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McKnight v. Town of Hamburg

United States District Court, W.D. New York

March 13, 2017

HOLLY MCKNIGHT, Plaintiff,
v.
TOWN OF HAMBURG, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          LAWRENCE J. VILARDO UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         The plaintiff is a retired police officer who claims that her former employer discriminated against her on the basis of her sex and disability. The defendant moved for summary judgment (Docket Item 28), after which the Court referred this matter to United States Magistrate Judge Michael J. Roemer. Docket Item 40.[1] Judge Roemer then issued a Report and Recommendation ("R&R"), dated April 25, 2016, recommending that the defendant's motion be granted. See Docket Item 45. Pending before this Court are the plaintiffs objections to Judge Roemer's R&R. See Docket Item 48.

         This Court "must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to" and "may accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions." Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(3); see 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         Upon de novo review, this Court agrees with Judge Roemer's conclusions that "there is simply no evidence that McKnight's gender played any role in the adverse actions she complains of," Docket Item 45 at 21, and that she "could not perform the essential functions of her job, with or without a reasonable accommodation." Id. at 23. Therefore, for substantially the same reasons set forth in the R&R, the defendant's motion for summary judgment (Docket Item 28) is GRANTED.

         Certain arguments made in the plaintiffs objections (or at oral argument of those objections) are, however, worth briefly addressing.

         The Plaintiff's Evidence

         In her objections, the plaintiff argues that she submitted evidence sufficient to defeat summary judgment, that Judge Roemer failed "to construe the evidence in the light most favorable to [her]," and that he "sycophantically accepted defendant's version of events as true." Docket Item 48 at 1.

         In discrimination cases like this one, it is appropriate to employ the burden-shifting analysis that the Supreme Court set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792(1973).

Under McDonnell Douglas, a plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination. The burden then shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its employment action. If the employer meets this burden, the presumption of intentional discrimination disappears, but the plaintiff can still prove disparate treatment by, for instance, offering evidence demonstrating that the employer's explanation is pretextual.

Raytheon Co. v. Hernandez, 540 U.S. 44, 49 n.3 (2003) (internal citation omitted).

         The R&R found that the plaintiff failed to establish a prima facie case of sex discrimination. See Docket item 45 at 20. But even assuming that the plaintiff had satisfied that burden, the defendant also satisfied its burden of articulating nondiscriminatory reasons for its actions. Therefore, the defendant was entitled to summary judgment "unless the plaintiff can point to evidence that reasonably supports a finding of prohibited discrimination." Dawson v. Bumble & Bumble, 398 F.3d 211, 216 (2d Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). In this regard, the plaintiff had "no obligation to prove that the employer's innocent explanation [was] dishonest." Henry v. Wyeth Pharm., Inc., 616 F.3d 134, 156 (2d Cir. 2010). Instead, she need have shown only "that the defendant was in fact motivated at least in part by the prohibited discriminatory animus." Id.

         The plaintiff pointed to certain comments and conduct by the chief of police when he was a patrol officer in 1991 as being evidence that reasonably supports a finding of prohibited discrimination. See, e.g., Docket Item 36-2 at ¶¶ 10-12.[2] Judge Roemer found that "not probative of discrimination because [it] occurred nearly twenty years before McKnight went on leave, and [it had] nothing to do with the adverse employment actions she alleges." Docket Item 45 at 16. The plaintiff objected to that conclusion, characterizing it as relying on a "per se rule that remarks of more than one year in age are, as a matter of law, not probative." Docket Item 48 at 11. But the plaintiffs objection misses the mark.

         First, the plaintiff is correct that "there is no bright-line rule for when remarks become 'too attenuated' to be significant to a determination of discriminatory intent." Id. (quoting Tolbert v. Smith, 790 F.3d 427, 437 (2d Cir. 2015). But Judge Roemer did not rely on such a bright-line rule. Moreover, and more importantly, this Court finds on de novo review that the chiefs comments and conduct still are far too attenuated to defeat summary judgment. And that is based on the decades-long gap between the specific remarks or conduct alleged and the adverse employment actions, as well as the lack of any connection between the remarks or conduct and the circumstances surrounding the adverse employment actions.

         The plaintiff also alleged that similarly situated male police officers were treated more favorably, and she argued that this supported a finding of prohibited discrimination. That, too, was insufficient because the plaintiff failed to submit evidence that those police officers were "similarly situated in all material respects." Shumway v. United Parcel Serv., Inc.,118 F.3d 60, 64 (2d Cir. 1997). Indeed, the plaintiff relied almost entirely on her own statements, based on "common knowledge" (as her counsel described it at oral argument) that comparable male officers were treated ...


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