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Li v. Cushman & Wakefield, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. New York

May 3, 2017

HONGMEI LI, Plaintiff,

          For the plaintiff: Jeremy Heisler Inayat Ali Hemani Sanford Heisler, LLP

          For the defendants: Thomas M. Wilde Vedder Price P.C.


          DENISE COTE United States District Judge

         This is an employment discrimination action by plaintiff Hongmei “Janice” Li (“Li”) against her former employer, Cushman & Wakefield, Inc. (“C&W”) and her former supervisor at C&W, Peter Victor (“Victor”). Li alleges that C&W and Victor demoted and then discharged her improperly on the basis of her national origin, age, and gender. She sues under the New York State Human Rights Law, as codified at N.Y. Executive Law § 296 et seq. (“NYSHRL”), and the New York City Human Rights Law, as codified in the Administrative Code of the City of New York § 8- 107 et seq. (“NYCHRL”). The defendants move for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, the motion is granted in part.


         The following describes the evidence which is either undisputed or taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. C&W is a global real estate services firm with over 250 offices worldwide. C&W provides services including commercial leasing and valuation. The International Desk (“iDesk”) is a group within C&W that develops and facilitates cross-border transactions and connects brokers and clients from different regions of the world. In July 2012, Li was hired to work at C&W as an Associate Director on the iDesk. Li is a woman of Chinese national origin and was 43 years old at the time she was hired.

         Li received two performance reviews in 2013 and 2014 from her C&W supervisor Kaustuv Roy (“Roy”). They were largely positive, although they noted some difficulties, including a need to improve written English skills. In March 2015, Roy recommended that Li be promoted from Associate Director to Director. On April 1, 2015, C&W promoted plaintiff, then age 47, to Director and raised her base salary.

         During her time at C&W, Li describes two incidents which she believes demonstrate discrimination based on national origin. In June of 2013, a Chairman of Global Brokerage at C&W (the “Chairman”) told Li that he would pay $10, 000 to sponsor an event with a Chinese finance organization. After the event, he attempted to renege on his promise to pay. Li alleges that after the Chinese finance organization sent an email about the bill, the Chairman angrily said to her: “This Chinese group, I [have] never see[n] people like money so much.” In July of 2015, Li was on a conference call with C&W's San Francisco office to help them prepare for a call with a Chinese client. At the end of the call, she heard a female broker in the San Francisco office (the “Broker”) laugh and say to another broker something to the effect of: “What kind of translator did you find? I can't understand what she is talking about.” Li emailed the Broker and the others on the conference call, summarizing the comments, and asking the Broker to inform Li if she could not understand her rather than making comments to others. The Broker wrote back to apologize to Li and the team.

         In May 2015, C&W and DTZ, another commercial real estate firm, announced plans to merge. DTZ had its own, smaller, iDesk function with three employees reporting into another department:[1]Michael Baker, who was based in London, Alan Brass, and Peter Stanford. The DTZ iDesk employees are younger than Li and none are of Chinese national origin.

         As of the date the merger was announced, C&W's iDesk contained two regional groups working in tandem. It had two supervisors, each of whom supervised one other iDesk employee. Victor lead the Europe, Middle East, and Africa (“EMEA”) group from the London office. Victor supervised Sam King (“King”), who was hired in March 2014 as a Director of the EMEA iDesk team.[2] King is a Caucasian male who is younger than King. King spent his first six months in the London office before moving to the New York office and assuming a Managing Director role. Roy led the Asia-Pacific (“APAC”) group from the New York office. Roy supervised Li.

         The C&W and DTZ merger was completed on September 2, 2015, and the C&W and DTZ iDesks were reorganized to form one group of four employees. Victor became the global lead for the iDesk team to whom the other three employees would report. Michael Baker led the EMEA team from London. The U.S. market was split into east and west teams. Prerana Daga (“Daga”) was hired in May or June of 2015 as an Executive Director and led the west team from C&W's San Franscio office. Daga is younger than Li and of Indian national origin. King led the east team. Li was initially placed in a support role to Daga and King, but her position was terminated in December. Comparing the pre- and post-merger C&W and DTZ iDesk teams, seven employees were reduced to four in number. Roy's supervisory position was eliminated and three supervisee positions were eliminated: those of Stanford and Brass, who had been at the iDesk at DTZ, and Li's position. Daga was hired.

         On December 1, 2015, Li was notified of her discharge. According to Li, Victor said that they were looking to create a more junior role to support King in New York, and to hire someone who was a generalist instead of a specialist. Plaintiff expressed interest in the junior position and said she was willing to take a pay cut. The position was never filled. On December 31, 2015, Li's employment at C&W ended.

         On March 3, 2016, Li filed a complaint against Victor and C&W in the Supreme Court of the State of New York. On April 4, the defendants removed the case to federal court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. On June 27, Li filed the first amended complaint. Li alleges that the defendants demoted her by putting her in a support role and ultimately discharged her because of her national origin, age, and gender, in violation of the NYCHRL and the NYSHRL. C&W filed the instant motion for summary judgment on January 20, 2017. The motion became fully submitted on February 24.


         Summary judgment may not be granted unless all of the submissions taken together “show[] that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “Summary judgment is appropriate where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party.” Smith v. Cty. of Suffolk, 776 F.3d 114, 121 (2d Cir. 2015) (citation omitted). The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a material factual question, and in making this determination, the court must view all facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Eastman Kodak Co. v. Image Tech. Servs., Inc., 504 U.S. 451, 456 (1992); Gemmink v. Jay Peak Inc., 807 F.3d. 46, 48 ...

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