United States District Court, S.D. New York
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
For Ingrit Echevarria, Plaintiff: Edward Joseph Kennedy, Phillips & Associates, Attorney at law, PLLC, New York, NY; Jesse Curtis Rose, The Rose Law Group PLLC, New York, NY.
For Insight Medical, P.C., Al Okhravi, Individually, Dr. Steve Okhravi, Individually, Defendants: Tahanie Ahmad Aboushi, LEAD ATTORNEY, Aymen A. Aboushi, The Aboushi Law Firm, New York, NY; David S. Greenhaus, Jackson Lewis P.C. (Melville N.Y.), Melville, NY.
OPINION AND ORDER
KATHERINE POLK FAILLA, United States District Judge.
Plaintiff Ingrid Echevarria brought this action in May 2013, accusing her former employer, as well as its owner and manager, of subjecting her to sexual harassment at her workplace and terminating her employment when she complained about the harassment. On June 30, 2014, after a four-day trial, the jury found that Plaintiff had proven her retaliation claims under federal and New York City law, and awarded her $50,000 in compensatory damages. Defendants have filed various post-trial motions, including motions for (i) judgment as a matter of law in favor of Defendants; (ii) a new trial; (iii) remittitur of the damages award; and (iv) attorneys' fees and costs in favor of Defendants as " partially prevailing parties" in this litigation. For the reasons set forth in the
remainder of this Opinion, Defendants' motions are denied.
A. The Pretrial Procedural History
Plaintiff filed her complaint against Insight and Al and Steve Okhravi on May 31, 2013. (Dkt. #1). In it, she brought claims for discrimination (in the form of a hostile work environment) and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § § 2000e to 2000e-17, the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. Law § § 290 to 301 (the " NYSHRL" ), and the New York City Human Rights Law, N.Y.C. Admin. Code § § 8-101 to 8-131 (the " NYCHRL" ).
After the completion of discovery and a failed mediation proceeding, Defendants moved for summary judgment. (Dkt. #26-29). In their papers, Defendants argued that (i) Insight did not meet the statutory definition of an employer under the NYSHRL and the NYCHRL; (ii) Plaintiff had failed to present a prima facie case of sexual harassment in the form of a hostile work environment; (iii) Plaintiff had failed to demonstrate that Insight and Dr. Steve Okhravi had notice of the harassment; (iv) Plaintiff's retaliation claim failed because she was not an employee at the time she complained of the harassment; and (v) Plaintiff could not prove damages. The motion was denied after oral argument on April 17, 2014, and trial was scheduled. Before trial, Plaintiff agreed to proceed on her federal and city, but not her state, claims of discrimination and retaliation.
B. The Evidence at Trial
The parties agreed that Plaintiff was employed as the office manager at Insight Medical (" Insight" ) from July 2008 through December 2012. Her relationship with her immediate supervisor, Al Okhravi, as well as the circumstances of the termination of her employment, were the key factual disputes at trial.
1. Plaintiff's Case at Trial
Plaintiff testified that she began working as an office manager at Insight, a primary care facility for adult patients located in the Bronx, in July 2008. (Tr. 53, 70). For a two-month period earlier in the year, Plaintiff had been employed at Insight as a medical assistant. (Tr. 52). Insight was owned by Dr. Steve Okhravi and managed by his brother, Al Okhravi. (Tr. 57-58). According to Plaintiff, Al Okhravi communicated with her " daily" by phone, email, or text message, and traveled to Insight's offices from his home in Virginia at least once every two weeks. ( Id.). While at Insight, Al Okhravi would have meetings as needed and bring paychecks, forms, and other supplies. ( Id.).
According to Plaintiff, her communications with Al Okhravi increased in October 2012. (Tr. 59). By this time, the Okhravi brothers had established two 24-hour urgent care facilities in Manhattan, using the corporate entity Pinnacle Medical PC (" Pinnacle" ). (Tr. 59-60, 383). Plaintiff recalled a meeting that month with the Okhravi brothers at one of Pinnacle's offices, which meeting was called to discuss, among other things, problems with Dr. Okhravi's remote access of electronic medical
records; after the meeting, Plaintiff received an " inappropriate" text message from Al Okhravi. (Tr. 84-85). According to Plaintiff, Al Okhravi confessed in the text that " he had wanted to tell [her] something for a long time, but he didn't dare." (Tr. 84). When Plaintiff pressed him (also by text) for specifics, he replied that " he liked [her] ass." (Tr. 86). Within the next week, Plaintiff received multiple messages from Al Okhravi propositioning her for sex, including invitations to a weekend assignation at Atlantic City where they could " eat, drink, and ... fuck." (Tr. 86; see also Tr. 87 (receiving a text from Al Okhravi suggesting anal sex); Tr. 88 (receiving a text from Al Okhravi inviting Plaintiff to meet him at a hotel near Giants Stadium); Tr. 97-98 (receiving a text from Al Okhravi suggesting they meet early at Insight's offices for sex)).
According to Plaintiff, separate and apart from the sexual overtures, Al Okhravi also sent her texts about " all his personal things," including medical issues he was experiencing and problems he was having in his marriage. (Tr. 87; see also Tr. 90-92 (recounting meeting with Al Okhravi where he conveyed concern about another woman contacting his wife at their home)). Plaintiff did not respond to the majority of the text messages, and made up excuses to decline his invitations. (Tr. 87-88, 268). The messages persisted through the beginning of December. (Tr. 89).
Other issues came to the fore in December 2012. Insight's physician's assistant, Ricardo Fisher, had lost his insurance coverage, which meant that he could not see patients (and, as a practical matter, that Insight's offices would be closed to patients on those days when a backup physician's assistant could not be found). (Tr. 100-04). In addition, medical assistant Erica Gonzalez planned to stop working at Insight shortly and begin her maternity leave. (Tr. 104-05).
Plaintiff recalled an argument with Al Okhravi on the night of December 18, 2012, concerning the possible replacement of Gonzalez and the staffing of the office over the holidays. (Tr. 105-08; see also Tr. 250-53). During the argument, Al Okhravi implored Plaintiff to " let him run his office (Tr. 105), and even told her not to come back to work if she disagreed with his decisions (Tr. 109; see also Tr. 108 (discussing text from Plaintiff's Exhibit 2 in which Plaintiff tells Al Okhravi, " According to what you said to me, you are telling me not to go back to work." )). He also advised Plaintiff that he was " frustrated," and that he sought sex with her to " relieve his frustration." (Tr. 108, see also Tr. 253, 299-300).
On the morning of December 19, 2012, Plaintiff sent Al Okhravi a text message indicating that she would not " tolerate anyone mistreating [her]" ; she testified that her text pertained to the sexually explicit messages he had been sending. (Tr. 166; see also Tr. 168 (discussing text message from Plaintiff in which she advised Al Okhravi that " [a]fter what happened last night, I feel very, very uncomfortable," and that Okhravi " made [her] feel like a piece of [shit]" )). Plaintiff advised Al Okhravi that she was rethinking her continued employment with Insight. (Tr. 167).
Indeed, Plaintiff fabricated a competing job offer, explaining to the jury that after the preceding evening's conversation, she had realized that " [her] job was not secure there." (Tr. 169-71). However, Plaintiff testified, she never advised Dr. Steve or Al Okhravi that she was going to leave, only that she had been offered another position. (Tr. 173).
While initially protesting that " [n]othing happened last night" (A. Okhravi to Echevarria, 12/19/2012, 7:29 a.m.; see also Tr. 169), Al Okhravi later stated that Plaintiff was " a lady and not garbage," and apologized for making her feel like the latter (A. Okhravi to Echevarria, 12/19/2012, 7:30 a.m.). In specific response to Plaintiff's hints about a job offer, Al Okhravi stated, " I do not want to lose u. I hope u consider staying. U r part of family. We will adjust your salary." (A. Okhravi to Echevarria, 12/19/2012, 7:39 a.m.). At the conclusion of their exchange of texts, Al Okhravi asked Plaintiff to " reconsider" and told her that she had " a secure job." (A. Okhravi to Echevarria, 12/19/2012, 7:49, 7:51 a.m.).
Later that day, Plaintiff participated in a meeting with Al Okhravi at Insight's offices. In the course of a conversation in an examination room, in which he sought to convince Plaintiff to remain in her position, Al Okhravi put his hand on Plaintiff's thigh and expressed, again, his desire to have sex with her. (Tr. 176, 259-60). Plaintiff left the examination room and returned to the common area of the offices; Okhravi left. She testified that after that meeting, she intended to remain at Insight, but wanted the harassing conduct to cease. (Tr. 177).
On the evening of December 20, 2012, Plaintiff sent a text to Al Okhravi in which she stated, in relevant part, that " [t]his is not the time for [her] to leave" Insight. (Tr. 178; see also id. (" I would never leave at a time like this. ... Trust me, I would not leave you at a time like this." )). The following day, Al Okhravi came to Insight's offices with a new physician's assistant, without greeting Plaintiff or introducing her to the new hire. (Tr. 179). Plaintiff was put off by Okhravi's brusqueness towards her, and texted these sentiments to him and to Stefanie Messina; she also repeated to Messina the lie about the competing job offer. (Tr. 186).
On December 21, 2012, Plaintiff left a message with Dr. Steve Okhravi to discuss staffing of Insight's offices for the holidays and other issues. (Tr. 195; see also Echevarria to S. Okhravi, 12/21/2012, 7:27 a.m.). Plaintiff also decided to disclose to Dr. Okhravi the harassment to which his brother had subjected her. ( See Tr. 304-05 (noting her prior discomfort with raising to Dr. Okhravi issues with his brother's behavior)). Ultimately, Plaintiff had a phone conversation with Dr. Okhravi on December 22, 2012, but an odd reference by him to the Pope caused Plaintiff to cut the conversation short after a brief discussion of the tension between Al Okhravi and Plaintiff at Insight's offices on December 19. (Tr. 196-97).
The next day, Plaintiff received a voice mail in which Dr. Okhravi, among other things, called her " delusional." (Tr. 198). Plaintiff then texted him explaining that the reason for her stilted behavior during her meeting with Al Okhravi on December 19 was " because he had proposed many times to [her] that [they] have a sexual relationship." (Tr. 199, 279; see also Echevarria to S. Okhravi, 12/22/2012, 10:16 a.m.). After exchanging a few more texts, Dr. Okhravi suggested a meeting with Plaintiff to take place the following week, and Plaintiff agreed. (Tr. 202; see also S. Okhravi to Echevarria, 12/22/2012, 10:39 a.m.). Within 30 minutes, however, Plaintiff received a call from Stefanie Messina, advising her that her employment had been terminated, effective immediately; during the course of the call, Dr. Okhravi took the phone from Messina and reiterated what Messina had said. (Tr. 202-04, 283-84).
Plaintiff testified that during and as a result of her fall 2012 interactions with Al Okhravi, she was " very stressed." (Tr. 93). She also noted that she felt " [d]isgusted, disrespected, [and] degraded" after the December 19 meeting at Insight's offices. (Tr. 176; see also Tr. 87, 218). However, on cross-examination, Plaintiff acknowledged that " [t]here was never a time [she] couldn't perform [her] duties because of sexual harassment." (Tr. 269; see also Tr. 301-02 (noting that her office work environment, apart from her dealings with Al Okhravi, was not abusive)).
At trial, Plaintiff recalled that she was unemployed for a period of approximately two months after her termination from Insight. (Tr. 209). Plaintiff noted that she became " severely depressed," and had both panic attacks and a loss of appetite. (Tr. 213). From December 2012 forward, Plaintiff has also experienced nightmares and flashbacks, including episodes in which she believed she was followed. (Tr. 217-18). A social worker who began meeting with Plaintiff in June 2013, Jensy Linares, testified that Plaintiff presented to her as " nervous, anxious, unable to concentrate, unable to sleep ... not able to really function during the day with her daily activities." (Tr. 134). Plaintiff was subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder. (Tr. 137).
2. Defendants' Case at Trial
Unsurprisingly, Defendants' witnesses testified to different recollections of events and different interpretations of their communications with Plaintiff. Stefanie Messina, Pinnacle's office manager, recalled a conversation with Plaintiff on December 18, 2012, during which Plaintiff recounted a fight that had transpired earlier in the day between herself and Al Okhravi and told Messina that she (Plaintiff) had resigned. (Tr. 325-26). Indeed, Messina testified that Plaintiff had asked her (Messina) to tell Dr. Okhravi that she had quit. (Tr. 326-27; see also Tr. 330 (" she had already made that decision, so she felt that it should stick" )). Messina
advised Dr. Okhravi of Plaintiff's resignation the following day, December 19. (Tr. 331). Dr. Okhravi asked Messina to reach out to Gina Whyte, an employee at an MRI facility to which Pinnacle had referred its patients, and solicit her interest in the position. (Tr. 331-32). Whyte met that day with both Okhravi brothers and Messina, and later in the day accepted the position of Insight's office manager. (Tr. 332-33; see also DX E (offer letter prepared by Messina dated December 19, 2012)).
Gina Whyte testified similarly that she received a phone call from Stefanie Messina on December 19, 2012, discussing a job opportunity that had arisen because " somebody was leaving." (Tr. 373-74; see also Tr. 378-79 (recalling on cross-examination that the process of hiring her had been expedited because " the person was leaving, and I know they needed somebody there to help" )). Whyte went to Pinnacle's 42nd Street office later that day; met with Messina and the Okhravi brothers; and accepted the job offer " that same night," with the understanding that she would start on January 3, 2013. (Tr. 375-76, 378).
Dr. Steve Okhravi testified that Stefanie Messina showed him a December 18, 2012 text from Plaintiff in which she resigned from Insight, though the actual text was not produced in discovery or introduced as an exhibit at trial. (Tr. 389, 456-57; see also Tr. 434 (mentioning Messina conversation in voice mail to Plaintiff)). He also recalled learning on December 19, 2012, from Al Okhravi that Al's efforts to convince Plaintiff to remain at Insight had failed. (Tr. 391-92, 471-72). Consequently, Dr. Okhravi instructed Stefanie Messina to contact Gina Whyte about the position. (Tr. 393-94). He participated in Whyte's interview later that day, and ultimately offered her Plaintiff's position as office manager at Insight. (Tr. 394-96).
For the first time on December 22, 2012, Plaintiff advised Dr. Okhravi that his brother had sent her inappropriate text messages. (Tr. 428, 430). He responded by asking her for the texts, which he never received. (Tr. 431-32). Dr. Okhravi scheduled a meeting with Plaintiff to discuss her concerns, but the meeting did not take place because of what Dr. Okhravi termed " a series of events." (Tr. 435; see also id. (" [Plaintiff] resigned, and there was no relationship, and it never happened." ); Tr. 480-84 (acknowledging that he had scheduled a meeting to discuss Plaintiff's allegations of harassment, but then canceled the meeting because Plaintiff had not immediately sent him the text messages)). Instead, Dr. Okhravi instructed Messina to call Plaintiff " and tell her she does not need to come in to fulfill her remaining two weeks." (Tr. 436).
At trial, Dr. Okhravi repeatedly testified to his understanding -- even while reviewing several equivocal emails from Plaintiff -- that Plaintiff had quit on December 18, and that any time that she had worked at Insight after that date was in fulfillment of her obligation to give two weeks' notice. ( See, e.g., Tr. 466, 474-75). Dr. Okhravi also maintained that Plaintiff's employment terminated on December 18, even as he conceded that his brother had spoken at length with Plaintiff on December 19 to
convince her to remain with the company. (Tr. 486-87).
The final witness at trial was Defendant Al Okhravi. Okhravi handled the " big things" at Insight, e.g., accounts payable, payroll, finance, accounting, and information technology. (Tr. 511). He traveled from Virginia to New York biweekly, and later weekly, to perform tasks for Insight and Pinnacle. (Tr. 512-13). He echoed testimony from Plaintiff and from Dr. Okhravi concerning Plaintiff's earlier, two-month stint working at Insight in early 2008; of significance, Al Okhravi testified that when Plaintiff resigned from Insight in 2008, she gave two weeks' notice. (Tr. 517).
Al Okhravi had a different recollection from Plaintiff of his December 18 conversation/argument with her. According to him, the two discussed staffing (including the above-described problems occasioned by the lapse in insurance coverage for the physician's assistant), and argued over his decision to keep Insight's offices open on Christmas Eve. (Tr. 535-38). According to Okhravi, Plaintiff quit in the course of that conversation, which he considered to be an overreaction to their dispute and which prompted him to send several texts asking her to stay with Insight. (Tr. 538, 540-45, 549).
At trial, Okhravi interpreted a text from Plaintiff that post-dated the meeting, in which Plaintiff mentioned " a choice" that she would have to make concerning her future employment, as a resignation. (Tr. 546). He testified that he exchanged additional texts with Plaintiff, trying to calm her down and reconsider, which culminated in a face-to-face meeting at Insight's offices on December 19. (Tr. 548-52). Okhravi testified that Plaintiff's texts suggested that " would not change her mind, basically," about leaving. (Tr. 552-53). Okhravi testified that at the December 19 meeting, he offered to increase Plaintiff's salary, and pressed her for an immediate decision, to which she replied " I am leaving." (Tr. 554-55; see also Tr. 557-58 (surmising that text sent later that day by Plaintiff checking in on him was because she was concerned about his reaction to her resignation)). After the meeting, Okhravi advised his brother that Plaintiff was " not staying," and commenced the search for a replacement, resulting in an offer being made to Gina Whyte later that day. (Tr. 555-57).
Al Okhravi testified that while he was aware that Plaintiff had come to work after December 19, he believed that it was part of the two weeks' notice she had given. (Tr. 559). However, Okhravi was confronted with texts he had sent to Plaintiff after her purported resignation about remaining with Insight, including a text on the evening of December 19 in which he indicated to her that she had a " secure job." (Tr. 603). Okhravi was also presented at trial with his deposition testimony, where he had testified that Plaintiff sought a few days after December 19 to make a final decision concerning her job; he explained at trial that her request had been rejected because he needed an " immediate answer." (Tr. 608-10). According to Okhravi, by the time he received Plaintiff's text that she would not " leave [Insight] at a time like this," he and his brother had already hired her replacement. (Echevarria to A. Okhravi, 12/20/2012, 6:44 p.m.).
C. Defendants' Mid-Trial Motions and the Verdict
At the close of Plaintiff's case, Defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a). (Tr. 305-19). Among other things, Defendants argued that (i) ...