United States District Court, S.D. New York
OPINION & ORDER
KATHERINE B. FORREST, District Judge.
On August 28, 2013, pro se plaintiff Elayne Orange, an African American assistant teacher at the Biondi School, brought this action against Leake and Watts, Inc., who runs the Biondi School, alleging discrimination and retaliation based on race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000 et seq. (ECF No. 2.) Plaintiff alleges that she suffered an adverse employment action when she received a written disciplinary notice following her perceived racist comments about an Asian teacher and a negative performance evaluation for failing to work effectively with her head teacher.
On August 16, 2012, plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination against defendant with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), alleging race discrimination and retaliation. (See Compl. at *11-29.) On June 28, 2013, the EEOC issued a Notice of Dismissal and Right to Sue, finding that "the evidence you provided does not show that Respondent discriminated against you" and "[t]he investigation did not uncover evidence in support of your allegations." (Id. at *6.) Plaintiff timely filed this lawsuit. On December 9, 2014, defendants moved for summary judgment on all claims. (ECF No. 33.) On March 6, 2015, this case was reassigned to the undersigned.
For the reasons set forth below, defendant's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Plaintiff, an African American woman, worked as an assistant classroom teacher at the Biondi School beginning in 2011. (Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ("56.1 Statement") ¶ 7, ECF No. 35.) She was initially assigned to the classroom of head teacher Samara Cantor, a Caucasian woman. (Id. ¶ 8.) On December 9, 2011, Dr. George Cancro, the school's principal, reassigned plaintiff to a different classroom after Ms. Cantor repeatedly complained about difficulty in working with plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 9-10.) The following week, plaintiff and Ms. Cantor had a confrontation in the hallway after school. (Id. ¶ 11.) On December 16, 2011, plaintiff submitted a written report of the incident. (Id. ¶ 12.) Dr. Cancro verbally reprimanded both teachers, but neither teacher received any other form of discipline. (Id. ¶ 14.) On January 26, 2012, plaintiff submitted a written report to Dr. Cancro claiming that Ms. Cantor was stalking and harassing her by passing through the hallway where plaintiff's new classroom was located. (Id. ¶ 15.) Neither her December 16, 2011 incident report nor her January 26, 2012 written complaint alleged any connection to plaintiff's race. (Id. ¶ 15-18.)
In a separate incident in March or April of 2012, plaintiff and the other teachers assigned to her classroom were having trouble maintaining order in the classroom. (Id. ¶ 19.) Plaintiff went into the hallway and told two colleagues that her Asian coworker, whom she referred to as "Miss Jenny", could not keep control over the classroom because no one understood her "Yada Yada Yang Yang stuff." (Id. ¶ 21.) On April 16, 2012, Dr. Cancro issued a written notice of discipline to plaintiff for violating defendant's anti-harassment policy which prohibits conduct that is "offensive or otherwise makes someone feel uncomfortable", including "negative stereotyping" and "denigrating jokes". (Id. ¶ 22; Compl. at *9.) On April 28, 2012, plaintiff refuted the written notice of discipline and complained that she was being subject to discrimination because she had been disciplined for the "Yada Yada" comment while Ms. Cantor had never been disciplined for the alleged stalking. (Id. ¶ 23.) Plaintiff again did not complain that Dr. Cancro's failure to discipline Ms. Cantor had any connection to plaintiff's race; at her deposition, plaintiff testified that she believed Dr. Cancro's actions were rather motivated by some type of familial connection to Ms. Cantor. (Id. ¶ 24-25.)
In June 2012, plaintiff received her performance evaluation for the time period July 1, 2011 to May 31, 2012, which concluded that plaintiff "needs improvement" in certain areas: (1) "establish a team approach with the teacher", (2) "work collaboratively with teacher in assisting students", and (3) "maintain a positive interpersonal relationship with staff." (Id. ¶ 31.) The evaluation was completed by Myra Fern, Assistant to the Superintendent, who regularly observed plaintiff's performance in the classroom. (Id. ¶ 27.) Ms. Fern did not receive or have knowledge of plaintiff's April 28, 2012 letter of complaint before issuing the performance evaluation. (Id. ¶ 32.) Dr. Cancro, however, did review the evaluation; he did not provide any suggestions to the evaluation report. (Id. ¶ 33.) Ultimately, despite the performance evaluation and the written notice of discipline, plaintiff continued her employment in the same position and at the same salary. (Id. ¶ 34-35.)
II. LEGAL STANDARDS
A. Legal Standard for Summary Judgment
Summary judgment may not be granted unless all of 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." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating "the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). In making that determination, the court must "construe all evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, drawing all inferences and resolving all ambiguities in its favor." Dickerson v. Napolitano, 604 F.3d 732, 740 (2d Cir. 2010).
Once the moving party has asserted facts showing that the non-movant's claims cannot be sustained, the opposing party must "set out specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial, " and cannot "rely merely on allegations or denials" contained in the pleadings. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); see also Wright v. Goord, 554 F.3d 255, 266 (2d Cir. 2009). "A party may not rely on mere speculation or conjecture as to the true nature of the facts to overcome a motion for summary judgment, " as "[m]ere conclusory allegations or denials cannot by themselves create a genuine issue of material fact where none would otherwise exist." Hicks v. Baines, 593 F.3d 159, 166 (2d Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks, alteration, and citation omitted).
Only disputes over material facts - i.e., "facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law" - will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986) (stating that the nonmoving party "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts").
"Summary judgment is appropriate even in discrimination cases, for, as [the Second Circuit] noted, the salutary purposes of summary judgment - avoiding protracted, expensive[, ] and harassing trials - apply no less to discrimination cases than to... other areas of litigation.'" Weinstock v. Columbia Univ., 224 F.3d 33, 41 (2d Cir. 2000) (quoting Meiri v. Dacon, 759 F.2d 989, 998 (2d Cir. 1985)); see also Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 148 (2000) (explaining that "trial courts should not treat discrimination differently from other ultimate questions of fact") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Nonetheless, courts must be "particularly cautious about granting summary judgment to an employer in a discrimination case when the employer's intent is in question." Schwapp v. Town of Avon, 118 F.3d 106, 110 (2d Cir. 1997) (citation omitted). "Because direct evidence of an employer's discriminatory intent will rarely ...