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Meagher v. State University Construction Fund

United States District Court, N.D. New York

June 21, 2018

TERESE MEAGHER, Plaintiff,
v.
STATE UNIVERSITY CONSTRUCTION FUND; ROBERT HAELEN, in his official and individual capacities; and JOANNE Di STEFANO, in her official and individual capacities, Defendants.

          THOMAS R. FALLATI, ESQ. TABNER, RYAN & KENIRY, LLP Counsel for Plaintiff

          BRIAN W. MATULA, ESQ. Assistant Attorney General HON. BARBARA UNDERWOOD Attorney General for the State of New York Counsel for Defendants

          PATRICK J. FITZGERALD III, ESQ. GIRVIN & FERLAZZO, P.C. Co-Counsel for Defendants

          DECISION AND ORDER

          HON. GLENN T. SUDDABY CHIEF U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Currently before the Court, in this civil rights action filed by Terese Meagher (“Plaintiff”) against the State University Construction Fund (“SUCF”), Robert Haelen, and Joanne Di Stefano (collectively “Defendants”) pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and the New York State Human Rights Law codified at N.Y. Exec. L. § 296 (“NYSHRL”), is Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). (Dkt. No. 10.) For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND

         A. Plaintiff's Complaint

         Generally, liberally construed, Plaintiff's Complaint asserts seven causes of action. (Dkt. No. 1 [Pl.'s Compl.].) First, Plaintiff claims that Defendant SUCF engaged in discrimination related to the terms and conditions of her employment on account of her gender by subjecting her to a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII (“First Claim”). (Id. at ¶¶ 111-13.) Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that SUCF, through its employees, Haelen and Di Stefano, created a hostile work environment by failing to accommodate her request to return to an 80-percent workweek, expressing disapproval over her use of time off to leave early on certain Tuesdays and Thursdays, and making hostile and demeaning statements to Plaintiff, including statements regarding her parenting needs. (Id. at ¶¶ 48-72, 75.)

         Second, Plaintiff claims that SUCF retaliated against her for engaging in protected activity in violation of Title VII (“Second Claim”). (Id. at ¶¶ 114-16.) Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that, after she submitted an oral complaint to the human resources department regarding the hostile and bullying conduct to which Di Stefano subjected her, (a) she was told that there were performance issues with her work, (b) she was told that all her communications with SUCF staff had to go through Di Stefano, (c) Di Stefano excluded her from meetings in which she had historically participated, (d) Di Stefano removed work assignments from her, (e) Di Stefano failed to respond to multiple requests for time out of the office, and (f) SUCF failed to conduct a timely investigation or otherwise prevent continuing conduct. (Id. at ¶¶ 74-92.)

         Third, Plaintiff claims that Haelen and Di Stefano deprived her of her rights pursuant to the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment through the following actions: (a) they discriminated against her on account of her gender and family status, and (b) Haelen failed to supervise or train Di Stefano related to that discriminatory conduct (“Third Claim”). (Id. at ¶¶ 117-21.)

         Fourth, Plaintiff claims that Haelen and Di Stefano retaliated against her in violation of the First Amendment after she engaged in protected speech through reports about (a) SUCF's non-compliance with a policy adopted by its Board of Trustees (the “1999 Resolution”) regarding compensation for working excessive hours, (b) the aforementioned conduct directed at her by Di Stefano, (c) Di Stefano's violations of SUCF's anti-bullying policy, and (d) SUCF's non-compliance with its own procedures. (Id. at ¶¶ 122-25.) Plaintiff additionally alleges that Haelen failed to supervise or train Di Stefano related to that retaliatory conduct (“Fourth Claim”). (Id. at ¶ 125.)

         Fifth, Plaintiff claims that Haelen and Di Stefano deprived her of her rights under the substantive Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by arbitrarily and capriciously denying her compensation credit for excessive time worked pursuant to the 1999 Resolution, alleging also that she held a property interest in receiving such credit for excessive time (“Fifth Claim”). (Id. at ¶¶ 127-29.)

         Sixth, Plaintiff claims that Haelen and Di Stefano engaged in discrimination related to the terms and conditions of her employment on account of her gender and family status by subjecting her to a hostile work environment in violation of the NYSHRL based on the same conduct underlying her discrimination claim pursuant to Title VII (“Sixth Claim”). (Id. at ¶¶ 130-32.)

         Seventh, Plaintiff claims that Haelen and Di Stefano retaliated against her for engaging in protected activity in violation of the NYSHRL based on the same conduct underlying her retaliation claim pursuant to Title VII (“Seventh Claim”). (Id. at 133-35.)

         B. Parties' Briefing on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss

         1. Defendants' Memorandum of Law

         Generally, Defendants move to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint for seven reasons. (Dkt. No. 10, Attach. 1 at 6-25 [Defs.' Mem. of Law].) First, Defendants argue that Plaintiff's claim for gender discrimination based on a hostile work environment pursuant to Title VII should be dismissed because she has not alleged conduct related to her gender that rose to the level of a hostile work environment. (Id. at 6-11.) More specifically, Defendants argue that Plaintiff does not include any allegations that Defendants remarked on her gender specifically or treated her differently than male employees, but that her allegations show that conduct by Defendants was related to factors such as her schedule, requests for time off, work performance, and compensation. (Id. 8-10.)

         Second, Defendants argue that Plaintiff's claim for retaliation pursuant to Title VII should be dismissed because she has not alleged that she was engaged in protected activity. (Id. at 11-13.) More specifically, Defendants argue that, although Plaintiff alleges that she reported to Haelen and SUCF that Di Stefano acted hostilely towards her and “bullied” her, she did not allege that she reported that this conduct was motivated by discriminatory animus because she was a woman. (Id. at 12.)

         Third, Defendants argue that Plaintiff's claim for gender discrimination pursuant to the Equal Protection Clause should be dismissed because she has not identified any similarly situated individuals but rather has provided insufficient generalized statements made “upon information and belief” that do not identify any specific attributes of comparable employees from which this Court can determine whether those individuals were similarly situated to Plaintiff. (Id. at 13-15.) Further, to the extent Plaintiff's claim is based on gender, Defendants argue that this claim should be dismissed for the same reasons that her Title VII claim should be dismissed because the same analytical framework is applicable to both claims. (Id. at 16.) To the extent Plaintiff's claim is based on familial status, Defendants argue that (a) Plaintiff's status as a parent is not a protected class under federal law, and (b) she has failed to identify any individual who has children and who was treated more favorably. (Id. at 17.)

         Fourth, Defendants argue that Plaintiff's retaliation claim pursuant to the First Amendment should be dismissed because her reports of allegedly discriminatory and hostile conduct were related to matters of private (rather than public) concern that were directed to her supervisors and human resources personnel and are therefore not entitled to protection in light of her status as a public employee. (Id. at 18-20.)

         Fifth, Defendants argue that Plaintiff's substantive due process claim pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment should be dismissed because she has not alleged facts plausibly suggesting that (a) the actions taken to deny her credit for excessive work time were unique to Defendants' role as a governmental entity, or (b) the conduct at issue was outrageous or egregious. (Id. at 21-22.)

         Sixth, Defendants argue that claims for discrimination and retaliation based on gender and familial status pursuant to the NYSHRL should be dismissed because Plaintiff has not alleged sufficient facts to state a claim. (Id. at 22-25.) As to Plaintiff's claims based on gender, Defendants argue that these claims should be dismissed for the same reasons that her Title VII claims should be dismissed because the same analytical framework is applicable to both claims. (Id. at 22-23.) As to Plaintiff's claims based on familial status, Defendants argue that, although familial status was added as a protected category under the NYSHRL in January 2016, the NYSHRL does not impose an obligation on employers to make accommodations to allow employees to care for their children and does not require the Court to consider incidents occurring before familial status was added as a protected category. (Id. at 23-25.) Defendants argue that Plaintiff has alleged not that she was treated differently from other similarly situated individuals based on her status as a parent, but that she was denied accommodations to care for her children. (Id. at 23-24.)

         Seventh, and last, Defendants argue that, if the Court dismisses all of Plaintiff's federal law claims but does not dismiss her state law claims, the Court should decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over those remaining state law claims. (Id. at 25.)

         2. Plaintiff's Opposition Memorandum of Law

         Generally, Plaintiff asserts six arguments in opposition to Defendants' motion. (Dkt. No. 12, at 10-30 [Pl.'s Opp'n Mem. of Law].) First, Plaintiff argues that she has sufficiently pled a valid gender discrimination claim under Title VII because her Complaint sufficiently alleges (a) discriminatory intent and (b) a hostile work environment. (Id. at 10-22.) As to her allegations of discriminatory intent, Plaintiff argues that she has sufficiently plead a Title VII claim pursuant to a “gender plus” theory by alleging that she was a woman with children. (Id. at 10-15.) Plaintiff further argues that her allegations in the Complaint that Di Stefano and Haelen questioned her ability to perform her job based on her status as a mother, along with their sudden criticism of her work performance after years of positive performance reviews and their retaliatory response to her human resources complaint, are sufficient to plead that Defendants acted with discriminatory intent. (Id. at 15-19.) As to her allegations of a hostile work environment, Plaintiff argues that a hostile work environment has been plausibly suggested by the facts alleged, including (a) the duration of the conduct (from the summer of 2015 through June 2016), (b) the consistent and ongoing nature of the humiliating statements and conduct to which she was subjected, and (c) the interference with her ability to conduct her work and the psychological harm she suffered as a result of the objectionable conduct. (Id. at 20-22.)

         Second, Plaintiff argues that she has pled a valid retaliation claim under Title VII because (a) her complaints to her supervisors and the human resources department did not need to explicitly mention discrimination or use specific language in order to constitute protected activity, and (b) SUCF, Haelen, and Di Stefano all had notice of the protected conduct based on her statements to them and to human resources personnel. (Id. at 22-24.)

         Third, Plaintiff argues that she has pled a valid gender discrimination claim under the Equal Protection Clause for the same reasons that she has pled valid discrimination/hostile work environment and retaliation claims. (Id. at 25.)

         Fourth, Plaintiff argues that she has pled a valid retaliation claim under the First Amendment because (a) her statements addressing SUCF's compliance with the 1999 Resolution (which was applicable to all management confidential employees) and Di Stefano's non-compliance with SUCF's procedures (which implicated compensation and working conditions of fund employees) were related to matters of public concern, and (b) her statements were not made as part of her official duties. (Id. at 25-27.) Plaintiff also argues that the mere fact that she made the relevant statements to her supervisors is not a basis for restricting her First Amendment rights. (Id. at 27.)

         Fifth, Plaintiff argues that she has pled a valid substantive due process claim under the Fourteenth Amendment because the Complaint sufficiently alleges that Defendants' decision to deprive her of her rights pursuant to the 1999 Resolution was intentional and arbitrary, particularly given that Defendants did not offer any rationale for that decision. (Id. at 27-29.)

         Sixth, Plaintiff argues that she has pled valid claims under the NYSHRL for several reasons. (Id. at 29-30.) More specifically, Plaintiff argues that (a) the allegations in the Complaint plausibly suggest a hostile work environment, (b) the Complaint's reference to numerous instances in which Defendants mentioned Plaintiff's familial status in connection with the relevant hostile conduct plausibly suggests a discriminatory ...


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