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Weir v. Montefiore Medical Center

United States District Court, S.D. New York

February 22, 2018




         For three months, Plaintiff Nicholas Weir worked as a research technician in a lab at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. His employment was contingent upon successful completion of this probationary period, but at the end of the period, he was terminated. Plaintiff now brings claims against Montefiore Medical Center, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Yeshiva University (collectively, “Defendants”), under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17, the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. Law §§ 290 to 297 (“NYSHRL”), and the New York City Human Rights Law, N.Y. City Admin. Code §§ 8-101 to 8-131 (“NYCHRL”). Plaintiff's Amended Complaint alleges that he had acrimonious interactions with other members of the lab; that Defendants impermissibly retaliated against him; and that he was wrongfully terminated. Defendants move to dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint on the basis that he has not plausibly pleaded an inference of discriminatory motivation. Because the Court agrees with Defendants, the motion is granted.


         A. Factual Background

         Plaintiff is “a male with a dark complexion from Jamaica.” (Am. Compl. ¶ 1). On December 7, 2015, Plaintiff was hired to be a research technician in the lab of Dr. Evripidis Gavathiotis at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (“AECOM”), and he began working there on December 28, 2015. (Id. at ¶¶ 2-3). Plaintiff was given several versions of an offer letter from AECOM, all of which provided that he would begin with a 90-day “probationary period, ” during which time both Plaintiff and AECOM retained the option of terminating his employment. (Pl. Decl., Doc. 1).[2]

         At the time of his hire, Plaintiff was the only research technician in the lab, and he was the only lab employee of Caribbean descent. (Am. Compl. ¶ 4).[3] Plaintiff assisted Dr. Gavathiotis and others in the lab; by his second week, Dr. Gavathiotis asked Plaintiff to work overtime “because [Plaintiff] had a good work ethic and was ‘extremely motivated.'” (Id. at ¶¶ 5-6).[4] In the early weeks of his employment, Plaintiff “regularly received positive reviews, ” and, by “mid-January 2016, [Dr.] Gavathiotis and other researchers working in the [l]ab began compl[i]menting [Plaintiff] on his work ethic and ability.” (Id. at ¶ 7; see also Id. at ¶ 8). By late January 2016, Dr. Gavathiotis told Plaintiff he wanted Plaintiff to work in his lab for “a couple of years.” (Id. at ¶ 9).

         But then, by Plaintiff's telling, things changed for the worse. Later in January 2016, “[Dr.] Gavathiotis and other researchers in the lab started harassing [Plaintiff] and treating him differently than other employees.” (Am. Compl. ¶ 10). For example, Onyinyeckukwu Uchime, an M.D./Ph.D. student, “began coming to the lab more often and harassing [Plaintiff]”; she questioned Plaintiff's lab results even though these same results had been praised by Dr. Gavathiotis and others. (Id.). Plaintiff alleges that as Ms. Uchime asked Plaintiff about these lab results, she spoke to him in such an “elevated” tone of voice that workers in an adjacent lab “could hear her scolding [Plaintiff].” (Pl. Opp. 5). Ms. Uchime would become angry when Plaintiff borrowed her lab equipment, but she would not react angrily to other employees who borrowed her equipment. (Am. Compl. ¶ 11; see also Pl. Opp. 5 (“She was spitefully nasty to me for borrowing her equipment but would not get annoyed when other lab members borrowed her lab equipment.”)).

         “Around this time[, ] [Plaintiff] was forced to move from his regular work station, ” and he became the only researcher in the lab without a regular work area. (Am. Compl. ¶ 11). It is not clear from the Amended Complaint whether Plaintiff's move from his work station happened because of his disagreements with Ms. Uchime or was merely coincidental. Plaintiff alleges in his opposition brief that he initially sat at a desk previously occupied by a lab worker named Dennis; when Dennis returned to the lab, Plaintiff moved to a desk previously occupied by Ms. Uchime. After Ms. Uchime returned to the lab, and after Plaintiff's interactions with her escalated, he moved back to Dennis's desk, but if Dennis needed the desk, Plaintiff was left with no workstation. (Pl. Opp. 5).

         Plaintiff further alleges that in late February 2016, Dr. Gavathiotis failed to tell Plaintiff about a “lecture he was giving to people in the [l]ab.” (Am. Compl. ¶ 12). Other lab members were invited. (Pl. Opp. 7). And Plaintiff states that his colleagues at some point asked him “which country [he] was from”; he contends that while “it may appear[] to be a simple and amicable question, one cannot definitively conclude there wasn't any motive behind such a question.” (Id. at 5-6).

         By late February 2016, Dr. Gavathiotis “began coming up with different reasons for terminating [Plaintiff].” (Am. Compl. ¶ 13). Despite having personally hired Plaintiff, Dr. Gavathiotis “stated that he was looking for someone with different experience than [Plaintiff].” (Id.). Plaintiff alleges that Dr. Gavathiotis told Plaintiff that he needed someone who had experience working with mice - even though he knew at the time of hiring that Plaintiff had no such experience. (Pl. Opp. 8). Shortly thereafter, Dr. Gavathiotis told Plaintiff that he “didn't fit in” at the lab and that “other lab members did not trust [Plaintiff].” (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 14, 16). Dr. Gavathiotis was “visibly angry” as he said this. (Pl. Opp. 8). Dr. Gavathiotis told Plaintiff that a lab worker named Xiomaris - with whom Plaintiff believed he had a productive working relationship - had complained about him. (Id. at 6). Plaintiff alleges that this complaint was fabricated. (Id.). After this, Plaintiff began working with Dr. Biris, who, Plaintiff claims, was “very impressed that [Plaintiff] obtained good results on [his] first attempts on mostly [his] own.” (Id.). Plaintiff adds that Pavlos, another lab member, had been “unable to get positive results.” (Id.).

         Dr. Gavathiotis then began to give Plaintiff mixed signals: In late February 2016, he told Plaintiff that the lab would be able to fund Plaintiff's position until the end of March 2016 (Am. Compl. ¶ 17); a few days later, he told Plaintiff that Plaintiff's last day in the lab would be March 4, 2016, but that he could return to the lab as a volunteer (id. at ¶ 18).[5] On March 3, 2016, Plaintiff went to AECOM's Human Resources (“HR”) Department “to report the treatment he was experiencing.” (Id. at ¶ 19).[6] There, he spoke with Anna Gartner, an HR specialist, who informed him that “he could not be fired ‘without a legitimate reason.'” (Id. at ¶ 20). Plaintiff returned to the lab after his meeting with Ms. Gartner, at which time Dr. Gavathiotis “told him to pack up his things and [ ] leave.” (Id. at ¶ 21). Plaintiff contends that he asked for time to complete a project but was escorted out by security. (Pl. Opp. 8). Plaintiff takes pains to note that Dr. Gavathiotis is not “a racist, ” but that “the big guys upstairs and money [] got the best of Dr. Gavathiotis.” (Pl. Opp. 7). Plaintiff alleges that “these influences … brought the ugly out of Dr. Gavathiotis[, ] which ultimately resulted in the changes and discrimination [Plaintiff] experienced.” (Id.). A few days after his termination, Plaintiff emailed Robert Cancellieri, AECOM's Director of HR. (Am. Compl. ¶ 22). Mr. Cancellieri responded that Plaintiff “was fired because he did not pass his probation[ary] period.” (Id.). Plaintiff's opposition brief makes a series of factual allegations that largely echo those in his Amended Complaint. (See Pl. Opp. 3-9). More detail is provided, however, concerning “the big guys upstairs, ” and the true reasons for Plaintiff's termination at AECOM. Plaintiff alleges that he has been the subject of various reprisals from the City University of New York (“CUNY”), where he attended college, and the State of New York - both of which have conspired to coerce Plaintiff to enlist in the military. (Id. at 3). Plaintiff alleges that he has “been monitored and stalked daily since around October 2015” and, indeed, believes that New York state agencies were aware of his job at AECOM. (Id. at 3-4). As but one example, Plaintiff noticed that he was being “stalked/monitored by state agencies” when he would leave the lab in the evenings. (Id. at 4). Plaintiff went so far as to file a claim in the New York Court of Claims in 2015, but has been “unable to get any impartial judge at the state level.” (Id. at 3).[7]

         When Plaintiff spoke with Ms. Gartner in HR on March 2, 2016, he explained his “lab situation and that it was due to my ongoing court case against CUNY and the State of New York[.]” (Pl. Opp. 7-8). Plaintiff attempted to tell Ms. Gartner more about this court case the next day, but “she asked [Plaintiff] to stop telling her [about his] court case, ” and as soon as he returned to the lab, he was terminated. (Id. at 8).

         At a pre-motion conference with the parties, the Court questioned Plaintiff about his claims in order to gain a clearer understanding of the alleged discrimination. When asked to explain what “led [Plaintiff] to believe that [he was] subject to discrimination, ” Plaintiff responded that “discrimination was just a, it was a miniscule of the core reason why [he] was terminated.” (Dkt. #25-4 (“Conf. Tr.”) 26:12-21). Instead, Plaintiff explained, he was terminated because of the lawsuit he had filed in the New York Court of Claims against CUNY and the State of New York. (Id. at 26:12-28:21).


         For the first time, Plaintiff alleges in his opposition brief that his compensation was reduced a few days after he began working in the lab. (Pl. Opp. 4). He reached out to the administrator of the Biochemistry Department to inquire about “some mysterious words on [his] first paystub” and about certain hours that were missing. (Id.). Plaintiff states that, while he did not get an explanation for this discrepancy, the missing hours were subsequently added back. (Id. at 5).

         B. Procedural History

         Plaintiff initiated this suit on December 20, 2016. (Dkt. #2). On April 20, 2017, Defendant requested leave to file a motion to dismiss (Dkt. #13), and the Court held a pre-motion conference on May 4, 2017 (Dkt. #19). The Court granted Plaintiff leave to amend his complaint (id.), and he filed the Amended Complaint on July 6, 2017 (Dkt. #20). Defendants then moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint on August 18, 2017. (Dkt. #23). Plaintiff filed an opposition brief and a declaration in support of his opposition on October 4, 2017. (Dkt. #28-29). This motion became fully briefed when Defendants filed their reply brief on October 18, 2017. (Dkt. #30). On November 14, 2017, Plaintiff filed a letter with the Court asking for leave to amend his complaint once more and for the matter to proceed to discovery. (Dkt. #32). The Court addresses this request below.


         A. Motions to Dismiss Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6)

         When considering a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a court should “draw all reasonable inferences in Plaintiff['s] favor, assume all well-pleaded factual allegations to be true, and determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Faber v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 648 F.3d 98, 104 (2d Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). Thus, “[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly,550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). While this plausibility requirement “is not akin to a probability requirement … it asks for more ...

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