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Vangas v. Montefiore Medical Center

United States District Court, S.D. New York

April 3, 2015

MIRELLE VANGAS and ALFREDO VANGAS, JR., Plaintiffs,
v.
MONTEFIORE MEDICAL CENTER, ELIZABETH BURNS, PATRICIA QUINN, and WAGEWORKS, INC., Defendants.

OPINION AND ORDER

EDGARDO RAMOS, District Judge.

Plaintiff Mirelle Vangas was diagnosed with cancer on March 25, 2010. She was terminated by her employer Montefiore Medical Center ("MMC") on August 30, 2010, after she exhausted her Family Medical Leave Act leave of absence and was unable to return to work. Mrs. Vangas brought this action against MMC, Elizabeth Burns and Patricia Quinn ("Defendants"), [1] alleging, inter alia, that Defendants failed to accommodate her disability in violation of the New York State Human Rights Law ("NYSHRL"), as well as failed to notify her of the cancellation of her employee benefits within five days of her termination from MMC in violation of the New York Labor Law ("NYLL"). Following a five-day trial in June 2014, the Court granted judgment as a matter of law to Mrs. Vangas on the NYLL claim. The jury then found in Mrs. Vangas' favor on the NYSHRL claim, [2] and awarded damages in the total amount of $541, 000.[3] Pending before the Court are Defendants' post-trial motions in connection with the NYSHRL claim.[4] Doc. 126. Specifically, Defendants seek (i) judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, (ii) an order vacating the jury's verdict and dismissing Mrs. Vangas' NYSHRL claim under Rule 59(e) and Rule 60(b)(6), (iii) a new trial pursuant to Rule 59(a) and Rule 60(b)(6), or (iv) remittitur of the compensatory, back pay, and front pay damages awards. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motions are GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

I. Facts Adduced at Trial

a. Mrs. Vangas' Employment at MMC and Termination

Mirelle Vangas, an employee of MMC since 1989, was diagnosed with anal cancer on March 25, 2010. Transcript of Trial ("Tr.") 78:14-15, 79:2; Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ΒΆ 2. At the time of her diagnosis, Mrs. Vangas was a utilization management analyst in MMC's Care Management Organization ("CMO"), with responsibilities that included assisting with authorizations for inbound patients and making phone calls to patients who had been discharged from the hospital. Id. 75:16-22. Mrs. Vangas took an immediate leave of absence from MMC upon her diagnosis. Id. 78:18-21.

Mrs. Vangas completed Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") forms, which provided for a leave period of three months, concluding at the end of June 2010. Id. 226:20. On June 14, 2010, Mrs. Vangas saw her oncologist, who noted in a report to MMC's short-term disability provider that Mrs. Vangas' new return to work date would be July 19, 2010. Id. 89:11.[5]

In July 2010, Ms. Quinn, who was Plaintiff's direct supervisor, and Kathleen Byrne, MMC's Director of Medical Management, [6] advised Ms. Burns that they were not sure when Mrs. Vangas would be returning to work. Tr. 358:18-21. Accordingly, Ms. Burns, who is in charge of all Human Resources functions in the CMO, advised Ms. Quinn and Ms. Byrne to send a letter to Mrs. Vangas regarding her FMLA leave. Id. 353:13, 353:25-354:2, 358:22-23. Ms. Burns testified that this letter was sent on or around July 22, 2010. Id. 359:24-360:2.[7]

On July 26, 2010, Mrs. Vangas called and left a message for Ms. Burns because she was confused about what she needed to do next regarding her medical leave. Id. 93:1-7, 104:15-18. Ms. Burns testified that after Jackie Colon, Ms. Burns' secretary, advised that Mrs. Vangas had called and was confused about the leave process, Ms. Burns directed Ms. Colon to return the call and let Mrs. Vangas know that MMC had not yet received her FMLA paperwork. Id. 359:4-8, 361:9-17. Ms. Burns confirmed that she did not personally return Mrs. Vangas' call. Id. 361:13.

According to Mrs. Vangas, she "played phone tag" with Ms. Colon for several days. Id. 104:19-23. Mrs. Vangas attempted to reach Ms. Colon on July 28, July 30, and August 2. Id. 106:2-17.

On August 3, 2010, Mrs. Vangas' radiation oncologist, Dr. William Bodner, completed a disability form indicating that her expected return to work date was August 30, 2010. Id. 235:13. Also on August 3, 2010, Mrs. Vangas was finally able to speak to Ms. Colon. Id. 106:23. According to Mrs. Vangas, Ms. Colon advised that she would mail the FMLA paperwork again, and that Mrs. Vangas would need to complete the forms upon receipt. Id. 109:7-8, 109:17. Mrs. Vangas then informed Ms. Colon that her next appointment with the oncologist was not until August 23 and that she would have the papers filled out then, to which Ms. Colon "did not protest." Id. 109:8-13.

Mrs. Vangas testified that on August 5, 2010, she spoke to Ms. Quinn by telephone and asked if she could work from home. Id. 236:9. Mrs. Vangas sought the accommodation because of her medical symptoms, which included constant diarrhea. Id. 236:13-16. Mrs. Vangas testified that Ms. Quinn said that she personally "had no problem" with Mrs. Vangas' proposal, but that Ms. Byrne "wouldn't go for that." Id. 111:12-13.[8] Contrary to Mrs. Vangas' testimony, Ms. Quinn testified that Mrs. Vangas never asked her if she could work from home, however. Id. 336:8-13, 336:23-24.[9] And according to Ms. Byrne, Ms. Quinn never told her about such a request, and Ms. Quinn was never asked whether working from home would have been an option for Mrs. Vangas. Id. 441:10-18.

On August 20, 2010, Ms. Quinn sent Mrs. Vangas a text message directing her to call Ms. Colon regarding the FMLA paperwork. Id. 128:20-129:2. Upon receipt of the text message, Mrs. Vangas called Ms. Quinn and stated that she had already told Ms. Colon that a follow-up medical appointment was scheduled for August 23, 2010. Id. 129:11-16. Mrs. Vangas then asked if she was losing her job; Ms. Quinn answered in the negative, and advised that the forms were sent in order to extend Mrs. Vangas' leave period. Id. 129:17-19.

In late August 2010, Mrs. Vangas experienced newly-developed symptoms, including blurred vision, facial swelling, and headaches. Id. 130:3-4. On August 23, Mrs. Vangas saw Dr. Bodner in connection with the new symptoms. Id. 136:9-16.

On August 26, 2010, Mrs. Vangas called Ms. Quinn to advise of the newly-developed symptoms. Id. 132:19-21. According to Plaintiff, she told Ms. Quinn that she did not know if she would be able to return to work on August 30, 2010. Id. 132:22-24.

On August 29, 2010, a Sunday, Mrs. Vangas left a voicemail message for Ms. Quinn, advising that she would not be able to return to work the next day. Id. 133:7-10. Ms. Quinn did not return the message. Id. 133:11-12. Mrs. Vangas also sent Ms. Quinn a text message that day, informing that she did not feel good and would follow up with her doctors. Id. 133:13-14. Ms. Quinn did not return the text message. Id. 134:12.

Mrs. Vangas did not return as scheduled on August 30, 2010. Id. 136:9-21, 248:24. MMC terminated Mrs. Vangas that same day. Id. 443:8.

Late in the afternoon on August 30, 2010, Ms. Maloney, a manager at MMC and one of Mrs. Vangas' friends, called Mrs. Vangas and alerted her that "something was going on." Id. 136:23-25. Ms. Maloney told Mrs. Vangas that there was discussion in a meeting that morning of offering Mrs. Vangas' job to the temporary employee who had replaced her during the leave period. Id. 137:2-4.[10]

On the morning of August 31, Mrs. Vangas called and left a message for Ms. Burns. Id. 137:8-138:5. After receiving no response, Mrs. Vangas called again a few hours later, at which point Ms. Colon answered the phone. Id. 138:6-8. When Mrs. Vangas identified herself, Ms. Colon asked if she was calling "regarding... handing in your badge and key." Id. 138:11-14. Mrs. Vangas responded in the negative, and said that she was calling "regarding [her] papers" and asked to speak to Ms. Burns. Id. 138:14-15. According to Mrs. Vangas, she told Ms. Burns that she had heard her position was being filled. Id. 138:19-22. After Ms. Burns stated that Mrs. Vangas' FMLA leave period was twelve weeks, Mrs. Vangas said that MMC had extended the period. Id. 138:21-22. According to Mrs. Vangas, she then told Ms. Burns that she was not medically cleared to return to work but would "do what [she] had to do" to save her job. Id. 249:15-16.[11] Mrs. Vangas testified that she asked Ms. Burns if the position would be open the following day if her husband took her to work. Id. 139:4-7. According to Mrs. Vangas, Ms. Burns responded by saying that she did not know of a replacement for the position and that there was no posting for the job. Id. 139:1-4. Mrs. Vangas then asked if that meant that she could have her job back if she called Ms. Quinn. Id. 139:6-8. Ms. Burns stated that Mrs. Vangas would have to "work that out" with Ms. Quinn. Id. [12]

Mrs. Vangas testified that after her conversation with Ms. Burns, she called Ms. Quinn to ask if her job was still available. Id. 140:14-15. Ms. Quinn said that she would have to speak with Ms. Byrne and would call Mrs. Vangas back. Id. 140:17-21. According to Mrs. Vangas, after she did not hear from Ms. Quinn, she called Ms. Quinn three more times that day. Id. 140:23-141:1. Ms. Quinn finally picked up on the third try after Mrs. Vangas had blocked her phone number. Id. When Mrs. Vangas asked whether Ms. Quinn had been able to speak to Ms. Byrne about the job posting, Ms. Quinn stated that she could not talk to Mrs. Vangas anymore and that Mrs. Vangas would have "to deal with Human Resources." Id. 141:3-7.[13]

b. Mrs. Vangas' Post-Termination Employment

On September 13, 2010, Mrs. Vangas interviewed for a position at MMC's Emerging Health Information Technology ("EHIT") affiliate. Id. 145:14-16. Mrs. Vangas was not offered the EHIT position. Id. 170:21. After that, Mrs. Vangas was offered a position with Terminix International Company, an exterminator, and started work on or around October 11, 2010. Id. 171:3-7. According to Mrs. Vangas, the job involved inspecting homes for termites, including climbing up and down ladders into attics and basements, which was physically demanding. Id. 171:9-13. Mrs. Vangas resigned from Terminix approximately two months later. Id. 171:15, 256:22.

Mrs. Vangas thereafter briefly worked at Rockland Orthopedics, resigning because she needed more stable hours to care for her daughter. Id. 174:8-12. About one month later, Mrs. Vangas started work through a temp agency at a law firm. Id. 174:14-18. Mrs. Vangas was an employee of the law firm at the time of trial. Id. 174:20.[14]

c. Evidence of Mrs. Vangas' Emotional Distress

Plaintiff testified to the emotional impact of her termination. According to Mrs. Vangas, she was excited to return to work on August 30, 2010. Id. 125:2-5. She could not wait to see her co-workers and "get back into the groove of being around people" after her time spent at home recovering. Id. However, after her termination, Mrs. Vangas felt worthless-she did not know where to go because she did not have a college degree and was also having trouble finding a job. Id. 182:2-5. Mrs. Vangas was very emotional, cried frequently, could not sleep, and gained about 50 pounds. Id. 182:5-14. According to Plaintiff, her termination affected every part of her life and was very hard to accept. Id. 182:7-11. She secluded herself because she did not want to be around her family. Id. 182:11. Mrs. Vangas did not, however, see a psychologist, take medication, or consult with a social worker or mental health professional as a result of her termination. Id. 257:14-20.

Mr. Vangas corroborated his wife's testimony. According to Mr. Vangas, his wife was "happy-go-lucky" before her cancer diagnosis. Id. 459:10. She loved her job and would come home happy every day. Id. 459:10-11. In August 2010, Mrs. Vangas was eager to return to work. Id. 460:15-17. After her termination, he described her as upset, confused, and hurt because she had devoted 20 years of her life to her employer. Id. 461:7-9. She became more worried about home life and stressed about the family's finances, and she lacked confidence because she was not contributing as much financially. Id. 461:17-19, 462:1-3.

II. The Jury Charge

The jury was charged that "[f]or Mrs. Vangas to succeed under her [NYSHRL] claim, she must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that: [o]ne, she was disabled as defined by the [L]aw; [t]wo, her employers had notice of the disability; [t]hree, with reasonable accommodation, she could have performed the essential functions of her job; and [f]our, the defendants refused to make reasonable accommodations for her needs." Id. 733:23-734:7.[15] They were further instructed that because "there [was] no dispute that Mrs. Vangas was disabled as defined by the [L]aw and that her employers had notice of the disability, ... the only two elements that you must decide are whether, with a reasonable accommodation, Mrs. Vangas could have performed the essential functions of her job and whether the defendants refused to make reasonable accommodation for her needs." Id. 734:8-14. The Court advised that the NYSHRL claim must be supported by "substantiated allegations that, upon provision of reasonable accommodations, the employee ...


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