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McPartlan-Hurson v. Westchester Community College

United States District Court, S.D. New York

June 21, 2018


          OPINION & ORDER

          NELSON S. ROMAN, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Mary J. McPartlan-Hurson ("Plaintiff) commenced this action against Defendants Westchester Community College ("WCC") and Westchester County (the "County") (collectively "Defendants") by filing a summons and complaint with this Court on April 12, 2013. (See ECF No. 1 (the "Complaint" or "Compl.").) Plaintiffs Complaint asserts causes of action grounded in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. ("Title VII") and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq. (the "ADA"). Plaintiff alleges that WCC discriminated against her on the basis of her race and disability when they denied her a diversity fellowship for the Fall 2009 semester and subsequently terminated her in December of 2009, and claims that her termination also amounted to retaliation. Presently before the Court is the Defendants' motion for summary judgment on the issue of exhaustion and on the merits of each claim ("Defendants' Motion"). (See Defendants Brief in Support of their motion for summary judgment ("Defs. Br.") (ECF No. 143).) For the following reasons, Defendants' Motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.


         Plaintiff, Mary McPartlan-Hurson, a Caucasian, disabled[2] woman, was hired as an adjunct professor in the English Department at WCC in 2004. (See Plf. Resp. ¶1.) Her position as an adjunct was terminated in December of 2009, after being denied a diversity fellowship for the Fall 2009 semester and reapplying for the fellowship again in October 2009 for the Spring 2010 semester. (Id. ¶95.)

         I. The Charges Before the EEOC

         On July 19, 2010, Plaintiff filed her first charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) for disability discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII and the ADA (the “Initial Charge”). (Defs. 56.1, Ex. AA.) In support of her Initial Charge, Plaintiff completed an EEOC Intake Questionnaire in which she complained that she was discriminated against when she was denied a diversity fellowship by WCC, which was instead awarded to recipients that were African American and not disabled. (See Sapri Decl., Ex. 37.) Plaintiff filed a second charge with the EEOC on March 25, 2011 to explicitly include a claim for racial discrimination, in addition to her disability discrimination and retaliation claims (the “Second Charge”). (See Plf. Resp. ¶96; Defs. 56.1, Ex. BB.) Plaintiff's Second Charge was entitled an “Amended Charge”and given the same charge No. as the Initial Charge. (Compare Defs. 56.1, Ex. AA with Ex. BB.) On July 20, 2012, the EEOC issued a determination and a finding of probable cause (the “July 20th Determination”) that Defendants had discriminated against her on the basis of race but not disability. (See Sapir Decl., Ex. 39.)

         Prior to issuing its July 20th Determination, the EEOC requested that Defendants provide evidence supporting their reasons for denying Plaintiff the diversity fellowship and terminating her. (Id.) Defendants provided no such documents. (Id.)

         II. Plaintiff's Employ at WCC

         Plaintiff was an adjunct for WCC for approximately 11 semesters. During her employ, Plaintiff taught two-to-three classes per semester in the English Department. (See Plf. Resp. ¶¶2, 5, 15; Defs. Cntr. ¶144.) In the Spring of 2006, Plaintiff applied for a full-time position. (See Defs. 56.1, Ex. A, at 60.) She enlisted the help of Maryanne Vent, the English Department's Adjunct Coordinator (“Vent”), to assist in her application. Vent supported Plaintiff's candidacy by writing a letter of recommendation (the “2006 Recommendation”). (Sapir Decl., Ex. 13.) Ultimately, Plaintiff was not chosen for a full-time position. (See Plf. Resp. ¶8.) In 2007, Plaintiff again applied for a full-time position, but her application was denied. (See Plf. Resp. ¶9.)

         During the Spring 2008 semester, Michael Downie, a male African American English professor, was denied tenure and terminated. (See Defs. Cntr. 1.) After his termination, Mr. Downie initiated a Title VII lawsuit against the school alleging that he was terminated due to race discrimination. (Id. ¶106.) Ultimately, the case was resolved by way of a settlement, (see Plf. Resp. ¶21), but there remained tension and unrest on campus, (Defs. Cntr. ¶109.) In the wake of Mr. Downie's firing and resulting lawsuit, the teachers in the English Department were fighting over whether his termination was merit-based or racially motivated. (See Defs. Cntr. ¶110.)

         In approximately Spring of 2008, shortly after Mr. Downie was denied tenure, Cynthia Robinson, an African American English adjunct, was hired for a full-time position. (Defs. Cntr. ¶102.) To promote her to this position, a “special line” was created by Frank Madden, Chairman of the English Department and Joseph Hankin, WCC's president, whereby she was hired outside “the usual channels” as an “affirmative action hire.” (Id.) Upon learning this information, Plaintiff, who had a cordial relationship with Vent insofar as they would speak over the telephone outside of work, (see Sapir Decl., Ex. 2 at 46-47; Defs. 56.1, Ex. 5), testified that she called Vent to relay her happiness that WCC was “doing the right thing” by promoting an adjunct to a full time position, (see Sapir Decl., Ex. 1 at 116.) During that conversation, Plaintiff contends she asked why Robinson was promoted when she was not and Vent replied that “she's got something you don't have . . . . she's black.” (Id. at 116-17; see also Plf. Resp. ¶34.) Defendants contend that this conversation happened in the inverse; that Plaintiff claimed Robinson had only been promoted “because she was black.” (Defs. Cntr. ¶103, Ex. G at 59.)

         In an effort to increase diversity among the faculty, WCC administrators created the Dr. Julius Ford Teaching Fellowship Program (the “Fellowship”) in 2009. (See Plf. Resp. ¶¶49-50.) The Fellowship was available to diverse adjunct professors who were interested in obtaining fulltime positions at the school, (id. ¶¶50-51; Defs. Cntr. ¶114), and was “designed to assist individuals, in particular from underrepresented groups, ” (see Sapir Decl., Ex. 19.)

         On January 23, 2009, Plaintiff contacted Vent to discuss her interest in applying for the Fellowship.[3] (Defs. 56.1, Ex. K.) In response, Vent noted her interest in Plaintiff's application and becoming involved in the committee. (Id.) In January of 2009, Plaintiff submitted an application for the Fall ‘09 Fellowship and Vent authorized Plaintiff to use the 2006 Recommendation in support thereof. (See Sapir Decl., Ex. 1 at 237, 274; Ex. 2 at 192-93; Ex. 21.) In March of 2009, Plaintiff was interviewed as part of the application process. (Defs. Cntr. ¶122.) The Co-directors of the Fellowship, Melissa Acevedo (“Acevedo”) and Donald Whitely (“Whitely”) believed Plaintiff's application to be strong. (Id. ¶123.)

         On April 8, 2009, Acevedo emailed certain division heads and department chairs regarding candidates for the Fall ‘09 Fellowship. (Plf. 56.1 ¶57; Defs. Cntr. ¶120.) Her email detailed a list of five adjunct professors who were being recommended as fellows including two adjuncts from the English Department, one of whom was Plaintiff. (Plf. 56.1 ¶58; see also Sapir Decl., Ex. 22.) Acevedo asked the department chairs and division heads to comment on the adjuncts' candidacies, in particular “whether or not [they felt] that the candidate should be selected to participate in the program.” (Plf. 56.1 ¶57; see also Sapir Decl., Ex. 22.) Jianping Wang[4] forwarded Acevedo's request to the following members of the English Department, asking for their input: Madden, Heather Ostman (Assistant Chair), and Vent. (Id.)

         Vent and Ostman responded to the requests for comment the very same day. (Plf. 56.1 ¶¶59-61.) Madden did not provide his comments on the subject. (Id. ¶62; Defs. Cntr. 124.) Vent's response recommended Plaintiff for the Fellowship, by noting that Plaintiff was an effective teacher of basic writing and:

provides students with structure, basic skills, and a great deal of practice writing. This means a great deal of work for her, but she does what is best for students. As a disable person, she is a good role model for her classes. That fact, along with her work ethic, makes her a strong candidate for the fellowship.

(Sapir Decl., Ex. 23.) Ostman, on the other hand, equivocated on Plaintiff's candidacy. (Plf. 56.1¶¶60-61.) Specifically, Ostman wrote, “I think there are reasons to support [Plaintiff] and reasons not to support her.” (See Sapir Decl., Ex. 24.) She continued:

[o]n the one hand, she is very present to the college and very much wants to work here. On the other, my communication with her suggests she may be one of the most unforgiving teachers I have ever met. She often suggests that our students are quite incapable, an attitude that can often create a self-fulfilling prophecy in the classroom. Since the Fellowship program's intent is to prepare their fellows for possible full time employment, I have reservations about [Plaintiff]. On the other hand, she may well benefit from a mentor.

(Id.) Though Madden did not respond to Wang's email for comment, he testified that he initially agreed with Vent. (See Defs. Cntr. ¶124, Ex. II at 230-31.) His opinion on the subject later changed as he, Vent, and Ostman met to discuss Plaintiff in “a very evaluative way.” (Id.)

         On April 9, 2009, Acevedo sent another email to members of the Fellowship Committee; Chet Rogalski (former Vice President and Dean of Academic affairs), Whitely, and Vernon Huff.[5](See Defs. 56.1, Ex. N.) The email listed five fellows “that ha[d] received departmental approval” for the Fall ‘09 Fellowship; Plaintiff was no longer on the list, [6] (id.), and was not selected to receive the Fall ‘09 Fellowship, (Plf. Resp. ¶67; Defs. 56.1, Ex. R.) Plaintiff received her rejection in May of 2009. (Sapir Decl., Ex. 1 at 254-55.) Shortly thereafter, she was walking to Ostman's office to discuss a grade change for one of her students and ran into Whitely. (Id.) She testified that Whitely informed her that she had actually been chosen for the Fall ‘09 Fellowship but that her “department or the administration had pulled [her] name.” (Id.) Plaintiff then went to Ostman's office and relayed her conversation with Whitely, and Ostman said that all she knew was that Wang had asked her to recommend “two people of color . . . for the fellowship.” (Id. at 254.) Plaintiff contends that this caused her to reassess the reason she was rejected for the Fellowship. (Id. at 254-55.)[7]

         After obtaining this information from Ostman, Plaintiff called Vent and relayed her conversations with Whitely and Ostman. (Defs. Cntr. ¶169.) During that conversation, Plaintiff complained to Vent that she believed she was denied the Fall ‘09 Fellowship because she was disabled and not a person of color. (Id.; Sapir Decl., Ex. 1 at 316.) When asked whether she recalled Plaintiff having that conversation with her, Vent stated that it “sounds like something [Plaintiff] might have said, but I don't recall that.” (See Sapir Decl., Ex. 2 at 312.)

         Though she did not receive the Fall ‘09 Fellowship, Plaintiff applied for the Spring 2010 Fellowship. (Defs. Cntr. ¶¶131-32.) To be considered for the Spring ‘10 Fellowship, candidates had to have departmental approval and be scheduled to teach in the Spring. (Defs. Cntr. ¶128.) On October 29, 2009, Plaintiff emailed Vent, Madden, and Ostman informing them that she had left a copy of her Spring ‘10 application at each of their offices and requested that they give her department approval for the Fellowship. (See Sapir Decl., Ex. 30.) Ostman then removed Plaintiff from the email chain and wrote directly to Vent and Madden suggesting that they “talk about this together before” responding. (Id.) In response, Vent wrote “I don't want to sabotage her application, but I'm getting a little tired of this after hearing her story over and over.” (Id.)

         III. Plaintiff's Termination and the Reasoning Therefor

         Vent, Madden, and Ostman all testified that the decision to fire Plaintiff resulted from a series of student and colleague complaints that they discussed in a meeting during the Fall 2009 semester. (See Plf. Resp. ¶75; see also Sapir Decl., Ex. 2 at 103.)

         According to Vent, during the Spring 2009 semester, Plaintiff was not an effective teacher of basic writing and did not do what was best for her students. (See Plf. Resp. ¶¶79-80.)[8]Moreover, Vent claimed that she had heard multiple student complaints regarding Plaintiff's personality and behavior, though she admitted that she had never received such complaints personally; they were all received by Madden and relayed to her. (See Sapir Decl., Ex. 2 at 94, 134.) These complaints had been ongoing “every semester for three or four semesters” prior to their decision not to rehire Plaintiff. (Id. at 134.) Though Vent originally found Plaintiff to be “congenial and pleasant, ” by the time she made the decision to terminate her, she “found her to be more abrasive . . . harping on who got a job, who didn't; harping on conspiracies about who's trying to keep her from getting this fellowship.” (Id. at 212; Defs. Cntr. ¶170.)

         Madden testified specifically about two student complaints that he had received. (See Sapir Decl., Ex. 3 at 36.) The remaining complaints were general and received from third parties. (Id.) Madden also testified that whenever he received student complaints, he followed a regimented approach to resolving them, the first step of which was to ask the students to address their concerns with the professor directly. (See Id. at 15-18.) If the particular student did not return to complain further, he considered the dispute resolved. (Id. at 16.) In both instances where students complained about Plaintiff, Madden could not recall writing to her regarding the complaints (id. at 19-20), and assumed the disputes were resolved when he had not heard from the students again after sending them to speak with Plaintiff directly, (id. at 30, 33.) Despite Vent's testimony to the contrary, Madden testified that Vent had discussed student complaints with him that she had personally received. (Id. at 37.)

         Ostman testified that she had received complaints that Plaintiff was excessively talkative, though she admitted that she had never witnessed such behavior for herself. (Plf. Resp. ¶¶22-23.) She also claimed not to be surprised when she heard about student complaints because she knew Plaintiff to be abrasive, though she “sort or assumed it[ was] . . . a Bronx thing.” (See Sapir Decl., Ex. 4 at 30.) Ostman further testified that Madden expressed reluctance to rehiring Plaintiff for the Spring 2010 semester because her performance was a “problem that [they] were trying to head off” insofar as she had a No. of “little things”, such as her personality and student complaints, that became difficult. (Id. at 62, 65.)

         Toward the end of 2009, Vent, Ostman, and Madden had a meeting to discuss whether to rehire Plaintiff for the Spring 2010 semester, in light of the above referenced student and colleague complaints. (Plf. Resp. ¶¶ 75-80.) Following that meeting, Vent made a decision to terminate Plaintiff which resulted from a “history of problems”, (see Defs. 56.1, Ex. X), ultimately leading Vent to the conclusion that Plaintiff “was just too much of a liability and [she] made the final decision not to rehire her, ” (see Defs. Br. at 3 n.2; Plf. Resp. ¶¶75-82.) In December of 2009, this decision was communicated to Plaintiff. (Defs. Cntr. ¶135; Plf. Resp. ¶84.) Specifically, Plaintiff received a call from Vent on December 17, 2009 informing her that WCC had no classes for her to teach in the Spring of 2010. (Defs. Cntr. ¶135.)[9] On December 19, 2009, Plaintiff sent an email to Whitely stating that she had “received [her] answer . . . [regarding her Spring ‘10 application] in the form of a phone call . . . informing [her] that not only was [she] not getting the Fellowship but [she] was, in fact, fired.”[10] (Defs. 56.1, Ex. U.)

         Despite having already been informed that she would not be rehired for the Spring 2010 semester, Plaintiff contacted Wang to inquire into the status of her Spring ‘10 Fellowship application. (See Defs. 56.1, Ex. V.) Also included on this email were Acevedo, Rogalski, Vent, Ostman, Madden, Whitely, and Hankin. (Id.) Thereafter, Rogalski contacted Vent, Madden, and Ostman to ascertain whether they intended to rehire Plaintiff for the Spring 2010 semester, so the Fellowship committee could consider her application. (See Defs. 56.1, Ex. X.) Madden responded on December 21, 2009 by informing Rogalski that Plaintiff had a history of problems, was “hostile”, and that the English department had “believed it best to cut [its] ties now.” (Id.) Vent agreed that Madden's description of Plaintiff was accurate. (See Defs. 56.1, Ex. X.)

         Defendants now argue that no material facts exist on any of Plaintiff's claims, warranting summary judgment in their favor on each cause of action.


         Pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows 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). The moving party bears the initial burden of pointing to evidence in the record, “including depositions, documents . . . [and] affidavits or declarations, ” see Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A), “which it believes demonstrate[s] the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, ” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The moving party may support an assertion that there is no genuine dispute of a particular fact by “showing . . . that [the] adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(B). If the moving party fulfills its preliminary burden, the onus shifts to the nonmoving party to raise the existence of a genuine issue of material fact. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986).

         A genuine dispute of material fact exists when “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; accord Gen. Star Nat'l Ins. Co. v. Universal Fabricators, Inc., 585 F.3d 662, 669 (2d Cir. 2009); Roe v. City of Waterbury, 542 F.3d 31, 35 (2d Cir. 2008); Benn v. Kissane, 510 Fed.Appx. 34, 36 (2d Cir. 2013) (summary order). Courts must “draw all rational inferences in the non-movant's favor, ” while reviewing the record. Kirkland v. Cablevision Sys., 760 F.3d 223, 224 (2d Cir. 2014) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). Importantly, “the judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, ” nor is it to determine a witness's credibility. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249; see also Kaytor v. Elec. Boat Corp., 609 F.3d 537, 545 (2d Cir. 2010). Rather, “the inquiry performed is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is the need for a trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. Summary judgment should be granted when a party “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

         Critically, in an opposition to a motion for summary judgment “[s]tatements that are devoid of any specifics, but replete with conclusions” will not suffice. Bickerstaff v. Vassar Coll.,196 F.3d 435, 452 (2d Cir. 1999); see also Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp.,475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986) (nonmoving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts”); FDIC v. Great Am. Ins. Co.,607 F.3d 288, 292 (2d Cir. 2010) (nonmoving party “may ...

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