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Watton v. County of Rockland

United States District Court, S.D. New York

July 27, 2018

MINDY WATTON, Plaintiff,
v.
COUNTY OF ROCKLAND, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Vincent L. Briccetti United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Mindy Watton brings this action against defendant the County of Rockland, alleging gender discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) and the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”). Plaintiff also brings a Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

         Now pending before the Court is the County's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. #42).

         For the following reasons, the motion is GRANTED.

         The Court has subject matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1367.

         BACKGROUND

         The parties have submitted briefs, declarations with exhibits, and statements of material fact pursuant to Local Civil Rule 56.1, which reflect the following factual background.

         A. County Clerk's Office

         Plaintiff worked in the County Clerk's Office from February 1994 through approximately November 2011. On July 19, 2011, the County issued plaintiff a disciplinary charge of Gross Misconduct for “dereliction of duty and insubordination.” (Weissman Decl. Ex. P at ¶ 31[1]). The County suspended plaintiff, effective the following day. Plaintiff and the County entered into a stipulation in which plaintiff consented to a temporary assignment in the County Department of Social Services (“DSS”), with the intention of establishing her as a permanent employee there pursuant to a future legislative resolution. Pursuant to the stipulation, plaintiff did not admit or deny the validity of the disciplinary charges, and the County agreed to withdraw the charges with prejudice. The County also put plaintiff on probation for one year.

         B. CAMS Unit

         Plaintiff began working as a Principal Records Clerk in the Cash Management System (“CAMS”) Unit at the County DSS in January 2012. The CAMS Unit, which was responsible for recovering money owed to DSS, consisted of Bruce Machlis, the Collections Assistant; plaintiff; and Lewis Jefferies, the Director of Compliance and Resource Recovery and Machlis's and plaintiff's supervisor. Carol Barbash, Machlis's ex-wife, was DSS's Director of Legal Services and Deputy Commissioner of Social Services. Beginning in December 2012, plaintiff and Machlis shared an office.

         On June 29, 2013, plaintiff attended a Rockland Boulders minor league baseball game with her husband and their son. Machlis and his wife also separately attended the Boulders game. Machlis, plaintiff, and their spouses became involved in a confrontation. Machlis chronicled the incident in a letter to Jefferies the following week. In the letter, Machlis claimed plaintiff told his wife he “kissed her in the office” and said she would “tell [Barbash] whatever she had to tell her to hurt [Machlis], and would, in effect, cause of [sic] [Machlis] to lose [his] job.” (Weissman Decl. Ex. KK at ¶ 53) Plaintiff, on the other hand, testified Machlis was “talking inappropriately to [her]” and “groping [her]” while in line at the concession stand. (Gould Aff. Ex. 5 (“Pl. Dep., dated Nov. 10, 2016”), at 62-63). Plaintiff testified she told Machlis “if he did not stop [she] would report him to [Barbash].” (Id. at 62). Plaintiff also testified she told Machlis's wife “that [her] husband has been sexually harassing [her] at work and just did the same thing to [her] at the concession stand.” (Id. at 73).

         Machlis called Barbash after the incident, while still at the stadium, and Barbash informed Jefferies the next workday.

         On Monday, July 1, 2013-two days after the incident at the baseball game-Jefferies testified he had to move plaintiff out of the office she shared with Machlis to ensure plaintiff “was not exposed to anything further.” (Gould Aff. Ex. 10 at 54). As plaintiff was not in the office, Jefferies “remov[ed] her belongings from the office so that she wouldn't have to go back there.” (Id. at 54).

         In addition, Jefferies, after consulting with Barbash and June Gray, a DSS Personnel Administrator, decided to transfer plaintiff to the DSS Family Law Division “to work on a special project.” (Weissman Decl. Ex. QQ (the “Gray Memo”) at ¶ 444). According to Barbash, they reasoned Machlis's skill-set was better-suited to remaining in CAMS and plaintiff's skills and title were more transferable. Plaintiff returned to work on July 2, 2013, to find her desk at CAMS cleared off. Plaintiff then met with Jefferies and Gray twice on the same day.

         In the first meeting, Jefferies and Gray informed plaintiff they were relocating her to the DSS Family Law Division. According to Gray, plaintiff “was not pleased, ” and “left the meeting stating that she wanted to call the union regarding harassment charges against [Machlis] and . . . to call her husband.” (Gray Memo at ¶ 444).

         Both plaintiff and her husband attended the second meeting with Jefferies and Gray. According to Gray, plaintiff and her husband stated plaintiff and Machlis had a “consensual and short-lived” relationship, “they wanted to put it in the past, ” and felt plaintiff could continue to work with Machlis. (Gray Memo at ¶ 444). Jefferies likewise testified that plaintiff's husband said plaintiff and Machlis had an affair. Plaintiff's husband, however, later testified that plaintiff said at the second meeting she should be able to keep her job and Machlis should be the one transferred. Moreover, both Machlis and plaintiff later testified that they did not have an affair or sexual relationship.

         Jefferies and Gray did not investigate further plaintiff's claim of sexual harassment, and plaintiff was transferred to the Family Law Unit with the same title, pay, and benefits.

         C. Family Law Unit

         Plaintiff worked in the Family Law Unit for over eight months without incident. Then, on March 21, 2014, plaintiff sent Machlis an email, without a subject, writing:

Hi Bruce, how is cams doing? I really miss it. I really want to come back. If you really care about me the way you have said you do, you will speak to [Barbash] about getting my position back and telling her what a great asset I was to the department. We worked so well together and cams was our domain. Please make it happen. I know you can. P.S. maybe we can meet for lunch today to discuss things.

(Weissman Decl. Ex. SS (the “March 21 E-Mail”) at ¶ 885).

         Subsequently, on July 9, 2014, plaintiff filled out a leave report (the “Leave Report”) seeking permission to use sick leave from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Plaintiff submitted the Leave Report to Jefferies, who approved it. Plaintiff subsequently altered the Leave Report so that it falsely indicated plaintiff was at work from 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. According to plaintiff, she believed she had permission to alter the Leave Report.

         The next day, Jefferies, Barbash, and Gray met with plaintiff and presented her with a Letter of Reprimand, which plaintiff refused to sign. Plaintiff told them she was going to “make a complaint” or “bring harassment charges, ” which Jefferies and Barbash understood to refer to the incidents involving Machlis the previous summer. (Gould Aff. Ex. 6 at 9, Ex. 10 at 141).

         D. OERR Investigation and Report

         On August 1, 2014, plaintiff met with investigators from the County Office of Employee Rights and Relations (the “OERR”), a division of the County Department of Personnel, where Joan Silvestri was the Commissioner. Plaintiff alleged Machlis had sexually harassed her while working in the CAMS Unit. Plaintiff also identified Ileen Stainback, a CAMS employee at the time, as a possible witness, stating Machlis had engaged in flirtatious behavior with Stainback.

         On or about August 7, 2014, plaintiff filed an Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEO”) Complaint with the OERR against Jefferies, Barbash, and Machlis, alleging Machlis sexually harassed her; Jefferies and Gray failed to investigate the matter; and Barbash and Jefferies issued the ...


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