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Keaton v. Unique People Services Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. New York

August 3, 2018

ZELDA D. KEATON, Plaintiff,
v.
UNIQUE PEOPLE SERVICES, INC., YVETTE BRISETTE ANDRE, CHERYELLE CRUICKSHANK, and SONJI PHILLIPS, [1] Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          P. Kevin Castel United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Zelda D. Keaton, proceeding pro se but previously represented by counsel, brings this action against her former employer and supervisors for employment discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”), N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-101 et seq. On June 30, 2017, after the close of discovery, defendants Unique People Services, Inc. (“Unique”), Yvette Brisette Andre, Cheryelle Cruickshank, and Sonji Phillips moved for summary judgment. (Dkt. 47). The deadline for Keaton's opposition was August 4, 2017, but Keaton filed no papers until Keaton wrote to the Court by letter dated December 28, 2017, requesting additional information on the status of defendants' motion. (Dkts. 46, 54). Although the Court then extended the time for any response by Keaton to January 22, 2018 (Dkt. 54), Keaton never filed opposition papers. Defendants noted the same in their January 29, 2018 letter to the Court, a copy of which was sent to Keaton. (Dkt. 55). Keaton has made no further communications with the Court in the roughly six months that have passed since that time. The Court thus reviews defendants' motion as unopposed and, for the reasons to be explained, grants the motion for summary judgment.

         RULE 56 STANDARD.

         The Court “shall” grant summary judgment “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.” Rule 56(a), Fed.R.Civ.P. A fact is material if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law . . . .” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). On a summary judgment motion, courts “construe the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and . . . resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences against the movant.” Delaney v. Bank of Am. Corp., 766 F.3d 163, 167 (2d Cir. 2014) (per curiam) (omission in original) (quoting Aulicino v. New York City Dep't of Homeless Servs., 580 F.3d 73, 79-80 (2d Cir. 2009)). The movant must bring forward evidence on each material element of his or her claim or defense that demonstrates his or her entitlement to relief. See Vt. Teddy Bear Co. v. 1-800 Beargram Co., 373 F.3d 241, 244 (2d Cir. 2004). The evidence on each material element must be sufficient to entitle the movant to relief in its favor as a matter of law. See id.

         When a motion for summary judgment is unopposed, as it is here, the Court “must review the motion . . . and determine from what it has before it whether the moving party is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law, ” because it “‘may not grant the motion without first examining the moving party's submission to determine if it has met its burden of demonstrating that no material issue of fact remains for trial.'” Id. at 244, 246 (quoting Amaker v. Foley, 274 F.3d 677, 681 (2d Cir. 2001)). “[I]n determining whether the moving party has met this burden . . ., the district court may not rely solely on the statement of undisputed facts contained in the moving party's Rule 56.1 statement. It must be satisfied that the citation to evidence in the record supports the assertion.” Id. at 244.

         In employment discrimination suits where the “merits turn on a dispute as to the employer's intent, ” courts exercise caution in granting summary judgment motions. Holcomb v. Iona Coll., 521 F.3d 130, 137 (2d Cir. 2008). Nonetheless, when a discrimination case lacks a genuine issue of material fact, summary judgment remains available. Schiano v. Quality Payroll Sys., Inc., 445 F.3d 597, 603 (2d Cir. 2006).

         Courts afford special solicitude to pro se litigants confronted with motions for summary judgment. See Graham v. Lewinski, 848 F.2d 342, 344 (2d Cir. 1988). As required by Local Civil Rule 56.2, defendants attached to their motion the Notice to a Pro Se Litigant Opposing Summary Judgment. (Dkt. 52) Although Keaton has submitted no opposition, the Court draws every reasonable inference in her favor. See Delaney, 766 F.3d at 167. BACKGROUND.

         Broadly, the Complaint alleges that defendants (i) retaliated against Keaton for her complaints regarding Unique's discriminatory hiring practices and (ii) treated her more harshly than similarly situated employees on the basis of her national origin or religion. (Second Amended Complaint (“SAC” or “Complaint”) ¶¶ 27-37). Keaton seeks compensatory and punitive damages, along with costs and fees. (Id. at 8).

         Since Keaton has not submitted a statement of facts pursuant to Local Civil Rule 56.1, the Court examines the record guided by defendants' Rule 56.1 statement to the extent it is supported by materials in the record. See Vt. Teddy Bear Co. v. 1-800 Beargram Co., 373 F.3d 241, 244 (2d Cir. 2004); see also Champion v. Artuz, 76 F.3d 483, 485 (2d Cir. 1996) (“[A] plaintiff opposing summary judgment may not rely on his complaint to defeat the motion . . . .”). Keaton worked at Unique, a non-profit social services agency, from 1998 until 2013 as a manager overseeing certain of Unique's residences. (Defs. 56.1 ¶¶ 1, 6). Unique runs residential facilities to provide housing and other services to developmentally disabled individuals, among other populations. (Id.). Keaton's responsibilities included overseeing the day-to-day operation of the residential facilities and the staff serving them. (Id. ¶ 7). At Unique, defendants Andre, Cruickshank, and Phillips served as Executive Director, Associate Executive Director, and Director of Developmental Disabilities Services, respectively. (Id. ¶ 8).

         Before approximately 2010 or 2011, managers like Keaton were able to recruit, interview, and hire their own subordinate residential facility staff. (Id. ¶ 44). Around 2010 or 2011, however, the hiring process changed, such that Unique's central human resources department provided a list of potential applicants for each manager to interview when a new position opened. (Id. ¶¶ 45-46). Keaton complained about the quality of applicants, believing that more qualified candidates were being passed over in favor of candidates connected to defendant Andre by virtue of their Caribbean national origin or Seventh Day Adventist religion. (Id. ¶¶ 47-50). Specifically, she objected to failures to hire Spanish-speaking applicants to facilitate Unique's care for Spanish-speaking residents, including by way of administration of ad hoc English language proficiency tests to bilingual applicants. (Id. ¶ 50; Keaton Dep. 199:15- 204:21). She complained about these practices to personnel in Unique's internal human resources department and at various staff meetings. (Defs. 56.1 ¶ 57; Keaton Dep. 180:25- 181:11, 207:7-12).

         On May 3, 2013, a dispute between a Unique staff member and an occupational therapist broke out at one of the residential facilities managed by Keaton. (Defs. 56.1 ¶¶ 7, 9). The incident occurred in the vicinity of a resident and involved the staff member referring to the resident as “the white boy” and making a threatening remark to the occupational therapist. (Id. ¶¶ 9, 14) Although the incident was reported to Keaton the same day, she did not report the matter to her supervisors. (Id. ¶ 10). On May 6, 2013, the occupational therapist reported the incident for investigation by Unique and by Unique's state regulator, the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (“OPWDD”), alleging potential psychological abuse towards the resident based on the resident overhearing or feeling threatened by the remarks. (Id. ¶¶ 11, 17; Andre Aff. Ex. F). Unique suspended Keaton and the staff member on or about May 10, 2013 pending the completion of its investigation. (Defs. 56.1 ¶¶ 12, 22).

         Neither investigation concluded that the incident constituted abuse. (Id. ¶ 14; Andre Aff. Exs. F, I). In relevant part, the internal investigation concluded that Keaton (i) impermissibly allowed the staff member involved in the dispute to continue his duties with the resident on the day of the dispute and (ii) failed to report the allegation of abuse of a resident who was present for a verbal altercation among staff. (Defs. 56.1 ¶¶ 14-16). As a result of OPWDD's investigation, OPWDD issued Unique a “45-day letter, ” a precursor to Unique's program “being disbanded by the state” unless Unique “achieve[d] . . . regulatory compliance in a timely manner” and maintained such compliance. (Id. ¶¶ 17, 21). Specifically, OWPDD issued the letter based in part upon Keaton's failure as the residence manager on duty to “implement immediate protections” for the resident and to alert OPWDD within twenty-four hours of learning of an allegation of abuse. (Id. ¶¶ 18-20). The 45-day letter was the first such letter Unique received in the approximately five years that defendant Andre served as executive director. (Id. ¶¶ 8, 21). Unique notified OPWDD of Keaton's suspension in its June 5, 2013 filing with OPWDD responsive to the 45-day letter. (Id. ¶ 22). Unique terminated Keaton on June 20, 2013, citing her actions in response to the staff incident, the allegations of abuse of a resident by staff under her supervision, and other prior performance issues. (Id. ¶¶ 23-25).

         DISCUSSION.

         The three-part framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), applies to Title VII retaliation and discrimination claims. See Hicks v. Baines, 593 F.3d 159, 164 (2d Cir. 2010) (retaliation); Mandell v. County of Suffolk, 3 ...


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