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Abbasi v. Smithkline Beecham Corp.

March 25, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pollak, J.


Plaintiff Mitra Abbasi brought suit againstGlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and her former supervisor at GSK, Alexandre Lancksweert, for employment discrimination on the basis of her national origin (Iranian) and her race (Persian). The parties by stipulation (Docket No. 22) dismissed the first four counts of the amended complaint (Docket No. 6) which included claims under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for harassment, disparate treatment and retaliation, and a claim under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. The remaining count is for discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Both defendants moved for summary judgment (Docket Nos. 37, 38) and the plaintiff responded (Docket No. 41). The defendants filed a reply (Docket No. 44) and the plaintiff was allowed leave to file a sur-reply (Docket No. 46). The motion is ripe for disposition.

I. Background and Procedural History

A. Facts

The plaintiff, Mitra Abbasi, is a native of Iran. Pls.'Ex. 1 (PHRC Compl.), at ¶ 7. She is also of Persian ethnicity. Def. Ex. 4 (Pl's. Dep.), at 127:1-128:17; Def's. Answer ¶ 15. She holds a B.S. in information systems from St. Joseph's University, which she obtained in 1989, and a master's degreeinengineering from Pennsylvania State University, which she obtained in 1994. Pls.' Ex. 1, at ¶ 8-9; Def's. Answer ¶ 16-17. GSK hired her as a consultant in 1998. Pl. Ex. 1, at ¶ 10. GSK hired her full-time as a Clinical Programmer Database Administrator in 2001 and she eventually became a member of the Metrics group. Pl. Ex. 1, at ¶ 10-11; Def. Ex. 5 (Palmer's Dep.), at 30:19-21.

In September 2003, defendant Alexandre Lancksweert became the manager of the Metrics group and was Abbasi's direct supervisor. Pl. Ex. 1, at ¶ 14. Lancksweert initially worked in the United Kingdom, but moved to the United States in 2005. Def. Ex. 4 (Pl's. Dep.), at 11:6-10.

Abbasi in her deposition testified to several incidents that she believed created a hostile work environment and were instances of discrimination. First, Lancksweert publicly criticized her during meetings, including yelling at her. Def. Ex. 4. (Pl's. Dep), at 18:9-18; Def. Ex. 8 (Ernestine Mitchell's Dep.), at 30:4-5. These criticisms were severe enough to make Abbasi's co-worker Ernestine Mitchell uncomfortable. Def. Ex. 8, at 59:24-60:5. However, the confrontations observed by Ernestine Mitchell were to the best of her recollection "all work-related." Def. Ex. 8, at 31:4-10. Others concurred that Lancksweert's treatment of Abbasi was related to what Lancksweert viewed as her poor performance. Def. Ex. 5 (Helen Palmer's Dep.), at 210:10-20 ("I think because of the performance issue I think he may have interacted with Mitra more often on those issues . . ."); Def. Ex. 7, (Marta Wilson's Dep.), at 118:12-120:12 (stating that Abbasi needed "more guidance" due to "mistakes or overlooking details"). Lancksweert had raised his voice at others frequently. Def. Ex. 5 (Palmer's Dep.), at 94:22-25. But, criticisms were directed at Abbasi more frequently than others. Def. Ex. 8 (Mitchell's Dep.), at 33:22-19. Helen Palmer and Marta Wilson, senior GSK employees, did not dispute that Abbasi was more frequently the target of Lancksweert's criticisms but ascribed it to her having more issues with her work. Def. Ex. 5 (Palmer's Dep.), at 210:10-20; Def. Ex. 7, (Wilson's Dep.), at 118:12-120:12.

Similarly, Abbasi found Lancksweert's tone in emails to be demeaning. Def. Ex. 4. (Pl's. Dep), at 36:9. She particularly took issue with an email where Lancksweert had pointed out mistakes in a report sent out by Abbasi that she believes were not her mistakes. Def. Ex. 4. (Pl's. Dep), at 36:25-38:13.

Additionally, Lancksweert gave Abbasi a negative performance review, referred to at GSK as a Personal Development Plan (PDP), for her work in 2004. Def. Ex. 4. (Pl's. Dep), at 14:3-15:3. Abbasi felt that the 2004 PDP prepared by Lancksweert conflicted with the peer feedback solicited from Abbasi's co-workers in what GSK calls the "360" review process. Def. Ex. 4. (Pl's. Dep), at 13:9-15, 14:21-24. Lancksweert's "Manager's Summary of Overall Performance" in Abbasi's 2004 PDP praises Abbasi as a "committed and enthusiastic member of the team . . . [who] works diligently to communicate the value of [our] tools & reports; and supports the team by forming day-to-day activities." Pl. Ex. 9. It also states she "is passionate about her work." Ibid. The comments also contain several criticisms, which form the focal point of plaintiff's arguments, that state her "impact on her colleagues and the wider organisation [sic] is limited by her poor communication skills and the lack of validation on her work," that she "rush[es]-into making presentations with little forethought for the relevance and structure of key messages [and a]s a result, the target audience, while grateful for her support, are confused," and that she "rush[es] her work without conducting the appropriate checks to ensure accuracy & robustness of the analyses." Pl. Ex. 9.

In addition to Abassi's 2004 PDP, the parties submitted the 2003 PDP, written by Helen Palmer, who was primarily supervising Abbasi in 2003. Def. Ex. 5, at 41:21-25. The 2003 PDP for Abbasi, while more positive than the 2004 PDP, states that Abbasi needs to address "the issue of data quality and taking accountability for checking the integrity of reports and other output before allowing them to be published." Pl. Ex. 8.

Palmer stated in her deposition that although Abbasi had accomplished her objectives for that year in delivering certain reports, "[t]here was a lot of rework that had to be done." Def. Ex. 5, at 53:9-54:5. Palmer stated she was not surprised at the criticism Lancksweert included in the 2004 PDP. Def. Ex. 5, at 82:2-5.

Despite Abbasi's claims to the contrary, Abbasi's 2004 "360" peer reviews, while on the balance very positive, contain criticisms similar to those from Lancksweert. Some of the feedback states:

Mitra could benefit from courses covering interpersonal communication and stress management to improve her ability [to] handle seemingly difficult relationships . . . There are still times when the desire to see a task finishes [sic] overrides the thorough checking and ensuring that the work is fit for purpose. This has lead [sic] to the need for extra checking from other members of the team. The need to double check all work can not be overemphasised [sic] . . .

Perhaps Mitra could be clearer in her delivery of the message she wants to give. Some people walk away confused.

Pl. Ex. 10.

Lancksweert also gave Abbasi a project without informing her of the deadline when the project had to be completed. Def. Ex. 4. (Pl's. Dep), at 26:1-22. When Abbasi informed Lancksweert that she would complete the project soon, he told her that she was already late and he needed the project completed the day before. Ibid. Abbasi believes that Lancksweert intended to set her up to fail on the project. Ibid.

Abbasi described several other incidents that she found offensive. Lancksweert told Abbasi that she did not speak English clearly and should take more time to think before she talks. Def. Ex. 4. (Pl's. Dep), at 21:20-22:4. Niall Devine and another female co-worker, whom Abbasi could not identify, were given a project instead of Abbasi, despite the fact that Abbasi had spent more time working in the group. Def. Ex. 4. (Pl's. Dep), at 22:11-25:3. Lancksweert criticized Abbasi for working from home and told her that due to her poor performance she could no longer work from home. Def. Ex. 4. (Pl's. Dep), at 32:17-35:23. Meanwhile, several other of Abbasi's co-workers were allowed to work from home. Def. Ex. 4. (Pl's. Dep), at 33:25-34:12. Lancksweert refused to allow Abbasi to attend a metrics conference in Philadelphia for $300, while others had traveled from the U.K. for similar meetings. Def. Ex. 4. (Pl's. Dep), at 38:25-40:10. Lastly Lancksweert gave Abbasi the job description of a low-level metrics analyst and asked her if the position was more suited to her abilities and what she wanted to do. Def. Ex. 4. (Pl's. Dep), at 41:9-25.

Abbasi was the only member of the Metrics group that was not promoted during the tenure of Lancksweert as the head of the Metrics group. Def. Ex. 2, (Lancksweert's Dep.), at 46:20-47:24.

On February 18, 2005, Abbasi asked for regular feedback and review from Lancksweert. Def. Ex. 11. Her intent was to create a "paper trail" of Lancksweert's criticisms. Def. Ex. 4 (Pl's. Dep.), at 138:1-139:2.

In response to the above incidents, on May 16, 2005, Abbasi initiated an internal discrimination complaint against Lancksweert. Pl. Ex. 11. Sharon McCrae of GSK's CEDER (compliance, equal opportunity, diversity and employee relations) department investigated Abbasi's allegations against Lancksweert. Def. Ex. 13 (McCrae's Dep.), at 68:17-70:5. McCrae informed Abbasi that she would interview the entire Metrics group and then make a recommendation based on her findings. Def. Ex. 13, at 80:11-81:4. McCrae conducted interviews and took notes of her interviews. Def. Ex. 13, at 114:4-9. McCrae then summarized her findings and provided a recommendation along with a chart summarizing the interviews. Def. Ex. 184:1-16, and Def. Ex. 15.

The parties' versions of events diverge regarding both the conclusion of the investigation and the thoroughness of the investigation. Both sides agree that a memorandum dated December 20, 2005, informed Abbasi that the investigation revealed "insufficient evidence" to support Abbasi's claims of discrimination and a hostile work environment. Pl. Ex. 15. However, Abbasi claims that McCrae verbally informed her that she had confirmed the charge of a hostile work environment in October of 2005, but that McCrae could not prove it was based on national origin or ethnicity. Def. Ex. 4, (Pl's. Dep.), at 83:22-85:1. Abbasi also claims that McCrae's deposition shows that McCrae was unaware of Abbasi's national origin and ethnicity at the time of her investigation. Def. Ex. 13, at 130:23-132:2. But the defendants claim that McCrae was aware of Abbasi's national origin and ethnicity. Def. Ex. 13, at 192:18-193:4. The parties also debate whether the summaries of the interviews support or contradict Abbasi's claims. See Def. Ex. 15 (Investigation Summary).

B. Procedural History

On January 16, 2008, Abbasi instituted this suit by filing a complaint (Docket No. 1). She then filed an amended complaint (Docket No. 6), which the defendants answered (Docket No. 12). The defendants moved to dismiss (Docket No. 13) for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). The parties then filed a joint stipulation to dismiss the first four of the five counts of the complaint, which I approved (Docket Nos. 19, 22). By agreement this stipulation disposed of the motion to dismiss. (Docket No. 19). The only remaining count is a claim that defendants violated 42 U.S.C. § 1981.

II. Discussion

A. Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate where "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c);IFC Interconsult, AG v. Safeguard Int'l Partners, L.L.C., 438 F.3d 298, 317 (3d Cir. 2006). Facts are material if they "bear on an essential element of the plaintiff's claim." Fakete v. Aetna, Inc., 308 F.3d 335, 337 (3d Cir. 2002) (quoting Abraham v. Raso, 183 ...

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