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Chukwueze v. Nycers

United States District Court, S.D. New York

July 25, 2014

OMAR CHUKWUEZE, Plaintiff,
v.
NYCERS (NEW YORK CITY EMPLOYEES' RETIREMENT SYSTEM), Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

JESSE M. FURMAN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Omar Chukwueze sues his former employer, the New York City Employees' Retirement System ("NYCERS"), pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq. ("Title VII"), alleging wrongful termination on the basis of his religion, as well as unlawful retaliation for complaining about religious discrimination. (Am. Compl. (Docket No. 7) 15-35).[1] The parties now cross-move for summary judgment. (Docket Nos. 77, 81). For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff's motion is DENIED, Defendant's motion is GRANTED, and the Amended Complaint is DISMISSED.

BACKGROUND

The following facts are undisputed except where noted. Plaintiff is a former employee of NYCERS, which is "the largest municipal public employee retirement system in the United States." (Pl.'s Resp. Defs.' Local Rule 56.1 Statement Undisputed Facts (Docket No. 90) ("Pl.'s 56.1 Resp.") ¶¶ 5, 9). He was hired on September 18, 2006, after interviewing with, among others, Michelle Gaddy and Olga Asaturyan, and began serving as an Assistant Retirement Benefits Examiner, but only on a provisional basis. ( Id. ¶ 9; Decl. Supp. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. (Docket No. 84) ("First Collyer Decl."), Ex. A, at 46:24-25, 83:19-84:1, 84:11-20, 93:19-21). Plaintiff's work was directly overseen by Asaturyan, a supervisor in his unit, and Gaddy, a manager in the same unit. (Pl.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶ 12; First Collyer Decl., Ex. A, at 87:21-25). During his term of employment, Plaintiff's annual salary was raised from $28, 000 to approximately $36, 000. (Pl.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶¶ 17-18; First Collyer Decl., Ex. A, at 85:6-12). At all times, Plaintiff's work was consistently rated as "Satisfactory." (Pl.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶ 15; First Collyer Decl., Ex. A, at 110:1-4).

Plaintiff is a non-denominational evangelical Christian who views December 26th - which under different Christian denominations and in different countries is known as Boxing Day or Saint Stephen's Day - "as an extension of the Christmas holiday and a religious day to do good deeds and acts and things of that nature." (First Collyer Decl., Ex. A, at 97:11-16). Plaintiff also believes that Good Friday is a religious day to be observed. (Pl.'s 56.1 Statement (Docket No. 85) ¶ 4; First Collyer Decl., Ex. A, at 98:12-24). NYCERS, however, does not recognize those dates as holidays. (Pl.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶ 19; First Collyer Decl., Ex. B). The NYCERS Employee Handbook does provide that an employee may take "annual leave" for "vacation, personal business and religious holidays. " (First Collyer Decl., Ex. B (emphasis added)). The Handbook, however, provides that such leave "will be taken by employees at a time convenient to NYCERS. Employees must request their supervisor's/manager's approval to use annual leave prior to such use.... Approval is subject to NYCERS' discretion." ( Id. ).

Plaintiff requested, and Michelle Gaddy granted, permission to use annual leave to miss work on December 26, 2006. (Pl.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶¶ 23-24; First Collyer Decl., Ex. A, at 102:11-17). Similar requests were made, and eventually granted by Gaddy, for Good Friday and December 26th in both 2007 and 2008. (Pl.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶¶ 25-33; First Collyer Decl., Ex. A, at 105:8-17, 111:6-13, 113:23-114:6). But Plaintiff testified that, beginning with his request for annual leave on Good Friday in 2008, Michelle Gaddy became increasingly reluctant to grant his requests. (Pl.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶ 30; First Collyer Decl., Ex. A, at 114:8-24). According to Gaddy's contemporaneous Supervisory Notes on Performance, when Plaintiff requested leave for December 26, 2008, Gaddy told him that the day "is not a religious observance day and therefore he should not assume he would get this day off every year." (Pl.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶ 32; First Collyer Decl., Ex. C, at 1). According to Plaintiff's deposition testimony, Gaddy's notes reflect a meeting that lasted approximately ninety minutes and included not just Gaddy but also Olga Asaturyan. (Pl.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶ 32). As noted, and notwithstanding the tension surrounding Plaintiff's request, it was ultimately granted. (Pl.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶ 33; First Collyer Decl., Ex. A, at 123:1-25).

The events that immediately precipitated Plaintiff's termination took place on the afternoon of January 8, 2009. That afternoon, Gaddy was not in the office. (Pl.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶ 34; First Collyer Decl., Ex. A, at 136:19-22; id., Ex. C, at 2). As a result of Gaddy's absence, Plaintiff sought approval from Asaturyan to work fifteen minutes of overtime at the end of the day. (Pl.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶ 35; id., Ex. C, at 2). Asaturyan, in turn, sought authorization from Ingrid Stephen, Asaturyan's superior. (Pl.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶ 36; First Collyer Decl., Ex. D). Stephen told Asaturyan that Plaintiff should "go home, " indicated that she did not want Plaintiff working overtime until she had a chance to discuss the matter with Gaddy, and later explained that employees are not permitted "to work overtime unless there is coverage by at least one of the unit's managers or the Buy-Back supervisor." (Pl.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶¶ 37-38; First Collyer Decl., Ex. D).

Despite the fact that his request for overtime was denied, on January 12, 2009, Plaintiff submitted to Gaddy an overtime sheet indicating that he had worked fifteen minutes of overtime on January 8th after all. (Pl.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶ 39-40; First Collyer Decl., Ex. C, at 2).[2] According to Defendant, Gaddy refused to sign the overtime sheet because she had been made aware of Plaintiff's earlier denied request for permission to work the overtime in question. (First Collyer Decl., Ex. C, at 2).[3]

Plaintiff alleges that, eight days later, on January 20, 2009, Gaddy approached his desk and said, "Omar, you know, people make mistakes. Do you make any mistakes?" (Reply Decl. Supp. Def. NYCERS' Mot. Summ. J. (Docket No. 94) ("Second Collyer Decl."), Ex. I, at 153:17-154:1). In response, Plaintiff claims that he told Gaddy that he "would like to speak to Ingrid [Stephen] or someone else about what [he's] been experiencing because it's wrong." ( Id. at 154:1-3). He alleges that he then showed Gaddy his computer screen and told her that he was "typing and recording information of the incidents that I'm experiencing"; Plaintiff testified that Gaddy said "[t]hat's not going to save you." ( Id. at 154:4-9). Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff asserts, Gaddy "walked off[, ]... went to her computer[, ] and... immediately started typing." ( Id. at 154:10-12). Plaintiff does not allege that he has any knowledge of what Gaddy was writing. ( Id. at 154:12).

That same day, Gaddy sent her Supervisory Notes regarding Plaintiff to the Director of Human Resources at NYCERS, Felita Ramsami, and copied Ingrid Stephen. (Pl.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶¶ 43; First Collyer Decl., Ex. D). In response, Stephen commented that "[i]t was quite disturbing that [Chukwueze] claimed on his overtime sheet 15 minutes." (Pl.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶ 44; First Collyer Decl., Ex. D). The following day, Ramsami personally informed Plaintiff that his provisional employment was terminated, effective immediately. (Pl.'s 56.1 Resp. ¶ 45, First Collyer Decl., Ex. E). Notably, two days after his termination, Plaintiff e-mailed Gaddy, Stephen, Ramsami, and NYCERS Executive Director Diane D'Alessandro, to "thank" them - "especially" Gaddy, Stephen, and Ramsami - "for the great and wonderful opportunity of working at NYCERS, " noting that he "truly and most graciously appreciate[d] [his] employment at NYCERS and it will always be held in the highest regard." (First Collyer Decl., Ex. F).

On March 13, 2009, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the "EEOC"). (Compl. 8). On July 27, 2010, the EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter. (Compl. 7). On October 26, 2010, Plaintiff initiated this lawsuit. (Docket No. 1). On July 20, 2011, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint. (Docket No. 7). On December 20, 2013, the parties cross-moved for summary judgment. (Docket Nos. 77, 81).

SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARDS

Summary judgment is appropriate where the admissible evidence and the pleadings demonstrate "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); see also Johnson v. Killian, 680 F.3d 234, 236 (2d Cir. 2012) (per curiam). A dispute over an issue of material fact qualifies as genuine if the "evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); accord Roe v. City of Waterbury, 542 F.3d 31, 35 (2d Cir. 2008). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). "In moving for summary judgment against a party who will bear the ultimate burden of proof at trial, the movant's burden will be satisfied if he can point to an absence of evidence to support an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim." Goenaga v. March of Dimes Birth Defects Found., 51 F.3d 14, 18 (2d Cir. 1995) (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23); accord PepsiCo, Inc. v. Coca-Cola Co., 315 F.3d 101, 105 (2d Cir. 2002).

In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, all evidence must be viewed "in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, " Overton v. N.Y. State Div. of Military & Naval Affairs, 373 F.3d 83, 89 (2d Cir. 2004), and the court must "resolve all ambiguities and draw all permissible factual inferences in favor of the party against whom summary judgment is sought, " Sec. Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Old Dominion Freight Line, Inc., 391 F.3d 77, 83 (2d Cir. 2004). When, as here, both sides move for summary judgment, the district court is "required to assess each motion on its own merits and to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion, drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of that party." Wachovia Bank, Nat'l Ass'n v. VCG Special Opportunities Master Fund, Ltd., 661 F.3d 164, 171 (2d Cir. 2011). Thus, ...


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