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Federal Practice Update – Some Recent Procedural Decisions

May 21, 2008

This month we review three recent decisions rendered by Judges of the Eastern District of New York, Alfonse D’Amato Courthouse. First, we consider a decision by the Hon. Joanna Seybert, adopting in its entirety the Report and Recommendation of Magistrate Judge E. Thomas Boyle. In the next case, we consider a decision by Hon. Arlene Rosario Lindsay granting in part summary judgment to defendants on a due process claim, but denying it in part on a First Amendment retaliation claim. Finally, we review a decision by the Hon. William D. Wall, granting defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s Title VII claims.

In Pall Corp. v. Entegris, Inc, No. 07 -1869 (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 13, 2008), the court considered the Report and Recommendation by Magistrate Judge Boyle, regarding motions filed in a patent infringement action. Upon failure of the plaintiff to respond to defendant’s counterclaims in a timely manner, the defendant filed a motion for entry of a default judgment against the plaintiff. The plaintiff then filed a motion for leave to file a late reply, and also opposed defendant’s motion for default judgment. The Court referred the motions to Magistrate Judge Boyle, and defendant subsequently filed a motion to strike portions of plaintiff’s reply brief to its motion for leave to file a late answer.

Judge Seybert explained that when a district court is evaluating a Report and Recommendation of a Magistrate Judge, the Court “may adopt those portions of the report to which no objections have been made and which are not facially erroneous.” Upon the receipt of a timely objection to the magistrate’s recommendation, “the district court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings and recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” Id. When the objections are only conclusory or general in nature, or the opposing party simply reiterates his original arguments, the Court reviews the magistrate’s report only for “clear error.” Id.

Judge Seybert dismissed the defendant’s objections to the Report and Recommendation, because she found that defendant had failed “to make any specific objections to the ultimate recommendations made by Judge Boyle, namely, that the Court deny Entegris’ motion for a default judgment, grant Pall’s motion for leave to file a reply to Entegris’ counterclaims out-of-time, and deem the motion to strike portions of Pall’s reply memorandum moot.” Further, in the body of his memorandum, the defendant made the same arguments that he had made to Magistrate Judge Boyle during oral argument, thus seeking review of Judge Boyle’s recommendations for clear error only. After reviewing the Report and Recommendation, Judge Seybert found it to be “thoroughly and clearly analyzed, with no clear errors of fact or law.” Therefore, the Court adopted the Report and Recommendation with respect to the final disposition of the three motions.

Further, Judge Seybert held that an award of attorney’s fees and costs is not warranted under the circumstances, as the case did not involve an extended period of wasted time or disregard of court orders. The Court also found that “the circumstances do not support sanctioning Pall by way of limiting its claims and defenses.”

In Donovan v. Incorporated Village of Malverne, No. 05-3726 (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 19, 2008), the plaintiff filed an action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, New York Civil Service Law § 107, and New York Labor Law § 201-d, alleging that defendants had “deprived him of his constitutional rights as secured by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution in violation of 42 U.S.C § 1983,” and had “retaliated against him for statements he made in connection with his political and union activities and for giving deposition testimony in a suit brought against the Village.” The defendant then moved for summary judgment.

In her analysis, Judge Lindsay first dealt with whether the plaintiff’s claims of adverse employment actions are barred by the statute of limitations. The Judge explained that the statute of limitations governing Section 1983 claim is three years, and that a claim “accrues once the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the injury which is the basis of his action.” Judge Lindsay found that with the exception of the 2005 failure to promote, the plaintiff’s claims were time-barred.

In regards to plaintiff’s Section 1983 claims, the defendants argue that they are entitled to summary judgment because the plaintiff had failed to provide evidence that he had been deprived of any constitutional right. Judge Lindsay explained that the trial court’s responsibility in deciding summary judgment motions was “limited to discerning whether there are any genuine issues of material fact to be tried, not to deciding them.” Further, “[w]hen no rational jury could find in favor of the nonmoving party because the evidence to support its case is so slight, there is no genuine issue of material fact and a grant of summary judgment is proper.”

With respect to plaintiff’s First Amendment retaliation claim, the Court held that defendants’ motion for summary judgment must fail because based on the evidence, a jury could conclude that defendants’ animus toward plaintiff was based on his exercise of free speech. Next, with respect to plaintiff’s Due Process claim, Judge Lindsay found that summary judgment should be granted because the failure to interview plaintiff “did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation and that [defendant] had an adequate post-deprivation remedy,” and therefore the defendants could not have deprived him of his constitutional right to due process. Finally, the Court dismissed the defendants’ argument that they were entitled to qualified immunity because “the record does not contain sufficient evidence to determine whether the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.” Accordingly, defendants’ motion for summary judgment was granted in part and denied in part.

Finally, in Harrison v. North Shore Univ. Hospital, No. 05-2033 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 6, 2008), plaintiff commenced an action alleging discrimination because of his race in violation of Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. His specific claims were for failure to promote, hostile work environment, retaliation, and wrongful termination. Defendant then moved or summary judgment.

In his discussion of the standard of review, Judge Wall explained that when deciding a motion for summary judgment, “the district court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inference in the light most favorable to the opposing party.” In order to grant a motion for summary judgment, the moving party must demonstrate that there is little or no evidence in support of the non-moving party’s case. In order to defeat a motion for summary judgment, the opposing party must provide the Court “with some basis to believe that his version of the relevant events is not fanciful.”

In his opinion, Judge Wall evaluated the defendant’s argument that plaintiff’s claims were barred because he had failed to timely file his complaint. Judge Wall explained that for a Title VII claim to be timely, “it must be filed within 90 days of receipt by plaintiff of a right to sue letter from the EEOC.” Although the plaintiff missed the filing deadline by a week by failing to file by May 10, 2004, the Court held that the plaintiff’s assertion that he did not receive the letter until he was given a copy from his attorney on February 17, 2004, sufficient to rebut the claim that he had received the letter eight days earlier, on February 9, 2004.. Thus the Court held that plaintiff’s claims were not time-barred.

In analyzing plaintiff’s wrongful termination claim, Judge Wall described the “ultimate issue” in an employment discrimination case as whether or not “the plaintiff has met [his] burden of proving that the adverse employment decision was motivated at least in part by an ‘impermissible reason.’” Judge Wall explained that the three-part burden shifting framework from McDonnell Douglas Corp., is the test used to analyze claims of discrimination under Title VII. Under the McDonnell Douglas framework, a plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of racial discrimination, and then the burden shifts to the defendant employer to prove a legitimate reason for the adverse employment action. If the employer comes forth with a legitimate reason, it is then the plaintiff’s burden to prove that the reason given is a pretext and that discrimination was the real reason for the adverse action.

Judge Wall explained that in order to establish a prima facie case of discrimination, a plaintiff “must establish four elements: 1) that he is a member of a protected class; 2) that he was qualified for the position and performed his duties satisfactorily; 3) that he was subject to an adverse job action; and 4) that the adverse job action occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination.” In reviewing plaintiff’s claim, Judge Wall found that plaintiff’s conclusory allegations did not establish a prima facie case of discrimination, nor did they establish pretext in the face of defendant’s race neutral reasons for terminating plaintiff’s employment.

When evaluating plaintiff’s Title VII retaliation claim, Judge Wall explained that the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting analysis was the appropriate test to use. He continued by saying that “[a]n inference of retaliation can be made where the protected activity is followed shortly by the adverse employment action.” However, the Court found that the plaintiff had not identified a concrete complaint that he had made for which he was retaliated against, and that the most recent complaint allegedly initiated by plaintiff occurred more than a year prior to plaintiff’s termination. Judge Wall held that this was “too remote to establish a causal connection between plaintiff’s complaints and his firing.” Id. Because plaintiff had failed to establish “a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action,” he could not make out a prima facie case for retaliation.

Next, Judge Wall analyzed plaintiff’s failure to promote claim. The plaintiff claimed that he had been passed over for a promotion in favor of another employee in October 2000, but Judge Wall found that the plaintiff had not provided any evidence to substantiate his claim beyond his own allegations. Further, the defendant had provided an affidavit that the promotion had actually occurred in September 1998, and plaintiff had failed to provide any corroborating evidence for his version of events. Therefore, Judge Wall held that there was no material issue of fact regarding the failure to promote claim because “[c]onclusory allegations or denials are ordinarily not sufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment when the moving party has set out a documentary case.”

Finally, Judge Wall evaluated plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim. He explained that there are two essential elements that must be proven in order to establish a prima facie case of hostile work environment. First, “the conduct must be ‘sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive work environment.’” Id. Next, plaintiff must also show that “a specific basis exists for imputing the conduct that created the hostile environment to the employer.” However, a plaintiff may only bring a claim under Title VII for acts of discrimination that occurred within the statutory period established in 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1), “in this case, the 300 day period from February 23, 2000 to December 19, 2000.” Judge Wall explained that a “claim of hostile work environment is timely so long as one act contributing to the claim occurred in the statutory period.” Because plaintiff had failed to assert a single act contributing to his hostile work environment claim that had taken place within the 300 days prior to December 19, 2000, Judge Wall held that his hostile work environment claim was time-barred. Accordingly, Judge Wall found that there was no evidence in the record from which a jury could conclude that the defendant had discriminated against the plaintiff on the basis of his race or because of a protect activity.

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