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Lehtinen v. Town of Greenport

United States District Court, N.D. New York

July 11, 2014

SONYA A. LEHTINEN, Plaintiff,
v.
TOWN OF GREENPORT, Defendant.

PAUL E. DAVENPORT, ESQ., LOMBARDI, WALSH, DAVENPORT, AND AMODEO, PC, Albany, New York, Attorneys for Plaintiff.

JONATHAN M. BERNSTEIN, ESQ., GOLDBERG SEGALLA, LLP, Albany, New York, Attorneys for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

MAE A. D'AGOSTINO, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff commenced this employment discrimination action on March 2, 2012, alleging causes of action for interference and retaliation under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, 29 U.S.C. § 2617 ("FMLA"), and for age and disability discrimination under the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. Law § 296 ("NYSHRL"). See Dkt. No. 1. Presently before the Court is Defendant's motion for summary judgment. See Dkt. No. 27. For the reasons stated herein, the Court grants Defendant's motion for summary judgment as to Plaintiff's FMLA claims, and declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's NYSHRL claims.

II. BACKGROUND[1]

Plaintiff Sonya Lehtinen was employed by Defendant Town of Greenport ("Town") beginning in January 1997 as a part-time court clerk for the Town of Greenport Justice Court, and was later hired full time in that capacity. Dkt. No. 30, Plaintiff's Supplemental Response to Statement of Material Facts ("Plf's SOMF") ¶¶ 3-4. As a court clerk, Plaintiff was responsible for, among other things, entering data into a New York State computer system for traffic tickets in default for non-payment, known as TSLED. Id. ¶ 14. Plaintiff was also responsible for keeping up with error reports from the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles ("DMV") and Division of Criminal Justice Services ("DCJS") by making corrections on TSLED. Id. ¶ 15. Plaintiff's responsibilities further included processing payments made by members of the public, and interacting with members of the public when they came to the clerk's office at the town hall. Id. ¶¶ 16-17.

On November 25, 2010, Plaintiff took leave from her employment with the Town to have knee replacement surgery. Id. ¶ 5. Plaintiff testified that she discussed her medical leave with Judge Robert Brenzel, her supervisor, and after she provided a letter from her doctor, her leave request was approved. Dkt. No. 27-4 ("Lehtinen 50-h")[2] at 54-55. Prior to taking leave, Plaintiff recommended Cindy Tracey to cover her position as court clerk while she was out on leave. Plf's SOMF ¶ 6. While still out on leave, Plaintiff was terminated from her employment with the Town on February 21 or 22, 2011, at which time she was 60 years old.[3] Id. ¶¶ 12; Lehtinen 50-h at 8[4]. Judge Brenzel was one of the Town representatives who made the decision to terminate Plaintiff. Dkt. No. 34-1, Defendant's Response to Plaintiff's Supplemental Statement of Material Facts, ("Def's Resp. SOMF") ¶ 2. Thereafter, Cindy Tracey was hired to fill the position on a permanent basis on March 2, 2011. Dkt. No. 27-10 ¶ 2. As of November 2013, Ms. Tracey was 57 years old. Id. Plaintiff was paid her full salary by the Town from November 21, 2010, through January 29, 2011. Plf's SOMF ¶ 10. At the time of her termination, Plaintiff had exhausted all of her personal, sick, and vacation time. Id. ¶ 13.

Defendant contends that Plaintiff's termination was a result of her deficient performance and unprofessional conduct. As Judge Brenzel testified, "[t]he reasons for [Plaintiff's termination] was her performance over a period of time all came to a head when things were discovered by the new court clerk, that weren't being done, and should have been done and things like that." Dkt. No. 27-8 ("Brenzel Dep., Pt. 2") at 27.

Prior to September 2010, Judge Brenzel observed that tickets were not being processed in a timely manner, and that he would see them "in boxes on the floor, on the counter, just all over the court clerk's office, obviously not being taken care of." Brenzel Dep., Pt. 2 at 17. Judge Brenzel testified that he "talked to [Plaintiff] many times about cleaning up this mess on the floor and getting things where they should to be [sic]. And, it wasn't done." Id. On the occasions when Judge Brenzel spoke with Plaintiff about this issue, "[h]er response was it was too much for her to handle by herself." Id. at 18.

Defendant submitted an affidavit from Dawn Banks, who worked part time for the Town in 2010 and 2011 assisting with its records retention system. Dkt. No. 27-17. Ms. Banks claims that at an unspecified time while she worked in the clerk's office, she noticed a large volume of tickets that had not been entered into the computer system. Id. ¶ 3. On one occasion, Plaintiff asked Ms. Banks to enter tickets that were located "in a plastic bag hidden behind a soda box under the front counter in the Clerk's office." Id. ¶ 4. Plaintiff told Ms. Banks that if she was unable to finish processing those tickets, she should place them back in the plastic bag and behind the soda box under the counter, "so that Judge Brenzel would not notice that [Plaintiff] was behind in processing the tickets." Id. ¶ 5. Ms. Banks approached Judge Brenzel while Plaintiff was out on leave and recounted this incident to him. Id. ¶ 6. Plaintiff disputes that this incident ever occurred. Dkt. No. 27-5 ("Lehtinen Dep., Pt. 1") at 55. Judge Brenzel also testified that Ms. Banks relayed this incident to him while Plaintiff was out on leave, and that he had previously personally observed a "large amount of crumpled up tickets stuffed in the back, hidden." Brenzel Dep., Pt. 2 at 31. It is undisputed that prior to Plaintiff's FMLA leave, Judge Brenzel was aware Plaintiff's work was backed up. Def's Resp. SOMF ¶ 10.

Defendant also contends that Judge Brenzel spoke with Plaintiff about certain conduct he disapproved of during the course of her employment. For instance, Defendant notes that Plaintiff had difficulty in getting along with an assistant district attorney, Tracy Lindauer, which Judge Brenzel discussed with her. See Brenzel Dep., Pt. 2 at 4 ("[T]he district attorney complained that there was a bad relationship between Sonya and the assistant district attorney assigned to the court; the DA would ask for things to be done or ask for information and wouldn't get them. And then they would call me and I supplied it. And I told Sonya many times that she's got to cooperate with these other agencies, and to do that. But it didn't let up."); cf. Lehtinen Dep., Pt. 1 at 33 ("There were times we didn't agree [about h]ow much time I could spend with [ADA Lindauer] on the phone giving information that she should have written down in court."). It is undisputed that Judge Brenzel was aware of this issue prior to Plaintiff's FMLA leave. Def's Resp. SOMF ¶ 14. Defendant further notes that Judge Brenzel informed Plaintiff that it was the duty of the court officer, not her, to instruct individuals appearing in court to remove their hats. See Brenzel Dep., Pt. 2 at 55 ("Sonya, from time to time would apparently consider herself something other than the court clerk. She would reprimand people to take your [sic] hat off, stop your noise. Sometimes she would get up from her desk and go back where the public was sitting and tell them to be quiet.... [W]e had a court officer in uniform to do that, and that was that court officer's job to do it; it was not the court clerk's job to do."); Lindauer 50-h at 44-45, 47. Defendant also cites a number of incidences in which Plaintiff acted unprofessionally in dealing with the public. For example, in 2006, she referred to two individuals who had come to the Town Hall to have a document notarized as "rubbish" or "trash, " Dkt. No. 27-12 at 15, and was later told that this behavior was unacceptable, Dkt No. 27-7 ("Brenzel Dep., Pt. 1") at 47.

Defendant further notes that Plaintiff admitted there was a backlog of forms requiring correction based upon DMV and DCJS error reports issued to the Town, Lehtinen Dep, Pt. 2 at 10-13, and a backlog of scofflaw reports[5] to DMV for unpaid fines, id. at 14. Plaintiff also testified that she had trouble keeping up with the mail, due to the volume, id. at 16-17, and that there were instances in which individuals had paid fines, but she had failed to enter that payment, resulting in an unwarranted suspension of those individuals' driver's licenses, id. at 17-18.

According to Plaintiff's replacement, Cindy Tracey, when she assumed the position of court clerk while Plaintiff was on leave, "it became immediately apparent that the Clerk's office was being mismanaged by plaintiff.... Upon my arrival to the Town of Greenport Clerk's office, I noticed a large volume of tickets that were located in the office that had not been attended to." Dkt. No. 27-10 at ¶ 3. In addition, Ms. Tracey submitted reports generated by the Town's computer systems which

show the massive backlog caused by plaintiff's failure to properly keep up by entering data regarding traffic tickets that were in default.... Plaintiff failed to enter the tickets that were in default. Instead, she left them in boxes on the floor of the Town Court Office. Many tickets sat for prolonged periods of time without being entered so the violator did not pay[, ] depriving money to government coffers and letting the violator not face any consequences.
On January 12, 2011, I entered 324 of these suspended tickets in the DMV computer system, most of which Plaintiff failed to enter in the first place....
Plaintiff failed to keep up with error reports from the DMV and DCJS....
Plaintiff also failed to keep up with the error reports for Criminal Disposition Reports.... There was also a backlog of responding to these error reports that I had to attend to when I was filling in for plaintiff.
In 2011, I found two checks that had not been cashed in plaintiff's desk drawer each for $25 made out to the Town of Greenport. One check was from 2001 and the other from 2004....
I reported all of the above to Judge Brenzel prior to plaintiff's termination from employment with the Town of Greenport on February 22, 2012 [sic], to make him aware of the terrible state that the Clerk's office was in when I first entered the position.

Id. ¶¶ 4-10.

As further evidence of Plaintiff's deficient performance, Defendant refers to an audit conducted in February 2011 that revealed an excess of approximately $5, 800 in the Town's account, which should have been processed, credited to compliant defendants, and forwarded to the New York State Comptroller's office:

Following an audit, that much excess money was found in the account. It obviously was money that should have been entered in to a number of defendants who paid it, and, it wasn't. It was deposited in the bank and sat there. And it should have been on the monthly report, whatever these amounts that were paid to the town so that it would have been sent to the comptroller over a period of time ...

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