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Choi v. Ferrellgas, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. New York

January 10, 2020

LIZA CHOI, Plaintiff,

          Kessler Matura P.C. Attorneys for the Plaintiff Marijana F. Matura, Esq., Troy L. Kessler, Esq., Tana Marie Forrester, Esq., Of Counsel.

          Scharnhorst Ast Kennard Griffin, PC Attorneys for the Defendants Brent M. Coverdale, Esq. (Pro Hac Vice) Cameron Everett Grant, Esq., Of Counsel.

          Jackson Lewis PC Attorneys for the Defendants David S. Greenhaus, Esq., of Counsel.


          Arthur D. Spatt, U.S.D.J.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This action arises out of an employment dispute between Liza Choi (the “Plaintiff”), her former employer Ferrellgas, Inc., and one of her superiors at Ferrellgas, Michael Guadagno (the “Defendants”). The Plaintiff alleges that the announcement of her pregnancy set off a chain of events that concluded with her termination. She raised claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq., and as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“Title VII”), the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), and the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Executive Law §§ 290 et seq. (“NYSHRL”). The Defendants move under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“FED. R. CIV. P.”) 56 for summary judgment.

         The background section has two parts. The first part recounts the events leading up to the Plaintiff's termination, and the second part summarizes the claims raised in the present action, along with the pending summary judgment motion. In the discussion section, the Court grants the summary judgment motion in its entirety and dismisses the action.

         A. Events Leading to the Plaintiff's Termination

         The following facts are taken from the parties' FED. R. CIV. P. 56.1 statements. Unless noted, the facts are not in dispute.

         1. The Plaintiff's Employment History

         The Plaintiff began working for a company called Mr. Bar-B-Q in August 2004 as an import coordinator. She received a promotion to the position of import manager in April 2005. In March 2013, Defendant Ferrellgas acquired Mr. Bar-B-Q, and the Plaintiff began working for Defendant Ferrellgas. That same year, the Plaintiff started reporting to Defendant Guadagno, the company's Vice President of Operations for Global Sourcing.

         In her position as import manager, the Plaintiff supervised a staff of six employees, and her responsibilities included, inter alia, managing task force responsibilities for recommending organizational improvements, and working with Ferrellgas's sales team to build relationships with existing vendors and customers. Guadagno would periodically review the Plaintiff's performance, with the main focus of those reviews being “development goals.” On September 8, 2013, in one such review, Guadagno noted that one of the Plaintiff's development goals was to “[b]reak down the communication barriers between the import department and the sales support teams at [Blue Rhino] and BBQ, ” which the Plaintiff understood as meaning that the two departments were to be sociable with one another. In an August 26, 2014 performance review, Guadagno noted that communication had “improved dramatically over the last 2 months.”

         In 2014, the Plaintiff was pregnant and was approved to take FMLA leave. She lost her baby during that 2014 pregnancy, and afterwards, she received FMLA and short-term disability leave. At least two other Ferrellgas employees had been pregnant while under Guadagno's supervision.

         In March 2015, Guadagno proposed to company management a “Global Supply Chain Initiative, ” which would merge Ferrellgas's import and sales departments into one team, called the “Global Supply Chain team.” Part of that proposed merger included reassigning the managers of the two teams, the Plaintiff and Lauren Buccello, and bringing in an outside person to manage the two newly merged departments. Guadagno also proposed making the Plaintiff that outside manager as the company's “Global Logistics manager.” Although Guadagno's supervisors approved of this initiative, there was no money to fund the outside manager position, and the Plaintiff remained in her position as import sales manager.

         The Parties disagree with regard to the Plaintiff's conduct and demeanor in the workplace. The Defendants allege the following. In March 2015, Guadagno discussed removing Choi from the import manager position because, although she was “very bright, ” she was an abusive manager who was unable to overcome feeling victimized by the mistakes of others. ECF 45-1 at 3. Guadagno proposed making the Plaintiff the Global Logistics manager because he thought that the Plaintiff would succeed in managing “process” instead of managing people. Id. at 4. However, Guadagno's supervisors did not approve the initiative, and the Plaintiff remained in her position. Id.

         The Defendants also cataloged a list of the Plaintiff's behavior that they deemed unacceptable. Guadagno e-mailed the Plaintiff in December 2014 about an instance in which he thought she had been “rough” with a co-worker, but the Plaintiff disagreed with his assessment. Id. at 5-6. In a September 2015 performance review, Guadagno lowered the Plaintiff's “personal leadership” score; reiterated his concerns with the Plaintiff's incapacity to “rise above feeling victimized by business issues”; and felt that Choi had become more accusatory towards her subordinates. Id. at 4-5. In November 2015, following a correspondence between the Plaintiff, a co-worker, and Jeff Lynch, the Vice President of Global Sales, Lynch wrote to Guadagno, saying that he “[could] not wait for the day when [he would] never have to have any interaction with her EVER again.” Id. at 6-7. That same month, the Plaintiff admitted to adding an item to the company's daily bulletin that was poorly received by employees, and Guadagno cautioned her to be more professional. Id. at 7-8.

         Multiple employees under the Plaintiff's supervision approached Guadagno to complain about her. Id. at. 9. By December 2015, Guadagno believed that while the Plaintiff was aware of his concerns about her interaction with others; that she was either unable to or unwilling to change; and that he was afraid that her conduct would cost Ferrellgas employees on its import team. Id. at 9-10. He also still valued the Plaintiff as an employee, so he decided to reassign her to a position similar to the global logistics role he had previously attempted to create. Id. at 10. The Plaintiff does not dispute that the above-listed events occurred, but she challenges the Defendants' descriptions of her demeanor.

         The Plaintiff alleges the following. Guadagno had conducted three performance reviews with the Plaintiff between September 2013 and September 2015, and none of those reviews documented the Plaintiff as being abusive, in her tone or in her behavior. ECF 48 at 6-7. Guadagno also gave her several raises during this time. Id. at 6. In March 2015, when Guadagno had first sought to move the Plaintiff to the global logistics position, he praised the Plaintiff when proposing the role and again, did not cite her apparent history of abusive behavior. Id. at 6, 8. In the three above-noted performance reviews, Guadagno gave the Plaintiff high scores for her ability to manage her staff. Id. at 9-10. She cites an email sent from Guadagno to Lynch in March 2015 in which he praised the Plaintiff as an employee. Guadagno also told the Plaintiff that, in the aftermath of the email exchange with Lynch, that he supported her and that he was working on getting her a promotion. Id. at 18.

         She also asserts that to the extent that the Defendants use argumentative and conclusive language throughout the Rule 56.1 statement, which is inconsistent with the requirements of FED. R. CIV. P. 56.1 and Local Rule 56.1. See, e.g., id. at 9. However, the Defendants claim that the Plaintiff fails to identify any argumentative or conclusive language from the Rule 56.1 statement. See, e.g., ECF 51 at 15, 16, 18.

         In reply, the Defendants argue that in the email to Lynch, Guadagno also noted that the Plaintiff and a co-worker, Buccello, could not see eye to eye, and that he was proposing the global logistics role in order to create more efficiency for Ferrellgas by keeping the two employees away from competing departments. ECF 51 at 2. The Defendants also assert that the lack of formal documentation on the Plaintiff's managing style do not bear on Guadagno's view about the Plaintiffs behavior or the difficulty he experienced in managing her, and that even though Guadagno believed in the Plaintiff, he still would point out her problematic behavior. Id. at 8, 17.

         2. The December 18, 2015 Meeting and The Plaintiff's “Cooling Off” Period

         On December 18, 2015, Guadagno, along with Ferrellgas's Director of Employee Relations Mary Lentz, met with the Plaintiff to discuss the company's concerns with her ability to meet the expectations of her management position; namely, her issues with managing people and interacting with vendors and senior managers. Guadagno gave the Plaintiff a Performance Improvement Plan (“PIP”), stating that: (1) four of six employees that had worked for her said she was verbally abusive and looking for issues to complain about, two of those employees had since left the company; (2) the Plaintiff had “been abusive to a Vice President with abrasive emails”; (3) the Plaintiff's behavior had caused other teams at Ferrellgas to avoid communicating with her department or members of her team; and, (4) the Plaintiff had been verbally abusive to the company's vendors. In addition, the PIP informed the Plaintiff that she would no longer manage the import department, and that she would be sent home, with pay, for two weeks for a “cooling off period.”

         At the time of this meeting, Choi was 33 weeks pregnant, with an anticipated due date in early February 2016. Guadagno never expressed any concerns about Choi's being absent from work for doctor's appointments. The Defendants assert that Guadagno never indicated to Choi that he had some concern with the Plaintiff's being pregnant, and that Choi testified that no one at Ferrellgas made any such comments. ECF 48 at 12. However, the Plaintiff argues that in spring 2015, Guadagno made a comment to the Plaintiff about another pregnant employee, Selena Puras, telling her that the company would not be keeping her because she was pregnant. ECF 48 at 29. She further asserts that people at the company made comments about the length of her doctor's appointments, and that her predecessor in the import manager position was terminated after returning to work following a high-risk pregnancy. Id. at 30. She also says that she was fired because the company felt that she couldn't commit herself to them, but she does not elaborate on this or identify any Ferrellgas employee who complained about her lack of commitment. Id.

         In reply, the Defendants allege that the Plaintiff lacks personal knowledge of any specific comments made by Guadagno showing animus over Puras's pregnancy. ECF 51 at 28. They also note that the Plaintiff does not identify anyone at Ferrellgas who was not happy about her lack of commitment. Id. at 30.

         Choi received paid leave during her “cooling off” period, and the company did not deduct any of her vacation time. She returned to work on January 6, 2016, and her pay rate and career level remained the same as it was with the import manager position.

         3. The Plaintiff's FMLA Leave and Return to her New Role

         The Defendants assert that Guadagno planned to develop a role for the Plaintiff that contained some of the same responsibilities as her previous position, but emphasized focusing on data collection and resolving the company's struggles with tracking expenses. However, Guadagno had little time to develop this position because the Plaintiff went on FMLA leave the day after she returned to work. ECF 45-1 at 12-13. The Plaintiff contends that Guadagno was unsure of the specifics of her new job, and that he did not share with her a job description until April 1, 2016, when she returned from FMLA leave. ECF 48 at 30-31. In fact, Guadagno had written to a co-worker on December 18 that he had moved the Plaintiff into a placeholder position that would be further discussed upon her return from leave. Id. at 31.

         The Plaintiff gave birth to her child on January 8, 2016. On January 24, 2016, while the Plaintiff was still on leave, she sent Guadagno a memorandum responding to Guadagno's December 18 PIP. The memorandum contained the following language:

While I feel blindsided and betrayed by these accusations and your removing me from my position of Import Manager, I also find the timing of this completely unexpected decision/action was very peculiar. As you are well aware, at the time of our afternoon meeting on Friday, December 18, 2015, I was pregnant with an expected due date in early February 2016. In fact, as of December 18, 2015, I was in the 33rd week of my pregnancy. The shocking accusations and your decision/action to bar me from going to the office for two weeks during the so-called “cooling off period” and during the Christmas/New Year holidays, and in my current state of pregnancy, left me essentially unable to bring any action to defend myself. As is the case, I gave birth prematurely two weeks ago and am now on maternity leave under the [FMLA] and the New York Family and Medical Leave Laws. For you to hastily remove me from the position of Import Manager this close to my impending maternity leave and without any forewarning makes me wonder about the timing of it all. After what happened to me on December 18, 2015, I simply do not believe in coincidences.

         The parties disagree as to whether the Plaintiff felt that Guadagno or others at Ferrellgas were upset about those comments. ECF 45-1 at 15, ECF 48 at 35. Choi returned to work on April 1, 2016, receiving a job description from Guadagno and a formal title for her new position; import operations expense auditor. Guadagno created this position from “tasks required from other positions.”

         The Defendants contend that Guadagno created the position because it would allow the Plaintiff to capitalize on her experience with the company, and that the job contained “important functions to operations within Ferrellgas.” ECF 45-1 at 14. However, the Plaintiff alleges that while she was on FMLA leave, the logistics portion of her new role was assigned to another employee, and that when she returned from leave, she didn't have enough work to do, and the work she did have consisted of redundant tasks. ECF 48 at 34. In reply, the Defendants note that it is immaterial that Guadagno placed the Plaintiff in a position that he later eliminated, because it would require a jury to assume that Guadagno could predict that future layoffs were coming. ECF 51 at 23-24, 40-41. They also argue that the Plaintiff's subjective view that the new role was redundant is insufficient to create a genuine dispute as to Guadagno's testimony regarding his plan for the Plaintiff's new position. Id. at 32, 34-35, 37-38.

         4. The End of The ...

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