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Allen v. Chanel, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. New York

June 26, 2015

ANU ALLEN, Plaintiff,
v.
CHANEL, INC., Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

LORETTA A. PRESKA, Chief District Judge.

II. FACTS[1]

Plaintiff Anu Allen ("Plaintiff") was born on February 24, 1969 and is of Asian or Indian descent. (Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Material Facts Pursuant to Rule 56.1 ("Def.'s 56.1") ¶ 1, ECF No. 55.) Chanel, Inc. ("Chanel" or "Defendant"), a New York corporation, is a manufacturer and distributor of luxury goods. (Id. ¶ 2.) From approximately 1993 to 2000, Plaintiff worked as a receptionist for Defendant. (Id. ¶¶ 5, 6.) She was promoted to Office Services Coordinator in January, 2001, a position created for her. (Id. ¶¶ 7, 8, 11.) After serving as an Office Services Coordinator for six years, she underwent a formal interview process and was selected to become a Samples Coordinator. (Id. ¶¶ 12, 13.)

In approximately August, 2011, Plaintiff began reporting to Susanna Klein ("Klein"), Executive Director of Ready to Wear & Wholesale Events & Training. (Id. ¶ 16.) Klein reported to Stephanie Zernik ("Zernik"), Senior Vice President of Fashion Wholesale, and Zernik reported to Barbara Cirkva ("Cirkva"), President of Fasion, Watches and Fine Jewelry. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that Klein was "extremely difficult" to work with, "everyone was afraid of her, " and that Klein was "unfair, not liked, aggressive, abrasive, rude, disrespectful and out of line." (Id. ¶¶ 23, 24.) Plaintiff had complained to Megan Glickman ("Glickman"), Director of Human Resources for Fashion, Watches and Fine Jewelry, about Plaintiff's working relationship with Klein on various occasions beginning in 2009. (Id. ¶ 42.) Plaintiff recalls Klein's telling her that "since [Plaintiff] was not white, not married and getting old that she would be just another single-mother like all of the other minorities, " and Zernik's telling her that Chanel "had too many Asian and minority workers and not enough Jewish girls like [Zernik and Klein]." (Mem. of Law in Supp. of Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Def.'s Mot.") at 16, ECF No. 56; Compl. ¶¶ 17, 18, ECF No. 1.) (See also Allen Dep. Submitted as Ex. K to Decl. of Christopher Thompson ("Allen Dep."), 120:4-121:5, 161:9-162:9, ECF No. 59.)

When Zernik arrived at Chanel in April of 2011, she reviewed the structure of the Fashion Wholesale Division. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 27.) In the summer of 2011, Zernik was involved in the transferring of the Training division outside of Fashion Wholesale. (Id. ¶ 29.) In August, 2011, Defendant reduced the number of trunk shows - events requiring the use of sample products. (Id. ¶ 31.) Following these changes, Defendant claims that Plaintiff's position, Samples Coordinator, was unnecessary. Zernik and Klein discussed different ways to structure the department, including revising the Samples Coordinator job description and eliminating the position altogether. (Id. ¶¶ 34-35, 37, 52.) Zernik made the decision to eliminate the Samples Coordinator position and terminate Plaintiff's employment. (See id. ¶ 32.) Zernik sought and received final approval from Cirkva and the Human Resources department. (Id. ¶ 38.)

At Plaintiff's termination meeting, she was given a hard copy Separation and Release Agreement ("Agreement") signed by one of Defendant's representatives. (Id. ¶ 54.) The Agreement provided that it "may be modified only by a writing signed by both parties." (Id. ¶ 59.) In exchange for waiving her right to bring certain lawsuits against Defendant, "including" employment discrimination and harassment claims on the basis of "race, color, ... sex, sexual orientation, age, ... and any other legally protected characteristic... and any and all claims under any contract, statute, regulation, agreement, duty or otherwise, " Plaintiff would receive, inter alia, $14, 940.19 and five months of COBRA coverage. (Id. ¶ 56.) These benefits exceeded what Plaintiff would have otherwise received under her employment contract.

Unbeknownst to Defendant, Plaintiff retyped the page of the Agreement containing the waiver clause in the same font, words, and margins, except she changed the word "including" to "excluding." (Id. ¶ 63.) Plaintiff then initialed each page of the Agreement, signed and returned it. (Id. ¶ 64.) Plaintiff claims to have put a 1-inch blank, yellow sticky note on the page of the Agreement containing the modified release provision before returning it to Defendant, but she did not contact Defendant to discuss any changes. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶¶ 64-67.) Defendant claims it neither received the sticky note nor noticed any alterations to the Agreement. (Id.)

After receiving Plaintiff's signed document, Glickman authorized transmission of a separation payment and sent a check to Plaintiff that Plaintiff received and retained. (Id. ¶ 69.) Approximately five months later, on September 2, 2012, Plaintiff brought the instant action against Defendant, alleging that Defendant violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, et seq., the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 621, et seq., and the New York State Human Rights Law ("NYSHRL"), N.Y. Exec. Law § 290, et seq. Plaintiff seeks back pay, front pay, lost benefits, and recoupment of her legal costs.

Defendant moved to dismiss on November 12, 2012, introducing documentation that was not referenced (or barely referenced) in the Complaint. (ECF No. 9.) On June 4, 2013, Judge Patterson exercised his discretion, pursuant to Rule 12(d), to convert this motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment. Judge Patterson then denied Defendant's motion without prejudice on the grounds that Plaintiff had not knowingly, voluntarily, or willfully waive her right to file a discrimination claim as a matter of law. (ECF No. 22.) Defendant filed an Answer on June 18, 2013 with affirmative defenses and counterclaims. (ECF No. 23.)[2]

On November 13, 2014, Defendant moved for summary judgment, seeking dismissal of Plaintiff's claims of discrimination and retaliation, and approval of Defendant's counterclaim for unjust enrichment. (Def.'s Mot.) Plaintiff opposed on December 15, 2014 (Mem. of Law in Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. (Pl.'s Opp'n), ECF No. 61) and Defendant replied on December 22, 2014 (Reply Mem. in Further Supp. of Def.'s Mot. ("Def.'s Reply"), ECF No. 66).

II. DISCUSSION

There are three issues before the court. First, whether Defendant discriminated against Plaintiff on the basis of sex, age, and/or race when terminating her position. Second, whether Defendant's termination of Plaintiff's position was retaliatory. Third, whether Plaintiff was unjustly enriched by receiving and retaining from Defendant, inter alia, a severance payment and five months of COBRA coverage. The following will address each issue in turn.

a. Standard for Summary Judgment

Courts will grant a motion for summary judgment if "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The moving party holds the initial burden of demonstrating that there is no genuine issue of material fact. F.D.I.C. v. Great American Ins. Co., 607 F.3d 288, 292 (2d Cir. 2010). When the moving party has met this initial burden, the opposing party must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial, and cannot rest on mere allegations or denials of the facts asserted by the movant. Davis v. State of New York, 316 F.3d 93, 100 (2d Cir. 2002). The Court must "view the evidence in ...


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