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LeeHim v. New York City Department of Education

United States District Court, S.D. New York

November 21, 2017

RENEE LEEHIM, Plaintiff,

          OPINION & ORDER

          Paul A. Engelmayer United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Renee LeeHim brings this action against the New York City Department of Education ("DOE"), New York City Board of Education ("BOE"), and Carmen Farina as Chancellor of the New York City School District (collectively, "defendants"). LeeHim alleges discrimination on the basis of race and gender in violation of 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et. seq. ("Title VII"), the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y Exec. Law §§ 290 et seq. ("NYSHRL"), and the New York City Human Rights Law, N.Y. City Admin. Code §§ 8-101 et seq. ("NYCHRL").

         Defendants now move to dismiss all claims under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the reasons that follow, the Court dismisses plaintiff's complaint in its entirety.

         I. Background

         A. Facts[1]

         LeeHim, a black woman, was employed by defendants as Director of Capacity Building within the DOE's Office of Community Schools ("OCS") from September 15, 2015 until February 19, 2016. Compl. ¶¶ 1, 8. The OCS was created to implement the DOE's Community Schools Initiative, which aims to develop schools with robust social services such as afterschool programming, parent job training, student wellness assistance, and family engagement activities. Id. ¶¶ 12-13. The DOE, in turn, performs the administrative operations of the BOE, which is the government entity tasked with managing New York City's public school system. Id. ¶ 10.

         As Director of Capacity Building, LeeHim was a member of the eight-member leadership team atop the OCS, led by Executive Director Chris Caruso and Deputy Executive Director Sarah Jonas. Id. ¶¶ 14, 21. Among leadership team members, LeeHim was the only black woman and one of only two non-white members. Id. ¶¶ 1, 21. LeeHim felt a special affinity for the job as a result of her own experience as a student who was "tracked" into lower-level high school courses rather than the advanced courses offered mainly to white students. Id. ¶¶ 16, 23.

         Caruso and others made the decision to hire LeeHim. Id. ¶ 25. During the interview process, defendants represented that the position needed to be filled immediately. Id. ¶ 27. Yet within her first week of work, LeeHim was excluded from multiple meetings, "core work, " and "communication streams." Id. ¶¶ 27-28. In her third week, LeeHim was "shushed" by a white male peer while a white donor berated her over the phone in what she perceived to be an inappropriate manner. Id. ¶ 28. The same donor also chastised LeeHim the following week for being "too aggressive" and "young" to serve in her position, asking whom LeeHim knew to help her get hired. Id. After LeeHim apologized to the donor at Caruso's suggestion and generally expressed her desire for feedback and constructive criticism, Caruso described LeeHim as "not a team player" and "too aggressive." Id. ¶ 29. This, LeeHim alleges, was an example of defendants ascribing to her "the most insidious racial stereotypes and preconceived notions." Id.

         Several months later, during a meeting with the entire leadership team, LeeHim objected to the omission of the terms "equity, " "achievement, " and "student" from a draft of an OCS promotional document. Id. ¶ 31. When LeeHim challenged Caruso's reluctance to promote equity and diversity as priorities, Caruso responded with a "profane and angry tirade . .. including very personal attacks." Id. LeeHim fled the room in humiliation. Id.

         The complaint also alleges that LeeHim was a victim of wage discrimination. Id. ¶ 42a.[2]Along with Jonas, LeeHim was one of only two members of the leadership team with K-12 classroom teaching experience and an advanced degree in education. Id. ¶¶ 1, 24.[3]Nevertheless, she received "among one of the lower salaries" on the OCS leadership team. Id. ¶ 42a. According to the complaint, this pay gap is consistent with a "striking disparity" between DOE's payment of men and women at the same seniority level. Id.

         According to the complaint, as a result of the foregoing, LeeHim felt so suppressed, disrespected, and unwelcome as to force her to submit her resignation on February 1, 2016. Id. ¶¶ 1, 33. This resignation roughly coincided with the resignation of five other black women in middle- or high-ranking positions at the DOE. Id. ¶ 38. Since her resignation, LeeHim alleges, her position has been filled by others, "some or all" of whom are black. Id.

         B. Procedural History

         In July 2016, LeeHim filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). Id. ¶ 7. On February 23, 2017, the EEOC issued a right to sue letter. Id.

         On May 22, 2017, LeeHim filed the complaint in this action. Dkt. 2. On July 31, 2017, defendants moved to dismiss. Dkt. 14. On August 10, 2017, the Court issued an order notifying LeeHim that she could file an amended complaint as a matter of course by August 21, 2017, or choose to file an opposition to the motion to dismiss by the same date. Dkt. 17. Following two extensions, see Dkts. 19, 24, on September 25, 2017, LeeHim, having chosen not to amend, filed an opposition to the motion to dismiss. Dkt. 25. On October 13, 2017, defendants filed a reply. Dkt. 26.

         II. Applicable Legal Standards

         To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint must plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." BellAtl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A claim will only have "facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). A complaint is properly dismissed where, as a matter of law, "the allegations in a complaint, however true, could not raise a claim of entitlement to relief." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 558. For the purpose of resolving a motion to dismiss, the Court must assume all well-pleaded facts to be true, drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. See Koch, 699 F.3d at 145. That tenet, however, "is inapplicable to legal conclusions." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. A pleading that offers only "labels and conclusions" or "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         III. Discussion

         A. Pattern or Practice of Discrimination under Title VII

         The complaint purports to raise two federal causes of action: "Pattern or Practice of Discrimination" under Title VII, and "Discrimination against Plaintiff in Violation of Title VII." See Compl. ¶¶ 42b-46. Plaintiffs pursuing Title VII relief under a pattern-or-practice framework need establish only the existence of a discriminatory policy, rather than all elements of a prima facie case of discrimination. Chin v. PortAuth. OfN.Y. & N.J., 685 F.3d 135, 149 (2d Cir. 2012). But this framework is a method of proof, not a stand-alone cause of action, and it is "not available to private, nonclass plaintiffs." Id. As the Second Circuit has explained, an individual plaintiff may adduce evidence of an employer's general practice of discrimination to support her disparate treatment claim, but such evidence "cannot relieve the plaintiff of the need to establish each element of [her] claim." Id.

         Because LeeHim brings this action on an individual basis, she may not establish liability solely by proving the existence of a discriminatory policy. The Court therefore proceeds to analyze LeeHim's individual Title VII disparate impact claim without reference to the pattern-or-practice method of proof.

         B. Individual Discrimination on the Basis of Race and ...

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