woman to teach in the Department. Id . Upon completion of her PhD, Plaintiff was promoted to Assistant Professor in 2007. Id . ¶ 18. Plaintiff's employment with Defendant was terminated as of January 1, 2010. Id . ¶ 40.

Plaintiff alleges that she was subjected to a variety of race-based discrimination throughout her employment. Much of the Amended Complaint describes mistreatment by two Chairs of the Department: Harold Jacobs ("Jacobs"), Chair from 2000 to 2003, and Anne Roschelle, Chair from 2003 through Plaintiff's termination in 2010. Id . ¶¶ 13, 19. In 2001, Jacobs told Plaintiff that, in contrast to Department coworkers who had been "socialized from a young age to assume the role of college professor, " Plaintiff "might be out of [her] league trying to be a college professor." Id . ¶ 13 (alteration in original). Plaintiff was ostracized and excluded from social functions held by both Chairs. Id . ¶¶ 13, 26. Roschelle repeatedly commented, often publicly, that Plaintiff was: (1) not qualified for her position; (2) an "Affirmative Action hire" who had been "imposed" upon the Department; (3) "redundant" or "long winded"; (4) "personally and professional[ly] inept"; (5) undeserving of Departmental resources; and (6) not on track to finish her PhD and therefore facing termination. Id . ¶¶ 19, 24, 27, 44. Roschelle also asked Plaintiff if she attended church, as "all black people go to church"; stated that Plaintiff was "intimidating" because she was "poised and professional"; and suggested that Plaintiff should be more understanding of a colleague's problem because, unlike the members of the Department who came from middle class backgrounds, Plaintiff "c[a]me from Harlem." Id . ¶ 44. Roschelle also tightly surveilled Plaintiff; was "openly hostile, aggressive, dismissive, and offensive"; and angrily demanded that Plaintiff meet arbitrarily imposed deadlines that other members of the Department, including Roschelle, were not required to meet. Id . ¶¶ 24, 26. Roschelle expressed her dislike for Plaintiff with exaggerated gestures and facial expressions, and encouraged the ostracism of Plaintiff by other members of the Department. Id . ¶¶ 23-24, 26.

In 2004, a racist and sexist caricature was drawn on a message board on Plaintiff's door. Plaintiff alleges that nothing was done to address this caricature and that, after Plaintiff complained about this incident and other instances of racism, Roschelle stated that her complaint was "unfair to the college and to her colleagues." Id . ¶ 22. Furthermore, Roschelle, in contravention of SUNY-NP policy, allowed a white male member of the Department to teach a course that Plaintiff had developed and taught for many years and to use Plaintiff's course materials without attribution. Id . ¶ 23. During Plaintiff's hospitalization and medical leave in early 2007, Roschelle repeatedly sought additional documentation of Plaintiff's illness, despite Plaintiff's provision of adequate documentation, and called Plaintiff's doctor's office seeking information regarding Plaintiff's illness. Id . ¶ 28.

From 2000-2006, Plaintiff received a significantly lower salary than her white colleagues, including those with shorter SUNY-NP tenures. Id . ¶ 11. Although Plaintiff's salary was "brought in line" with the salaries of her colleagues in 2007, a previously granted discretionary salary increase was "deleted" from her salary upon her promotion to Assistant Professor that same year-a deletion never before undertaken in the Department or SUNY-NP. Id . ¶ 21. From 2000 to the completion of her dissertation in 2007, Plaintiff did not receive financial assistance for her research, although all full-time white faculty members in the Department, including those whose employment began after Plaintiff's, did. Id . ¶ 12. During Plaintiff's first year of employment, Dean of Liberal Arts & Sciences Gerald Benjamin ("Benjamin") gave her a heavier class load than that of any other teacher in the Department. Id . ¶¶ 10, 11. Although Plaintiff's class load was subsequently reduced, she alleges that this reduction was insufficient to offset the disproportionate number of classes she had previously been required to teach. Id . ¶¶ 10, 11. Plaintiff, unlike her white colleagues, was also not provided with a "functional work space" or Department-issued computer. Id . ¶ 13.

Plaintiff repeatedly complained throughout her employment about this discriminatory treatment, including, inter alia, sending letters and emails to, and meeting with, various members of the SUNY-NP administration in 2002, 2005, 2006, 2007 and August 2008. Id . ¶¶ 12, 15, 24, 26-27. These complaints addressed, inter alia, Roschelle's continuous "refer[ence] to [Plaintiff] in negative caricatures and stereotypes held towards African[-]American people and behav[ior] towards Plaintiff in ways designed to make the negative[] characterization she believed about Plaintiff become true." Id . ¶ 27; see also id. ¶ 30.

In September 2008, a committee-made up of all members of the Department except Roschelle-recommended that Plaintiff be given a two-year renewal of her appointment as an assistant professor. Id . ¶ 31. Roschelle, however, formally recommended non-renewal. Id . ¶ 32. She acknowledged that Plaintiff was "unique" as the only African-American member of the Department but stated that Plaintiff had "verbally, violently attacked her"; was "extremely intimidating" to faculty and students; had been dishonest about working outside of the University; and received poor student evaluations. Id . In making her recommendation, Roschelle evaluated Plaintiff's entire career at SUNY-NP; Plaintiff contends that it was standard practice to evaluate only a professor's previous year of service-not her full career-when deciding upon an application for contract renewal. Id . ¶ 29. Moreover, Roschelle's criticisms were inaccurate: members of the Department were permitted to engage in outside work, and Plaintiff received highly favorable student evaluations. Id . ¶¶ 28, 32. Nevertheless, Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences James Schiffer ("Schiffer") adopted, without investigation, Roschelle's evaluation of Plaintiff's conduct and her termination recommendation. Id . ¶ 35. The "Central Committee" ("Committee") then voted not to renew Plaintiff's contract and stated that she had "insufficient publications." Id . ¶ 26. In December 2008, Provost David Lavallee ("Lavallee") formally terminated Plaintiff's employment effective January 2010. Id . ¶ 37. He indicated that her performance at SUNY-NP "did not warrant retention." Id.

On May 26, 2009, Plaintiff filed a Charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). Dkt. No. 27-2 ("Charge"). She later submitted a Rebuttal to SUNY-NP's EEOC submission. Dkt. No. at 30-45[2] ("Rebuttal"). Plaintiff commenced this action in July 2012. See Dkt. No. 1 ("Original Complaint"). Defendant moved to dismiss the Original Complaint. See Dkt. No. 14 ("First Motion"). Plaintiff was then granted leave to, and did, file the Amended Complaint. See Dkt. No. 22; Am. Compl. Construed generously, the Amended Complaint brings Title VII claims for retaliatory and race-based discriminatory pay, hostile work environment, and termination, as well as a 42 U.S.C. § 1981 claim. See Am. Compl. ¶¶ 43, 56, 61, 63, 65. Defendant's Motion and accompanying Memorandum followed, and Plaintiff responded to the Motion. Mot.; Dkt. Nos. 27-1 ("Memorandum"); 30 ("Response").


To survive a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a "complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 663 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)); see also FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6). Plausibility requires "enough fact[s] to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of [the alleged misconduct]." Twombly , 550 U.S. at 556. "[U]nadorned, the-defendant-unlawfullyharmed-me accusation[s]" do not suffice. Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly , 550 U.S. at 555). Thus, although a court must accept as true the factual allegations contained in a complaint and draw all inferences in favor of a plaintiff, see Allaire Corp. v. Okumus , 433 F.3d 248, 249-50 (2d Cir. 2006), an action is subject to dismissal where the court is unable to infer more than the "sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly , 550 U.S. at 556).


A. Title VII ...

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