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Lyman v. The New York and Presbyterian Hospital

United States District Court, S.D. New York

July 14, 2014

DENISE LYMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
THE NEW YORK AND PRESBYTERIAN HOSPITAL, et al., Defendants.

OPINION AND ORDER

KATHERINE POLK FAILLA, District Judge.

In December 2009, Plaintiff Denise Lyman was terminated from her position as a project manager for major construction projects at New York and Presbyterian Hospital (the "Hospital"). Plaintiff claims that this termination amounted to discrimination against her because of her disabilities and retaliation against her based on her efforts in seeking leave to treat those disabilities; she therefore filed the instant litigation. Defendants, the Hospital and Plaintiff's immediate supervisor there, respond that Plaintiff was terminated because of shockingly poor interpersonal dealings with supervisors, co-workers, and third parties alike; they therefore have moved for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.

DISCUSSION[1]

A. Factual Background

1. Overview

The Hospital is an "acute care not-for-profit hospital." (Def. 56.1(a) ¶ 2).[2] The Hospital's Office of Facilities Development ("OFD") is responsible for all design and construction projects at any campus or hospital affiliated with the Hospital. ( Id. at ¶¶ 1, 3). Plaintiff was employed as a project manager in OFD from July 17, 2006, until her employment was terminated on December 16, 2009. ( Id. at ¶ 1). Plaintiff's supervisor in OFD was Maria LaPorta, a Site Director, also a Defendant here. ( Id. at ¶ 7). LaPorta's supervisor, in turn, was Donna Barbaro, the OFD Vice President. ( Id. at ¶ 8).

Project managers oversee the design and construction of Hospital projects by working with OFD staff, Hospital executives, and outside vendors and service providers. (Def. 56.1(a) ¶¶ 11-14). In that capacity, Plaintiff routinely interacted with co-workers such as Cindy Lawrence, OFD Interiors Manager, and with vendors such as Waldner's Business Environments, Inc. ("WBE"), and its principal, Jay Waldner. ( Id. at ¶¶ 17, 18, 24).

There is little of Plaintiff's employment history at the Hospital that is not disputed by the parties.[3] At a high level of generality for purposes of overview: Plaintiff contends that, although there were certain, isolated examples of negative feedback arising from specific episodes during her employment at the Hospital, she was in general a satisfactory employee. She also alleges that she suffered from an increasingly painful and obvious degenerative hip condition over the course of many months about which she spoke to her co-workers and supervisors, including routinely advising them that she would seek medical leave to remediate her disability after the completion of construction on the Ronald O. Perelman Heart Institute Atrium (the "Heart Atrium"). Plaintiff's firing, she contends, was done in retaliation for her desire to obtain medical leave and was provoked by her eventual request for that leave on December 16, 2009. Moreover, once Plaintiff was fired, Defendants continued to retaliate against her by interfering with her subsequent employment, resulting in the buying out of her contract at Stony Brook University halfway through its year-long term.

Defendants, in contrast, allege that Plaintiff was an extremely problematic employee whose career was characterized by poor job performance and negative interactions with co-workers and vendors. Plaintiff never appeared disabled or referred to any injury or pain, and Defendants had no idea that Plaintiff intended to seek medical leave at any time. Plaintiff's termination was not provoked by any request for medical leave, prospective or actual, and Defendants never interfered in any way with her employment after she was fired.

2. Plaintiff's Employment at the Hospital from 2006 through 2008

Plaintiff began working in July 2006. (Def. 56.1(a) ¶ 1). In September 2007, Defendants chronicle a complaint by an employee of the outside vendor Empire Office Furniture named Francine regarding Plaintiff's behavior. ( Id. at ¶ 32). Plaintiff avers that she has no knowledge of anyone named Francine or any complaint by such a person. (Pl. 56.1(b) ¶ 32). Defendants further note that LaPorta told Plaintiff in October 2007, as part of a third-quarter performance review, that "outside vendor complaints... continue" regarding Plaintiff's behavior, though Defendants identified no complaints. (Def. 56.1(a) ¶ 34). Plaintiff once again denies knowledge of any such complaints (Pl. 56.1(b) ¶ 34), and indeed during that third-quarter review memorialized her objection to LaPorta's feedback on the basis that she had never been advised regarding the nature of any complaints against her (LaPorta Ex. 6). Defendants note that Plaintiff was assigned to a development plan in 2007 targeting communications and interpersonal approach (Def. 56.1(a) ¶¶ 26, 29); Plaintiff insists that this plan was not, as Defendants characterize it, "correctional, " but rather promotional (Pl. 56.1(b) ¶¶ 26-29).

Defendants submit that in November 2008, Plaintiff had a conflict with two Hospital executives, Stacey Petrower and Bernadette Meisner, regarding her interpersonal approach during a project management meeting. (Def. 56.1(a) ¶ 36; Pl. 56.1(b) ¶ 36). Defendants claim that LaPorta was forced to attend all future meetings with Plaintiff and these Hospital executives in order to assuage their concerns about working with Plaintiff (Def. 56.1(a) ¶ 38); Plaintiff contends that this is false, that LaPorta did not attend all future meetings with those executives, and that Plaintiff's relationship with those executives did not deteriorate as Defendants allege (Pl. 56.1(b) ¶ 38). In January 2009, in the near aftermath of the conflict between and among Plaintiff, Petrower, and Meisner, Plaintiff received a performance review for 2008 that contained several pieces of negative feedback regarding her interpersonal approach. (Def. 56.1(a) ¶ 39; Pl. 56.1(b) ¶ 39).

3. The 2008-2009 Heart Atrium Project

The Heart Atrium, the large project on which Plaintiff had been engaged in 2008 and 2009, opened on September 14, 2009. (Lyman Aff. ¶¶ 38, 45). The very next day, on September 15, 2009, Plaintiff was involved in what both sides agree was a difficult meeting with Cindy Lawrence, the Interiors Manager, and a representative from WBE. (Def. 56.1(a) ¶¶ 42-45; Pl. 56.1(b) ¶¶ 42-45). Defendants contend that Plaintiff was tardy, extremely antagonistic to her coworker, and disrespectful (Def. 56.1(a) ¶¶ 43-45); Plaintiff contends that this meeting has been misrepresented and embellished, and that the conflict was resolved shortly afterwards (Pl. 56.1(b) ¶¶ 43-45).

Jay Waldner, the vendor's principal, held a subsequent meeting on October 6, 2009, with LaPorta and Plaintiff. Defendants contend that Plaintiff was insubordinate and obstructive at this meeting (Def. 56.1(a) ¶¶ 49-50), while Plaintiff insists that this is a total misrepresentation of the meeting in question, and that it was LaPorta, not Plaintiff, who was disruptive and unreasonable (Pl. 56.1(b) ¶¶ 49-50). Waldner met once again with Plaintiff, LaPorta, and Donna Barbaro a week later on October 13. (Def. 56.1(a) ¶ 52; Pl. 56.1(b) ¶ 52). Defendants submit that Plaintiff was uncooperative, obstructive, and insubordinate (Def. 56.1(a) ¶ 53), while Plaintiff denies this and insists she was fully cooperative (Pl. 56.1(b) ¶ 53).

Defendants delivered to Plaintiff on October 28, 2009, a "note to file" identifying itself as a "final warning" regarding her work performance. (Def. 56.1(a) ¶ 54; Pl. 56.1(b) ¶ 54). Plaintiff went on a previously planned vacation on October 29, 2009, and returned on November 11. (Def. 56.1(a) ¶¶ 59, 61; Pl. 56.1(b) ¶¶ 59, 61). While Plaintiff was on vacation, Defendants contend that LaPorta received another complaint from a different vendor about Plaintiff's lack of communication and interpersonal approach. (Def. 56.1(a) ¶¶ 63, 64; Pl. 56.1(b) ¶¶ 63, 64).

Defendants contend that they began discussing terminating Plaintiff's employment "[i]n November 2009, " and ultimately decided to do so on December 11, 2009. (Def. 56.1(a) ¶¶ 66-68; Pl. 56.1(b) ¶¶ 66-68). In the interim, on December 8, 2009, Plaintiff received a diagnosis of arthritic degeneration to her hip. (Def. 56.1(a) ¶ 82; Pl. 56.1(b) ¶ 82). Defendants' position is that before the moment of this diagnosis, Plaintiff had "no arthritis" at all, nor any symptoms of such a condition such as pain or decreased mobility, and that no one at the Hospital was ever aware of any such symptoms at any time. (Def. 56.1(a) ¶¶ 83-87). Plaintiff rejoins that she had substantial, apparent pain and mobility problems and informed her supervisors and coworkers of her disability for some months before she was fired. (Pl. 56.1(b) ¶¶ 83-87).

On the morning of December 16, 2009, at 10:01 a.m., Plaintiff was summoned to a 10:30 a.m. meeting at which Defendants intended to fire her. (Def. 56.1(a) ¶ 69; Pl. 56.1(b) ¶ 69). Plaintiff subsequently sent two e-mails, at 10:05 a.m. and 10:23 a.m., advising that she would be seeking medical leave. (Def. 56.1(a) ¶ 70; Pl. 56.1(b) ¶ 70). Plaintiff also asserts that she sent an email to the same effect at 7:23 a.m., well prior to receiving notice of the meeting (Pl. 56.1(b) ¶ 70); Defendants submit that that e-mail is a forgery (Def. Br. 21 n.16). At the 10:30 a.m. meeting, Plaintiff was fired. (Def. 56.1(a) ¶ 73; Pl. 56.1(b) ¶ 73).

After her employment with the Hospital was terminated, Plaintiff began working for Stony Brook University in October 2010 on a one-year contract. (Def. 56.1(a) ¶ 77; Pl. 56.1(b) ¶ 77). In May 2011, Stony Brook decided not to renew Plaintiff's contract and bought out her remaining time. (Def. 56.1(a) ¶ 79; Pl. 56.1(b) ¶ 79). It is Defendants' submission that this employment decision was reached solely on the basis of Plaintiff's poor work performance and antagonistic behavior at her new position (Def. 56.1(a) ¶¶ 75, 78), while Plaintiff insists that Stony Brook's decision was motivated by details of her previous conflicts with her supervisors and co-workers at the Hospital that Defendants shared with Stony Brook as a form of post-termination retaliation (Pl. 56.1(b) ¶¶ 75, 78).

B. Procedural Background

Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this action against the Hospital, LaPorta, and WBE on June 7, 2011. (Dkt. #1).[4] Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint on August 22, 2011, pleading claims for (i) disability discrimination against the Hospital in violation of the Americans with Disability Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12111-12117, 12131-12165, 12181-12189, 12201-12213 (the "ADA); the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. Law §§ 290 to 297 (the "NYSHRL"); the New York City Human Rights Law, N.Y.C. Admin. Code §§ 8-101 to 8-131 (the "NYCHRL"); (ii) aiding and abetting disability discrimination against LaPorta and WBE in violation of the NYSHRL and the NYCHRL; (iii) retaliation against the Hospital in violation of the ADA, the NYSHRL, and the NYCHRL; (iv) aiding and abetting retaliation against LaPorta and WBE in violation of the NYSHRL and the NYCHRL; and (v) tortious interference with business relations against LaPorta and WBE. (Dkt. #16).

On February 14, 2012, Plaintiff entered a stipulation of voluntary dismissal with prejudice as to WBE. (Dkt. #29). On May 30, 2012, upon learning of the parties' settlement of the matter, the Court entered an Order of Discontinuance as to the remainder of the litigation. (Dkt. #31).

The May 30 Order proved premature. The deadline to reopen the litigation, after numerous extensions, expired on October 16, 2012 (Dkt. #41); Plaintiff moved nonetheless to reopen on November 5, 2012 (Dkt. #44-46). Defendants opposed that motion on November 21, 2012 (Dkt. #49-50), and the motion to reopen was fully submitted when Plaintiff replied on November 27, 2012 (Dkt. #51-52). The Court referred that motion to Magistrate Judge Francis (Dkt. #53), who issued a Report & Recommendation on December 11, 2012, recommending that the Court grant Plaintiff's motion and reopen the case (Dkt. #54). Defendants did not object and the Court adopted Judge Francis's Report & Recommendation in full on February 1, 2013, reopening the case and restoring it to the active docket. (Dkt. #55).

Discovery ensued and, after substantial extensions, the Court set a briefing schedule for Defendants' motion for summary judgment on January 6, 2014. (Dkt. #69). Defendants moved for summary judgment on February 12, 2014. (Dkt. #73-78). Plaintiff opposed on March 19, 2014 (Dkt. #81-84), and the motion was fully submitted when Defendants replied on April 2, 2014 (Dkt. #87-88).

A. Applicable Law

1. Summary Judgment Generally

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment may be granted only if all the submissions taken together "show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating "the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. A fact is "material" if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, " and is genuinely in dispute "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. The movant may discharge this burden by showing that the nonmoving party has "fail[ed] to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322; see also Selevan v. N.Y. Thruway Auth., 711 F.3d 253, 256 (2d Cir. 2014) (finding summary judgment appropriate where the non-moving party fails to "come forth with evidence sufficient to permit a reasonable juror to return a verdict in his or her favor on an essential element of a claim" (internal quotation marks omitted)).

If the moving party meets this burden, the nonmoving party must "set out specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial" using affidavits or otherwise, and cannot rely on the "mere allegations or denials" contained in the pleadings. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248, 250; see also Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323-24; Wright v. Goord, 554 F.3d 255, 266 (2d Cir. 2009). The nonmoving party "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, " Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986) (internal quotation marks omitted), and cannot rely on "mere speculation or conjecture as to the true nature of the facts to overcome a motion for summary judgment, " Knight v. U.S. Fire Ins. Co., 804 F.2d 9, 12 (2d Cir. 1986) (quoting Quarles v. General Motors Corp., 758 F.2d 839, 840 (2d Cir. (1985)).

2. Discrimination Claims Generally

a. The ADA and the NYSHRL

The ADA provides that "[n]o covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to... discharge of employees...." 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). The NYSHRL provides that "[i]t shall be an unlawful discriminatory practice... [f]or an employer... because of an individual's... disability... to discharge from employment such individual or to discriminate against such individual in compensation or in terms, conditions or privileges of employment." N.Y. Exec. Law § 296(1)(a).

Courts consider disability discrimination claims under the ADA using the traditional burden-shifting framework set out in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-03 (1973). Under this framework, "the plaintiff bears the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination. If the plaintiff does so... the defendant [must] articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action. If such a reason is provided, plaintiff... may still prevail by showing... that the employer's determination was in fact the result of" discrimination. Holcomb v. Iona Coll., 521 F.3d 130, 138 (2d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

"[T]o establish a prima facie case under the ADA, a plaintiff must show by a preponderance of the evidence that: [i] his employer is subject to the ADA; [ii] he was disabled within the meaning of the ADA; [iii] he was otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of his job, with or without reasonable accommodation; and [iv] he suffered adverse employment action because of his disability." McMillan v. City of New York, 711 F.3d 120, 125-26 (2d Cir. 2013) (quoting Sista v. CDC Ixis N. Am., Inc., 445 F.3d 161, 169 (2d Cir. 2006). "The same standard applies to claims brought under the NYSHRL... as well, " Nelson v. City of New York, No. 11 Civ. 2732 (JPO), 2013 WL 4437224, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 19, 2013), though the two statutes provide different definitions of the term "disability." The ADA defines disability as "(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment...." 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1). As amended by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008,

[a]n individual meets the requirement of "being regarded as having such an impairment" if the individual establishes that he or she has been subjected to an action prohibited under this chapter because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.

42 U.S.C. § 12102(3)(A). Under the NYSHRL, in contrast, any "medically diagnosable impairment [is] necessarily a disability" for discrimination-claim purposes. Reeves v. Johnson Controls World Servs., Inc., 140 F.3d 144, 155 (2d Cir. 1998).

b. The NYCHRL

The standard to be applied under the NYCHRL is slightly different. The statute provides in pertinent part that

[i]t shall be an unlawful discriminatory practice... [f]or an employer or an employee or agent thereof, because of the actual or perceived... disability... of any person, to refuse to hire or employ or to bar or to discharge from employment such person or to discriminate against such person in compensation or in terms, conditions or privileges of employment.

N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-107(1)(a). "Disability, " in turn, is defined as "any physical, medical, mental or psychological impairment, or a history or record of such impairment, " id. § 8-102(16)(a), including "an impairment of any system of the body; including, but ...


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