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Baldwin v. Goddard Riverside Cmty. Ctr.

United States District Court, S.D. New York

September 29, 2014

SUSAN J. BALDWIN, Plaintiff,
v.
GODDARD RIVERSIDE COMMUNITY CENTER, Defendant

Decided September 27, 2014

Page 656

For Susan J. Baldwin, Plaintiff: Joshua Alexander Bernstein, Josh Bernstein, P.C., New York, NY.

For Goddard Riverside Community Center, Defendant: Michael Tiliakos, LEAD ATTORNEY, Duane Morris, New York, NY; Eric William Ruden, Duane Morris, LLP (NYC), New York, NY; Marcia Maria Henry, Seyfarth Shaw L.L.P., New York, NY.

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MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

Paul G. Gardephe, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Susan Baldwin alleges that her former employer, Defendant Goddard Riverside Community Center (" Goddard" ), retaliated against her for opposing unlawful housing discrimination and unlawful employment discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., the New York State Human Rights Law (" NYSHRL" ), N.Y. Exec. Law § 290 et seq., and the New York City Human Rights Law (" NYCHRL" ), N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-101 et seq., (Am. Cmplt. (Dkt. No. 23)) Baldwin claims that she was harassed and ultimately terminated by Goddard because (1) she opposed a supervisor's instruction to deny tenancy to Russian applicants who applied for vacancies in the affordable housing building she managed; and (2) she supported a former co-worker in his lawsuit against Goddard for discriminatory termination by, inter alia, helping the co-worker find an attorney, giving a favorable report about his work performance to Goddard's insurance company, and testifying at a deposition on his behalf. Defendant has moved for summary judgment on all claims. (Dkt. No. 30) For the reasons stated below, Defendant's motion will be granted.

BACKGROUND[1]

I. PLAINTIFF'S EMPLOYMENT AT GODDARD

Goddard Riverside Community Center is a social service organization that operates

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five residential buildings in New York City. (Pltf. Resp. to Def. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 46) ¶ 1) One of these residences is Phelps House, an affordable housing building. (Id.)

Plaintiff Baldwin was hired as Property Manager of Phelps House in July 1994. (Id. ¶ 2) As Property Manager, her job responsibilities included handling leasing matters, monitoring the physical state of the building, and supervising the superintendent and maintenance staff. (Id. ¶ ¶ 4-5) She was also responsible for filing required certifications with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (" HUD" ), including tenant income and tax credit certifications. (Id. ¶ 3)

Mercedes Rankin was hired as Baldwin's Administrative Assistant in 1994. (Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 4 (" Rankin Aff." ) ¶ 1) Rankin remained at Goddard throughout Baldwin's tenure, and later became Assistant Building Manager. (Id.) Rankin worked closely with Baldwin at Phelps House, and the two shared office space or were in adjacent offices throughout the time they worked together. (Id. ¶ 2)

In December 1998, Stephan Russo became Executive Director of Goddard. (Pltf. Resp. to Def. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 46) ¶ 9) Russo had been employed at Goddard since 1976. (Id. ¶ 9) As Executive Director, Russo - who still holds the position - oversees Goddard's operations. (Id. ¶ 10) His responsibilities include supervising staff members and ensuring that

Baldwin states that she had a " positive relationship" with Russo when he first became Executive Director. (Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 8 (" Pltf. Aff." ) ¶ 5) Baldwin was also well-liked by Phelps House tenants and by Gerald Mascuch, her direct supervisor at the time. (Def. Resp. to Pltf. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 37) ¶ 76) There is no evidence of documented criticism of Baldwin's job performance through the early 2000s. (Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 8 (" Pltf. Aff" ) ¶ ¶ 6-7; see Pltf. Resp. to Def. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 46) ¶ ¶ 76) fro 1994 to 2008, Phelps House received a " satisfactory" ; " above average" ; or " excellent" rating from HUD each year. (Def. Resp. to Pltf. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 37) ¶ 75)

In January 2008, Goddard hired Salvador Uy as Associate Director for Operations. (Pltf. Resp. to Def. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 46) ¶ 6) His responsibilities included managing the fiscal office, managing information technology and communications, and handling human resources. (Id.) Together with Goddard's Director of Housing - Baldwin's direct supervisor - Uy also oversaw housing matters. (Id. ¶ ¶ 6-8)

On June 30, 2008, Goddard hired Catherine Herman as Director of Housing. (Id. ¶ 7) Baldwin initially had a positive relationship with Herman. (Def. Resp. to Pltf. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 37) ¶ 79) Herman respected Baldwin's HUD expertise, deferred to her years of experience, and " treated her with dignity." (Id.) Baldwin states that Herman did not " make any [negative] comments" to Baldwin about the organization of Baldwin's office at the beginning of Herman's tenure. (Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 8 (" Pltf. Aff." ) ¶ 16)

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II. PLAINTIFF'S ALLEGED OBJECTIONS TO HOUSING DISCRIMINATION

As Property Manager, Baldwin was responsible for filling tenant vacancies in Phelps House. (See Pltf. Resp. to Def. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 46) ¶ ¶ 4-5, 26) Baldwin had discretion to choose which prospective tenant or tenants to select from the waiting list for Phelps House, provided her selection was made in accordance with HUD regulations. (Id. ¶ 26)

Beginning in 2005, however, Russo repeatedly advised Baldwin to " pass over" Russian applicants seeking an apartment at Phelps House, in favor of applicants of other ethnicities. (See id. ¶ 23) Baldwin told Russo that she could not deny applicants housing based on their ethnicity, because doing so would violate HUD regulations. (See id. ¶ 27) Russo nonetheless repeated this instruction to Baldwin on six occasions between 2005 and 2009. (Id. ¶ 28) Baldwin disregarded Russo's instruction and selected at least five Russian tenants during the period between 2005 and 2009. (Id. ¶ ¶ 32-33)

Russo never chastised Baldwin about her selection of Russian applicants. (Id. ¶ 29) On one occasion in 2007, however, Russo told Baldwin that if anyone questioned her about not accepting Russian applicants, she could " blame it" on him. (Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 6 (" Pltf. Dep. Tr." ) at 299) Russo never threatened to fire Baldwin or to reduce her pay if she selected Russian tenants for Phelps House, nor was her pay or vacation time ever docked for doing so. (Pltf. Resp. to Def. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 46) ¶ 30) Moreover, Baldwin did not complain to HUD or to any other government agency about Russo's alleged instructions to pass over Russian applicants. (See id. ¶ 25)

Baldwin and Rankin, Baldwin's administrative assistant, say that in late fall 2008 they discussed Russo's instructions regarding Russian applicants with Housing Director Herman. (Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 8 (" Pltf. Aff." ) ¶ 17; id., Ex. 4 (" Rankin Aff." ) ¶ 8) Herman then discussed the issue with Russo, and told him that passing over Russian applicants would be illegal. (Def. Resp. to Pltf. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 37) ¶ 81) Rankin claims that Herman said that she had spoken to both Russo and Uy about the issue and told them that " while [Herman] was there, [Baldwin and Rankin] should take whoever was at the top of the [waiting] list." (Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 4 (" Rankin Aff." ) ¶ 11) Herman also told Baldwin " to continue doing what she was doing." (Pltf. Resp. to Def. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 46) ¶ 35) Neither Herman nor Uy ever instructed Baldwin to pass over Russian applicants. (Id. ¶ 34)

Rankin claims that Russo continued to question her about the ethnicities of incoming tenants, even after his conversation with Herman. (Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 4 (" Rankin Aff." ) ¶ 12) She also states that most applicants accepted into Phelps House at about that time were Russian. (Id.)

IV. PLAINTIFF'S SUPPORT OF JOSE ROBLES

Baldwin claims that in late 2007 Russo called a meeting of Phelps House staff to discuss the disappearance of some liquor that had been stored in a basement room of the building. (Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 8 (" Pltf. Aff." ) ¶ 9; see Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 7) According to Baldwin, Russo blamed Jose Robles - the superintendent of Phelps House at that time (Pltf. Resp. to Def. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 46) ¶ 11) - for the missing alcohol. (Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42),

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Ex. 8 (" Pltf. Aff." ) ¶ 9) Baldwin - who supervised Robles - believed that he was an excellent employee and that there was no evidence that he had stolen the liquor. (Id. ¶ 10)

In October 2007, Russo terminated Robles's employment. (Pltf. Resp. to Def. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 46) at 12) According to Baldwin, she was not consulted about the decision to fire Robles, even though he reported to her. (Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 6 (" Pltf. Dep. Tr." ) at 27) Robles filed an internal grievance with Goddard challenging his termination, alleging that it was the product of illegal discrimination. (Pltf. Resp. to Def. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 46) ¶ 13)

Baldwin complained about Robles's termination to Jerry Mishue - one of her immediate supervisors - and to Brad Winston, Goddard's representative at its third party management company. (Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 6 (" Pltf. Dep. Tr." ) at 27-28, 39-40) Baldwin told both Mishue and Winston that she believed that Robles's termination was the result of discrimination. (Id. at 35, 37, 43) Baldwin " felt that it was an unfair firing and [she] helped [Robles] as best [she] could." (Id. at 28)

In or about November 2007 - about a month after Robles was fired - Baldwin was summoned to meet with Eric Rosenfeld, a member of Goddard's Board of Directors. (Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 8 (" Pltf. Aff." ) ¶ 11) Rosenfeld allegedly made " derogatory comments" about Robles and asked Baldwin for her " write-ups" on Robles. (Id.) Baldwin responded that she did not have any " write-ups" for Robles, and sarcastically asked, " [S]hould I?" (Id.)

Robles eventually decided to sue Goddard, and in late 2007 or early 2008 Baldwin helped Robles find an attorney. (See Pltf. Resp. to Def. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 46) ¶ ¶ 13-14) On May 23, 2008, Robles filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against Goddard. (Id. ¶ 13; see Robles v. Goddard Riverside Cmty. Ctr., Inc., No. 08 Civ. 4856 (LTS) (JCF) (S.D.N.Y.))

On July 22, 2008, an investigator from Goddard's insurance company interviewed Baldwin about the Robles lawsuit. (Pltf. Resp. to Def. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 46) ¶ 15) The investigator later sent Baldwin a memorandum purporting to summarize the interview. (Id. ¶ 16) Baldwin claims that the investigator had " distort[ed]" her remarks to " reflect[ ] poorly on Mr. Robles and therefore help Goddard in its defense of the lawsuit." (Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 8 (" Pltf. Aff" ) ¶ ¶ 12-13) Baldwin sent the insurance company a list of revisions, but did not provide her revisions to Goddard. (Pltf. Resp. to Def. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 46) ¶ 17; Def. Resp. to Pltf. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 37) ¶ 89; Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 7) Baldwin also told several co-workers that the investigator had distorted her remarks. (Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 8 (" Pltf. Aff." ) ¶ 14)

On June 22, 2009, Robles's lawyer took Baldwin's deposition. (See Pltf. Resp. to Def. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 46) ¶ 19) According to Baldwin, Goddard's attorney told her before the deposition that he would not be representing her. (Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 8 (" Pltf. Aff" ) ¶ 21) Baldwin also claims that the attorney " acted with aggressive body language," which she believed was meant to intimidate her. (Id.)

At the deposition, Baldwin produced a copy of her revisions to the insurance investigator's account of her interview, and this document was marked as an exhibit to the deposition. (Id. ¶ 22) Baldwin also testified that she had not been consulted about Robles's termination, that Russo

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" had a pattern of getting rid of older employees," and that she had helped Robles find his lawyer (Id.)

Russo, Uy, and Herman never discussed Baldwin's support of Robles with her. (Pltf. Resp. to Def. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 46) ¶ ¶ 21-22)

IV. ALLEGED RETALIATION AGAINST BALDWIN

Baldwin claims that her supervisors at Goddard retaliated against her because of her opposition to " passing over" Russian applicants and her support of Robles. (Am. Cmplt. (Dkt. No. 23) ¶ 1) Baldwin states that in late 2008 she " felt the atmosphere begin to change in terms of how [her] superiors were treating [her]." (Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 8 (" Pltf. Aff." ) ¶ 19)

Prior to January 2009, Goddard had been using a third party management company - T.U.C. Management - to assist in providing services to Phelps House tenants. (See Pltf. Resp. to Def. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 46) ¶ 39) Beginning on January 1, 2009, a new management company - Grenadier - was scheduled to replace T.U.C. at Phelps House. (Id.)

According to Baldwin and Rankin, Housing Director Herman had assured Baldwin that she would not bring Grenadier staff into Phelps House without Baldwin being present. (Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 4 (" Rankin Aff." ) ¶ 16; Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 8 (" Pltf. Aff." ) ¶ 19) In December 2008, however - while Baldwin was on leave - Rankin observed Herman bring Grenadier staff into Phelps House, log them into Baldwin's computer, and assist them in examining Baldwin's hard copy files. (Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 4 (" Rankin Aff." ) ¶ 17) Rankin reported this incident to Baldwin. (Id. ¶ 18; Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 8 (" Pltf. Aff." ) ¶ 19) Baldwin alleges that this incident marks Goddard's first act of retaliation against her. (Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 8 (" Pltf. Aff." ) ¶ 19)

After Grenadier replaced T.U.C. Management in January 2009, Housing Director Herman and Baldwin began to disagree about the utility of Grenadier's new property management system. (See Pltf. Resp. to Def. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 46) ¶ ¶ 41-44) Baldwin continued to access the old computer system, which she claimed was necessary to retrieve information that had not been properly transitioned to Grenadier's system. (See Tiliakos Deck (Dkt. No. 33), Ex. A (" Pltf. Dep. Tr." ) at 133-37) Herman testified that she believed Baldwin was undermining the transition to Grenadier, and their disagreements about Grenadier's role going forward is evident from contemporaneous email. (See Tiliakos Decl. (Dkt. No. 33), Ex. B (" Herman Dep. Tr." ) at 131-32; Bernstein Affirm. (Dkt. No. 42), Ex. 18 (Feb. 10, 2009 Herman email to Baldwin); id., Ex. 19 (March 25, 2009 Herman email to Baldwin))

On February 18, 2009, Herman and Baldwin discussed Grenadier's new property management system. (Pltf. Resp. to Def. R. 56.1 Stmt. (Dkt. No. 46) ¶ 42) Baldwin acknowledges that she was " on the shrill side" with Herman at this meeting. (Id. ΒΆ 43) On February 19, 2009, Herman prepared a memorandum summarizing her ...


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