Roman v. Cornell University, 97-CV-0365.

CourtUnited States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of New York
Citation53 F.Supp.2d 223
Docket NumberNo. 97-CV-0365.,97-CV-0365.
PartiesDoris ROMAN, Plaintiff, v. CORNELL UNIVERSITY and Claude Poux, Defendants.
Decision Date30 June 1999
53 F.Supp.2d 223
Doris ROMAN, Plaintiff,
CORNELL UNIVERSITY and Claude Poux, Defendants.
No. 97-CV-0365.
United States District Court, N.D. New York.
June 30, 1999.

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Shaw, Currey Law Firm, Ithaca, NY (William R. Shaw, of counsel), for Plaintiff.

Office of the University Counsel, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY (Nelson E. Roth, Valerie L. Cross, William R. Shaw, of counsel), for Defendants.


McAVOY, Chief Judge.

Plaintiff Doris Roman ("plaintiff" or "Roman"), who was fired from her job with Defendant Cornell University ("Cornell"), commenced the instant litigation against Cornell and her supervisor, Defendant Claude Poux ("Poux"), alleging causes of action for violations of her civil rights (42 U.S.C. § 1981), discrimination (42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq.; N.Y.EXEC.LAW § 296 (the "Human Rights Law" or "HRL")), and state law claims for breach of contract, negligent failure to supervise, failure to investigate, and the intentional infliction of emotional distress. Currently before the Court are defendants' motion to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to FED.R.CIV.P. 12(c), or, in the alternative, for summary judgment pursuant to FED.R.CIV.P. 56, and plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment.


Cornell operates a College of Engineering (the "College"). Within the College, Cornell has established the Engineering Minority Programs Office ("EMPO"). The purpose of EMPO is to recruit and retain minority students in the College. At all times relevant hereto, Poux, an African American male, was the director of the EMPO.

In December 1993, Cornell posted an opening for the position of Assistant Director of the EMPO. After conducting a nationwide search, on August 1, 1994, Cornell hired plaintiff, a Hispanic female, as the Assistant Director of the EMPO. The decision to hire plaintiff was made jointly by John Hopcroft ("Hopcroft"), Dean of the College; Mark Spiro ("Spiro"), Associate Dean for Administration of the College; Gerald Rehkugler ("Rehkugler"), Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs and Student Services; Deborah Cox ("Cox"), then-director of the College's Human Resources department; and Poux. See Def.Ex. E; Mar. 30, 1998 Roman Dep., at 84-99; Cox.Aff., at ¶ 3, Def.Ex. F. Poux signed the actual letter offering plaintiff the position and copied it to Cox, Hopcroft, Rehkulger, and Donna Lawton. Plaintiff worked under the direct supervision of Poux.

At the beginning of her employment at the EMPO, plaintiff had a non-work related incident with Sonja Baylor ("Baylor"), an African-American female, who was then working as an administrative assistant in the EMPO. Baylor had sublet her apartment to plaintiff, and a dispute ensued over extermination costs. Although the source of this incident was not workrelated, it affected plaintiff's working relationship with Baylor. See Oct. 19, 1998 Roman Dep., at 92-93. Apparently, Baylor also was unhappy with the change in office structure, which included the addition of plaintiff. Thus, there were some tensions between plaintiff and Baylor from the beginning.

In October or November 1994, relationships in the EMPO began to further deteriorate. Plaintiff had regular meetings with Cox to discuss job-related concerns and, in particular, issues relating to communications (or the lack thereof) within the EMPO. Plaintiff felt that there were inadequate policies governing the EMPO's operations and that she was frequently excluded from certain office communications. During these meetings, Cox discussed plaintiff's difficulties in meeting certain job responsibilities, including writing reports and grant proposals. Cox also counseled plaintiff on the inappropriateness of using profanity in the office and in electronic mail ("e-mail") messages.

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Cox reported her displeasure with the use of profanity in the office to Poux, who expressed similar concern. The EMPO staff frequently used profanity in the office. In one instance, Baylor used vulgar language with Poux. As a result, on October 28, 1994, Poux sent an e-mail to the EMPO staff (plaintiff, Baylor, and Ann Hendricks ("Hendricks")) which read, in part, as follows:

I have been concerned about the level of professional behavior in empo, and am taking this opportunity to remind everyone of some pretty basic ground rules for interaction:

1. Obscene gestures, particularly when directed at an individual, are strictly prohibited.

2. Obscene language, especially when directed at an individual, is absolutely unacceptable.

This is a serious issue. If there are infractions ... disciplinary action, as appropriate, will be taken.

Def.Ex. L.

On November 11, 1994, Baylor and Hendricks complained to Cox that plaintiff had an emotional outburst in the office, used vulgar language, and threatened them with the loss of their jobs (the "November 11 incident"). This incident was the result of plaintiff having purchased a briefcase with the expectation that the EMPO would pay for it, and her being informed that the EMPO could not pay for the briefcase due to budgetary reasons and that plaintiff would have to return the briefcase. Plaintiff admitted that an incident occurred, but denied its severity claiming that "[m]y tone and maybe choice of words may have been misinterpreted[,] ... [and that] I do not use that kind of language in a professional environment." Def.Ex. T. According to Cox, plaintiff went to Cox's office on November 14, 1994 and admitted that she had lost her temper and used inappropriate language. Cox Aff., at 9.

By mid-November, the College's administration became concerned over plaintiff's behavior and considered terminating her. See Cox Aff., at ¶¶ 11, 14; Def.Ex. N. Specifically, the College felt that plaintiff was attempting to undermine Poux's authority as director of the EMPO. On November 15, 1994, Spiro sent an e-mail to Cox stating:

I think it important that we [] modify [Roman's] behavior because I'm concerned that she is undermining [Poux's] leadership. [Roman] must increasingly come to understand that we firmly and unequivocally support Poux. Second, she needs to see that her success at Cornell is dependent on his evaluation of her work and his support. She needs to bring workplace problems to him (not us) and to resolve them with him. I leave the details to you but I believe that is the type of behavior modification needed here.

Def.Ex. N.

Later that day, Cox drafted an e-mail message to Spiro stating:

I met with [Roman] ... and told her that she needed to deal directly with Poux. She confessed that she had threatened the staff.... I told her that her behavior was inexcusable — that it represented a lack of respect for people and also an abuse of her power as an Assistant Director. I also told her that I was receiving feedback that she was undermining Poux and negatively representing the EMPO program and the university. I told her that her success at Cornell depended on her positive support of all three.... If she couldn't do that she shouldn't work here.

Id. Spiro responded to Cox writing "[m]y view at this point is that [Roman] probably should be outplaced because of her deteriorating relationship with the staff and because it increasingly appears that she cannot do the work." Id.

After the November 11 incident, Cox learned from Baylor and Hendricks that there had been other incidents of inappropriate conduct by plaintiff. Because the College was contemplating terminating

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plaintiff, Baylor and Hendricks were asked to document their recollection of any such incidents. See Def.Exs. BB, CC, and DD; Cox Aff., at ¶ 11.

On November 15, 1994, Baylor sent an e-mail to Poux documenting her recollection of several incidents when plaintiff allegedly acted in an inappropriate manner. See Def.Ex. O. Baylor's e-mail reported several incidents regarding plaintiff, including: plaintiff speaking negatively about Poux's ability to supervise and manage the EMPO, plaintiff stating at a staff meeting that Gloria Guilford was engaging in sexual relations with Hopcroft to be promoted, plaintiff admitting to falsifying her resume, and plaintiff permitting a student to use the EMPO fax machine in contravention to office policy.

On November 18, 1994, Poux issued a disciplinary warning to plaintiff regarding the November 11, 1994 incident. The letter read as follows:

On the morning of Friday, November 11, 1994, in the EMPO suite, you threatened staff members Sonja Baylor, Ann Hendricks and me (in absentia) with our jobs, and then hurled numerous invectives and expletives at Sonja and Ann. Further, you indicated to them in no uncertain terms that you were going against my direction to you to return the briefcase that you purchased with the following statement: "I am not returning that fucking bag...."

This behavior is totally and completely unprofessional and unacceptable. Insubordination, threatening and abusive behavior, be it physical, verbal, and/or psychological, as well as repeated prevarication about individuals, will not be tolerated under any circumstances.

This is an official University warning to you that if there are ever displays of such behavior again, further disciplinary action, including the possibility of termination, will result.

I recommend that you seek assistance in remedying this situation.

Def.Ex. P. In late November or early December, Poux reported to Cox and Spiro that he had contacted an acquaintance, the Dean of Students at Rennselaer Polytechnical Institute ("RPI"), regarding plaintiff. Plaintiff had previously been employed by RPI. According to Poux, his acquaintance stated that, in the last two years of her employment, plaintiff "was withdrawn and secretive, ... became uncooperative and argumentative, and engaged in the `backbiting and undermining' other staff" and her supervisor. See Def.Ex. Q.

On November 10,...

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