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Chakraborty v. Soto

United States District Court, S.D. New York

November 6, 2017

KUSH C. CHAKRABORTY, Plaintiff,
v.
VALENTINA SOTO and THE RIVERSIDE CHURCH, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          KATHERINE POLK FAILLA, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         In August 2015, Plaintiff Kush C. Chakraborty was fired from his job as Chief Engineer of Defendant The Riverside Church (“Riverside”). He claims that his termination was the product of unlawful discrimination against individuals of Indian extraction. In 2016, Plaintiff filed this pro se lawsuit against Riverside, Riverside's Director of Human Resources Valentina Soto (together with Riverside, “Defendants”), and Thomas Monti, [1] a contractor who managed Riverside's facilities. Plaintiff seeks relief under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17 (“Title VII”), the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. Law §§ 290 to 297 (the “NYSHRL”), and the New York City Human Rights Law, N.Y.C. Admin. Code §§ 8-101 to 8-131 (the “NYCHRL”).

         Defendants have moved to dismiss part of Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). They argue that the election-of-remedies doctrine divests this Court of subject matter jurisdiction to entertain Plaintiff's NYSHRL and NYCHRL claims, because Plaintiff first sought redress for these claims before the New York State Division of Human Rights (the “NYSDHR”). And they insist that Plaintiff cannot maintain his Title VII claim against Soto, because that statute does not permit individual liability. The Court agrees with Defendants' arguments, and grants Defendants' motion for the reasons set forth below.

         BACKGROUND[2]

         A. Factual Background

         For purposes of this motion, the Court accepts as true the well-pleaded allegations in Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint. Riverside is a Manhattan church. (FAC 2). Plaintiff began working “as [Riverside's] assistant chief engineer” on July 8, 2013. (Id. at 11). And right from the start, Plaintiff claims, he encountered hostility from Monti, who belittled and harassed Plaintiff because the latter is of Indian extraction. (Id.).

         Monti did not work directly for Riverside: He was a contractor for Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, and served as Riverside's Property Manager. (FAC 11). In that capacity, he supervised Plaintiff throughout Plaintiff's tenure at Riverside. (Id. at 11-13). When interacting with Plaintiff, Monti would refer frequently to “you Indian people, ” and make derogatory comments about them (e.g., “‘you people are crazy' and ‘you people do not understand English'”). (Id. at 11).

         Monti's behavior went beyond insults. When other people came to Monti's office, Monti would offer them a seat, but he never extended that courtesy to Plaintiff. (FAC 11). When Riverside terminated its Chief Engineer, Pete Donnolo, Riverside's Chief Financial Officer Howard Haughton asked Plaintiff “to take over [ ] Donnolo's responsibilities.” (Id.). But in August when Plaintiff asked Monti if he could sit in the (unoccupied, the Court presumes) Chief Engineer's office, Monti refused. (Id.). Instead, Monti made Plaintiff sit in Riverside's “boiler room” (or “boiler house, ” as Plaintiff sometimes calls it) - a dirty, dusty “open area full of … particles of asbestos, fumes, and smoke.” (Id. at 11-12). Sitting in the boiler room made Plaintiff sick. (Id. at 11). Of note, at this time Riverside employed nine “mechanics who were subordinate to [Plaintiff]”; none were Indian, and all nine worked in “small rooms with air conditioning, fans, heat, ovens[, ] and refrigerators.” (Id.).

         Plaintiff attempted to resign from his job at Riverside because of Monti's “continuous insults.” (FAC 11). Haughton refused to accept Plaintiff's resignation. (Id.). Instead, Riverside promoted Plaintiff to Chief Engineer. (Id.). But Monti's discrimination continued: He persisted in making “statements to [Plaintiff] about [his] being Indian.” (Id.). And it also appears that Monti refused to let Plaintiff move to the Chief Engineer's office, even after Plaintiff assumed the Chief Engineer role at Riverside. (See Id. at 11-12). In December 2014, Monti directed an “asbestos removal contractor to work in [Plaintiff's] area” in the boiler room. (Id. at 12). This asbestos removal, too, made Plaintiff sick. (Id.). Plaintiff “never saw [ ] Monti treat other employees as bad as this.” (Id.).

         Believing that Monti was discriminating against him because he is Indian, Plaintiff contacted Haughton and Soto. (FAC 12). They assured Plaintiff that they would speak with Monti, although the First Amended Complaint suggests that they did not follow through. (See generally FAC). Monti continued harassing Plaintiff. (Id. at 12). In January 2015, when Plaintiff informed Monti that he needed to take sick leave because his work conditions had made him ill, Monti “was angry that [Plaintiff]” had not first gotten permission to take leave. (Id.). And in “February or March 2015, ” Monti threatened to fire Plaintiff if he took seven days off from work to visit his terminally ill aunt in Calcutta, India. (Id.). Plaintiff did not make the trip. (Id.). All the while, Monti allowed other Riverside employees to take “leave, vacation[, ] and sick time.” (Id.).

         Around this same time, Monti again ordered “asbestos workers” to work near Plaintiff's work space. (FAC 12). When Plaintiff asked Monti why he could not make these workers “come at night, ” Monti responded by telling Plaintiff to “just [ ] go and do [his] job.” (Id.). Plaintiff e-mailed Soto about this incident, but here too, it is unclear whether Soto responded. (Id.).

         Then, in late February 2015, Monti changed Plaintiff's work schedule. (FAC 12). From the time he was hired at Riverside until February 2015, Plaintiff had worked from 4:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. (Id.). Those hours “were best for” Plaintiff, because they allowed him to take his wife to her morning doctor's visits. (Id.). Monti knew about these doctor's visits. (Id.). But he changed Plaintiff's schedule so that Plaintiff worked from 2:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. (Id.). And thereafter, Monti changed Plaintiff's schedule again to 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (Id.). Plaintiff “believe[s] [Monti] changed [his] hours to make [Plaintiff] quit because [Monti] did not like working with Indian people.” (Id.). Plaintiff complained to Haughton and Soto, who told Plaintiff that he needed “to work the hours that [ ] Monti wanted.” (Id.). Eventually, Plaintiff, Soto, and Haughton reached a compromise: Plaintiff would work from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. (Id.). Upon learning of Plaintiff's new shift, Monti “was annoyed that [Plaintiff]” had escalated the issue “to Human Resources.” (Id.).

         Monti continued to harass Plaintiff (and spew anti-Indian rhetoric) throughout early 2015. (FAC 13). Monti also undercut and “shouted at” Plaintiff “in front of [Plaintiff's] subordinates.” (Id.). “[A]t some point in 2015, ” Plaintiff tried for a second time to resign from his position at Riverside. (Id.). And again, Haughton refused, telling Plaintiff that he was doing good work. (Id.).

         In April 2015, Plaintiff took Soto to the boiler room to show her where he worked. (FAC 13). Plaintiff told Soto “that [he] was being discriminated against as an Indian, ” and Soto saw “dirt, dust[, ] and asbestos particles falling on [Plaintiff's] table.” (Id.). Soto ordered Monti to move Plaintiff to the Chief Engineer's office. (Id.). The First Amended Complaint suggests that Monti complied, although Plaintiff adds that “Monti continued to harass [Plaintiff] to try to get [him] to quit.” (Id.).

         On August 12, 2015, Soto and Monti terminated Plaintiff “without any prior notice.” (FAC 13). Soto explained to Plaintiff that Plaintiff was being fired because Monti “was not happy with [his] performance.” (Id.). Soto demanded that Plaintiff leave Riverside that day - without first saying goodbye to his coworkers or Haughton. (Id.).

         Plaintiff recounts that earlier in 2015, “another Indian employee, Mr. Ali” was also fired. (FAC 13). When Plaintiff asked Monti why Ali was let go, Monti told Plaintiff that “Ali was a thief.” (Id.). Plaintiff does not believe this to be true. (Id.). And Plaintiff also recalls that after he was terminated, Ali “came to see [Plaintiff], … told [Plaintiff] it was difficult to work with [ ] Monti … said that [Monti] does not like Indian people[, ] and suggested that [Plaintiff] get another job.” (Id.).

         Throughout Plaintiff's employment at Riverside, Soto always “took [ ] Monti's side” whenever Plaintiff complained about Monti. (FAC 13). Plaintiff told Soto that Monti was harassing him because he is Indian. (Id.). But Soto did not “protect[ ] [Plaintiff] from [Monti's] harassment.” (Id.). Instead, she terminated Plaintiff “at [Monti's] request, ” despite the fact that Plaintiff was good at his job. (Id.). Plaintiff believes that “they” (Monti and Soto, the Court assumes) terminated Plaintiff “because [ ] Monti did not like to work with Indians.” (Id.). Plaintiff also believes that he “was fired in retaliation for reporting [ ] Monti's discrimination.” (Id.).

         B. Procedural Background

         The thrust of Defendants' motion to dismiss is that Plaintiff cannot pursue his NYSHRL and NYCHRL claims here, because he already pursued them before the NYSDHR.[3] Addressing that argument requires the Court to compare the claims Plaintiff filed in his NYSDHR administrative action with the claims he raises in his First Amended Complaint. With that goal in mind, the Court considers how Plaintiff's NYSDHR action unfolded, then recounts the procedural history of his federal lawsuit.

         1. Plaintiff's NYSDHR Action

         On December 28, 2015, Plaintiff filed a complaint against Riverside with the NYSDHR. (NYSDHR Order 1).[4] Plaintiff alleged that Riverside had engaged in discrimination and retaliation because of Plaintiff's race, “color, ” and age, in violation of the NYSHRL. (Id.). The NYSDHR disagreed. After conducting an investigation into Plaintiff's claims, it determined that there existed no probable cause to conclude that Riverside had discriminated or retaliated against Plaintiff. (Id.).

         The NYSDHR reached that conclusion after reviewing the evidence and considering Plaintiff's arguments. Plaintiff had alleged that everyone at Riverside - including Riverside's “HR Director” - was “satisfied with his performance, except” for Monti. (NYSDHR Order 1). Monti, Plaintiff claimed, “never liked him.” (Id.). And Plaintiff attributed this to the fact that Riverside's CEO selected Plaintiff for his position at Riverside, and thus that Monti “did not personally hire” Plaintiff. (Id. at 1, 3).

         In his NYSDHR proceeding, Plaintiff complained about many of Monti's actions. Plaintiff alleged that Monti had forced him to work in Riverside's “boiler house” - an “unsafe environment” - for two years. (NYSDHR Order 1). And Plaintiff further claimed “that Monti [was] ‘very much against the Asian community.'” (Id. at 2). In support of this claim, Plaintiff informed the NYSDHR that Monti had fired Ali from Riverside. (Id.). Plaintiff also alleged that he had twice complained internally - once in November 2014 and again in February 2015 - about the discrimination he faced. (Id. at 3).

         But the NYSDHR did not find “sufficient evidence to establish an inference of discrimination” from the conduct Plaintiff alleged. (NYSDHR Order 3). In reaching this conclusion, the NYSDHR considered many of the incidents Plaintiff alleges in the First Amended Complaint. The NYSDHR addressed, for example, the changes in Plaintiff's work schedule in ...


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