St. Juste v. Metro Plus Health Plan

Decision Date28 March 2014
Docket NumberNo. 10–CV–4729 (MKB).,10–CV–4729 (MKB).
Citation8 F.Supp.3d 287
PartiesOmowale ST. JUSTE, Plaintiff, v. METRO PLUS HEALTH PLAN, City of New York Health and Hospitals Corporation, City of New York, Ileana Florentino, Ricardo Alaniz and Michael Stocker, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of New York


Mustapha Lakpene Ndanusa, Brooklyn, NY, for Plaintiff.

William H. Ng, Jane E. Andersen, Zev Samuel Singer Corporation Counsel of New York, New York, NY, for Defendants.


MARGO K. BRODIE, District Judge:

Plaintiff Omowale St. Juste brings the above-captioned action against Defendants Metro Plus Health Plan (Metro Plus), City of New York Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC), the City of New York, Ileana Florentino, Ricardo Alaniz and Michael Stocker, alleging claims of religious discrimination, retaliation and hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (Title VII), 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. Law § 290 et seq. (“NYSHRL”) and the New York City Human Rights Law, N.Y.C. Admin. Code, § 8–101 et seq., (“NYCHRL”). Defendants moved for summary judgment as to all claims. The Court heard oral argument on March 4, 2014. For the reasons discussed below, the Court grants Defendants' motion for summary judgment as to Plaintiff's claims brought pursuant to Title VII, NYSHRL and § 1983. The Court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims brought pursuant to the NYCHRL and dismisses those claims without prejudice.

I. Background
a. Plaintiff's hiring and initial employment

Plaintiff Omowale St. Juste is an African–American male who converted to Islam at the age of twenty-three. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 5; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 5.) Defendant Metro Plus provides inexpensive health insurance options for New York City residents and is a subsidiary of HHC.1 (Def. 56.1 ¶ 1; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 1.) Plaintiff began working with Metro Plus on June 23, 2008, as a Medicaid Enrollment Sales Representative (“ESR”), where he was responsible for educating New York residents about Medicaid and enrolling them in Medicaid plans. (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 8, 13; Pl. 56.1 ¶¶ 8, 13.) Plaintiff was a member of the team located at Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn, and worked at different sites in Brooklyn including the Federal Courthouse. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 39; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 38.) 2

Plaintiff was obligated by his religious observance to attend congregational prayer, otherwise known as Jumu'ah prayer, (Def. 56.1 ¶ 21; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 20), and while assigned to the Woodhull Hospital team, Plaintiff attended Friday prayer during the lunch hour, typically at the Masjid–At–Taqwa, a mosque in Brooklyn, (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 54–55; Pl. 56.1 ¶¶ 53–54). It took Plaintiff an hour and a half to attend Jumu'ah prayer, including travel time between the mosque and Woodhull Hospital. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 56; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 55.) Plaintiff therefore required an additional thirty minutes for lunch on Fridays. Plaintiff had a verbal agreement with his supervisor, Florentino, that Plaintiff did not need to include this additional time in his time sheets. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 59; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 58.) Instead, he could offset the additional thirty minutes with after-hours work at either an event or a home visit. ( Id.) Plaintiff's first supervisor, Telvis Austin, appointed Masjid–At–Taqwa, a mosque in Brooklyn, as a recruiting site, (Def. Ex. B, Deposition of Omowale St. Juste (St. Juste Dep.) 69:12–69:17; St. Juste Aff. ¶ 39), where Plaintiff was scheduled to work on Wednesdays, (Def. 56.1 ¶ 41; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 40).

Plaintiff asked his instructors if it was acceptable for him to wear his thawb to work and they informed him that wearing his thawb fell within Metro Plus's dress code. (St. Juste Aff. ¶¶ 8, 9; St. Juste Dep. 4:17–74:25.) A thawb is a religious garment which resembles a priest's robe and covers the wearer from his shoulders to his shins. (St. Juste Aff. ¶ 2; St. Juste Dep. 61:17–61:23.) Plaintiff wore a thawb to work and would typically pair it with a blazer, vest, and dress pants. (St. Juste Dep. 61:17–23; St. Juste Aff. ¶ 10.) Plaintiff admits that wearing the thawb is not a mandatory requirement for Muslims, and wearing a suit would comply with his religious beliefs as it comports with the religious obligation of dressing modestly. (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 18, 19; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 19; St. Juste Dep. 62:14–64:9.)

b. Plaintiff's supervision by Alaniz

On April 1, 2009, Alaniz, the Associate Marketing Director at Metro Plus, became Plaintiff's manager while Florentino was on personal leave. (St. Juste Dep. 150:3–150:6; Def. Ex. C, Deposition of Ricardo Alaniz (Alaniz Dep.) 24:2–24:7.) Alaniz supervised Plaintiff directly for two weeks, and indirectly from mid-April until October 2009. (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 43, 71; Pl. 56.1 ¶¶ 42, 70; Alaniz Dep. 24:1–25:3.) On Thursday, April 2, 2009, Alaniz sent an email scheduling a 3:00 p.m. meeting at Elmhurst Hospital for Friday, April 3, 2009. (St. Juste Aff. ¶ 46; Pl. Ex. 6.) Plaintiff replied to Alaniz's email stating, “I will be late for the meeting due to Friday religious services which end at about 2:20 pm.” (Def. 56.1 ¶ 75; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 74; Pl. Ex. 6.) Alaniz responded by saying “this is unacceptable and your timely attendance is required. This meeting is paramount ... and attendance is mandated.” (Def. 56.1 ¶ 76; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 75.) Plaintiff attended Friday prayers and arrived five minutes late to the meeting which had not yet begun. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 79; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 78; St. Juste Aff. ¶ 48.) Plaintiff was not disciplined for being late to the meeting. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 78; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 78.)

A week later, Alaniz noticed that Plaintiff had not returned to Woodhull Hospital within the normal timeframe for lunch, did not see Plaintiff at his station, and did not have documentation on file from Plaintiff requesting time off. (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 84, 86; Pl. 56.1 ¶¶ 83, 85; Alaniz Dep. 120:4–18.) Alaniz left a message with co-workers requesting that Plaintiff visit Alaniz when Plaintiff returned. (St. Juste Aff. ¶ 96; Alaniz Dep. 120:21–25.) Plaintiff claims that when he met with Alaniz, Alaniz made derogatory comments about the thawb calling it “unprofessional according to American culture.” (St. Juste Aff. ¶ 51.) Alaniz also informed Plaintiff that he was “stealing company time” by attending Friday prayers and that Plaintiff's attendance at these prayers was subject to Alaniz's discretion. ( Id.) Plaintiff informed Alaniz that he attended Jumu'ah prayers on Fridays and therefore required additional time for lunch, (Def. 56.1 ¶ 87; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 86), and Alaniz responded by stating that such behavior was inappropriate and “not conducive for the marketing operations,” (Alaniz Dep. 125:3–5).

Subsequent to this meeting, Joseph Chasse, Associate Executive Director of Marketing, requested that Plaintiff wear a suit and not a thawb when working at the Federal Courthouse. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 81; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 80; St. Juste Dep. 83:9–20.) Alaniz subsequently discontinued the use of Masjid–At–Taqwa as a Metro Plus work site, (Alaniz Dep. 133:4–134:25; St. Juste Aff. ¶ 97), according to Defendants, because of low enrollment numbers, (Def. 56.1 ¶ 40; Alaniz Dep. 133:4–15, 134:14–23).3

Plaintiff claims that, at an unspecified time, Alaniz told him that his attendance at Friday prayers was a “privilege” that would only continue so long as he kept meeting his weekly enrollment goal. (St. Juste Dep. 181:16–23.) On May 21, 2009, Alaniz emailed Plaintiff a copy of Metro Plus's policy with respect to ethnic and religious holidays. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 89; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 88; Def. Ex. S.) Alaniz explained in the email that he “will genuine[ly] make every effort to accommodate your needs but at the same time I also have an obligation to the corporation to abide by all rules and regulations as previously explained,” and directed Plaintiff to reach out to Belinda Barneys, the Director of Labor Relations in the human resources department, to obtain clarification on the policy. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 90; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 89; Def. Ex. S.) Plaintiff reached out to Ryan Harris, Chief Human Resources Officer, who told Plaintiff that Metro Plus would accommodate his request to attend Friday prayers except where it affected the company's operations. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 91; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 90.)

HHC's Operating Procedure on Ethnic and Religious Holidays provides that approved leave for observance of ethnic or religious holidays could be charged to annual leave or compensatory time credits, and, if the request for leave is otherwise appropriate, could be granted and charged against future accumulation of either annual or compensatory time if an employee had insufficient vacation days or accumulated compensatory time. (Pl. Ex. 4 (“HHC Operating Procedure No. 20–18) at 2.) The policy also provides that each major operating unit “must establish the amount of advance notice required for submission of leave requests, and a procedure to ensure that employees are informed of the requirement well in advance of the time requests must be provided.” ( Id. at 2.) A request for leave, whether annual leave or compensatory time, for a religious or other holiday must be made through submission of an “SR–70” form at least two weeks in advance. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 57; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 56.)

Alaniz met with Harris from the human resources department on or about May 24, 2009, and subsequently concluded that the hospital “could not reasonably accommodate [Plaintiff's] request for more than a one-hour lunch” on Fridays. (Alaniz Dep. 114:12–17.) According to Defendants, Metro Plus operates in “a very regulated monitored industry,” and the New York City Department of Health and other city and federal government agencies require a schedule to be sent to them “two months in advance on where [Facilitated Enrollers (“FE's”) ] are going to be located, including their working hours. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 50; Alaniz Dep. 68:3–24.) The city and federal agencies send monitors out and if they do not see a particular employee at a...

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