Chertkova v. Connecticut General Life Ins. Co.

Decision Date09 August 1996
Docket NumberD,No. 1139,1139
Citation92 F.3d 81
Parties71 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. (BNA) 1006 Stella CHERTKOVA, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. CONNECTICUT GENERAL LIFE INSURANCE CO., Defendant-Appellee. ocket 95-7849.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit

Steven D. Ecker, Hartford, Connecticut (Cowdery & Ecker, of counsel), for Plaintiff-Appellant Stella Chertkova.

James B. Herman, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for Defendant-Appellee Connecticut General Life Insurance Co.

Before: FEINBERG, CARDAMONE, and MAHONEY, Circuit Judges.

CARDAMONE, Circuit Judge:

Stella Chertkova appeals from an order of the United States District Court for the District Plaintiff charged in her complaint, in substance, that managers in one of defendant's departments did not tolerate intelligent and articulate female subordinates. Instead, she claims, they insisted on maintaining a work environment where, in the words of Jane Austen, "[a] woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can." Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey 94 (Signet Classic ed. 1965). This alleged treatment of a woman employee is a bete noire under Title VII and is conduct the civil rights law aimed to end.

of Connecticut (Covello, J.), entered July 25, 1995, granting summary judgment in favor of defendant Connecticut General Life Insurance Co. (defendant, Connecticut General, or employer). The issue presented is the propriety of granting summary judgment on plaintiff's claim that her former employer discharged her because of her gender in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Chertkova contends these managers engaged in a campaign of harassment to cause her to lose her employment because of her gender. The employer avers that plaintiff's employment terminated because of long-standing performance deficiencies, including an alleged inability to communicate effectively with customers and scornful treatment of company managers. The record also reveals disagreement as to whether plaintiff quit, was terminated, or was compelled to leave by intolerable working conditions. Because these questions present issues of material fact, we reverse the grant of summary judgment and remand this case for trial.

BACKGROUND
A. Plaintiff's Employment Experience

Stella Chertkova was hired by Connecticut General as a computer programmer in 1979, and for over ten years held various computer-related posts in its Operations Engineering department, including the positions of Technical Consultant and Senior Systems Consultant, working under a number of different supervisors. Her work required that she deal with "customers" within the company, that is, those Connecticut General employees who used the systems she helped design. Because plaintiff allegedly needed help in interpersonal relationships with peers and customers, her supervisor Patricia Endweiss "coached" her in 1989 and 1990 to improve her communication skills. Thereafter--as observed by coworkers Robert Godin and Mary Bosch--her interaction with others improved dramatically.

Plaintiff's high level of technical competence was widely recognized within the company. Endweiss commented in a March 1990 evaluation that Chertkova quickly assimilates technical information, always presents a well thought-out technical design, and consistently offers efficiencies above and beyond requirements. Supervisor Michael Rocchio stated that she well understood the technology associated with her work. Co-employee Adrienne Burnett described her technical skills and knowledge of computer systems as excellent, and she was given a company award in 1989 for her handling of a complex project.

In mid-1990 Craig May took over the Operations Engineering department and told plaintiff to report to Jeff O'Neil, a project manager, instead of her then-supervisor Patricia Endweiss. According to former Connecticut General manager Melanie Konicki, O'Neil was not competent and had difficulties in dealing with "assertive and competent" women. Nonetheless, May quickly promoted O'Neil. Endweiss, who along with plaintiff was considered to be among the most technically competent persons in the department, was placed on probation for exhibiting a "lack of active listening skills," and was terminated in January 1992.

Meanwhile, Chertkova asserts, May and O'Neil began a campaign of harassment calculated to force her out of her job. According to Konicki's affidavit, "it was a recognized practice ... to document a pattern of failure in order to get rid of an undesirable employee." Plaintiff declared that during May's first year as department head, he never spoke to her about professional matters but frequently stopped by her office for personal reminiscences, mostly "macho" stories relating his experiences with women. He also called her a "clotheshorse."

In the summer of 1990 Chertkova attended a presentation to introduce employees to her employer's parent company CIGNA's "Operating Values" project, with its emphasis on "People, Quality, Teamwork, Leadership, [and] Knowledge." According to plaintiff, she asked some questions but did not embarrass the CIGNA representative or anyone else. Defendant asserts that plaintiff acted in a disruptive manner, asking critical and inappropriate questions about management.

In early 1991 CIGNA introduced the concept of "Total Quality Management" (TQM), which avowedly allowed employees "to express their ideas and opinions openly and honestly at all levels." Chertkova attended an Operations Engineering meeting led by Bob Strickler, Craig May's immediate superior, for the purpose of discussing TQM. She made a number of comments and posed several questions, but insists that none of her comments were inappropriate or negatively intended or received. A few weeks later, however, O'Neil placed her on an informal "performance improvement plan" to address such areas as "active listening skills." Although she was taken to task for her comments at the Strickler meeting, male employees who challenged Strickler--even one who became "visibly angry" with Strickler's answers--did not receive the same harsh treatment. Chertkova believes this differing response from management is evidence that women in the department were treated differently than men.

During the first three years of May's tenure as head of the department, two of the three women who were terminated (that is, plaintiff and Endweiss) were terminated for "communication" reasons. No men were fired during this period. After this litigation was instituted, three men were discharged, but none for lack of communication skills. Plaintiff also charges that May advanced men such as O'Neil, despite his lack of technical competence, and promoted two women who were without technical training while he terminated plaintiff and Endweiss, who were among the most competent employees in the department.

In the summer of 1991 O'Neil held "coaching sessions" with Chertkova. In her affidavit she relates that he "called her into an office with closed doors and berated and yelled at [her] for hours." During these meetings O'Neil threatened her, saying: "What do you hope for? Do you think you are going to outlive us? There is no chance! You are not going to be here!" After one such session, plaintiff left in tears and went to see June Cocolla, the division personnel officer, who promised to intervene and subsequently did attend a coaching session. O'Neil became very angry with Cocolla for providing assistance to plaintiff. Cocolla's efforts to be supportive soon ended, although she later sent plaintiff a book entitled You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation, which discusses differences in women's and men's communication styles and the problems resulting from those differences.

Later that summer O'Neil placed Chertkova on formal probation, the conditions of which included: "demonstrat[ing] the behaviors intrinsic to the published teamwork Operating Values," giving dissenting opinions "constructively and in the appropriate, private setting," and improving "written communications," and "active listening skills." Plaintiff successfully completed probation in October 1991, but was told she could be fired immediately or at any time during the next two years if she did not "maintain satisfactory performance" in a number of specified areas, including improving her written and "verbal communications." Yet, when Chertkova asked to attend a course on "communication skills" offered to all other department employees, her request was denied. In late 1991 plaintiff was reassigned to Supervisor Teresa Quirk, who wrote an "excellent" performance evaluation of plaintiff in December, but told plaintiff in January that Craig May--whom Quirk said she feared--found the appraisal of plaintiff "too good" and ordered Quirk to rewrite it.

B. Plaintiff's Employment Ends

Plaintiff discovered on March 5, 1992 that her supervisor was soliciting other company employees for negative information about her. On that same day, she suffered a nervous breakdown and left work. She never Following her breakdown, plaintiff applied for and received short-term disability benefits from Connecticut General for a period of 26 weeks. During the summer of 1992 she worked on a proposal for automating administrative functions at CIGNA and submitted it through the "Employee Suggestion Plan." The submission was rejected. She maintains that her efforts to communicate with her employer were turned aside. At a deposition in January 1993 relating to her worker's compensation claim, plaintiff first learned of the March 6, 1992 termination letter.

returned. As it happened, Teresa Quirk had prepared a letter of termination dated March 6, 1992 that referred to plaintiff's purported failure to live up to the admonitions that followed her probation and her failure to complete in a timely fashion a recent assignment for O'Neil. Chertkova said she did not receive...

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