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Sandhya Verma v. University of Pennsylvania

May 18, 2012


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



This case involves an allegation of employment discrimination. On January 28, 2011, Plaintiff Sandhya Verma ("Plaintiff") filed a Complaint against Defendant University of Pennsylvania ("Defendant"). (Doc. No. 1.) In her Complaint, Plaintiff alleges she was terminated on account of her national origin, race,*fn1 and age*fn2 in violation of federal and state law, and was subjected to retaliation for making her claim of discrimination. (Doc. No. 1 at ¶¶ 31-46.) Plaintiff seeks all legal and equitable remedies available, including reinstatement, back pay, front pay, compensation for past and future mental anguish and pain and suffering, punitive damages and attorney's fees. (Doc. No. 1 at 8.) On February 13, 2012, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 17.) Defendant's Motion and Plaintiff's Response have been fully briefed by the parties and is now ripe for disposition.*fn3 For reasons that follow, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment will be granted.


Plaintiff Sandhya Verma ("Plaintiff") is a forty-seven-year-old female of Indian origin, a citizen of Pennsylvania, and was an employee of Defendant from approximately March 8, 2004 to March 18, 2008. (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 4; Doc. No. 3 ¶ 4.) Defendant University of Pennsylvania is a private university located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 5; Doc. No. 3 ¶ 5.) In March 2004, Plaintiff was hired by Defendant as an International Student Services Specialist within Defendant's International Student and Scholar Services Department ("ISSS"). (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶ 22; Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 22.) Plaintiff's duties included processing immigration forms for students, assisting in an orientation program for students enrolled in Defendant's English Language Program ("ELP"), answering telephone calls, covering ISSS's front desk, answering emails, and other general office duties. (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶ 30; Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 30.)

Central to Plaintiff's claims is the treatment she received from three supervisors between 2005 and her termination in 2008. They are Sheila Gardner, Rodolfo Altamirano, and Kate Zheng. (See generally Doc. No. 17-1; Doc. No. 20-3.) As discussed below, Plaintiff refused to perform various job duties assigned by all three supervisors, and, as a result, she received multiple negative performance reviews prior to being placed on probation and eventually terminated. (See, e.g., Doc. No. 17-1 ¶¶ 35, 53, 65-69, 75, 79, 95, 98; Doc. No. 20-3 ¶¶ 35, 53, 65-69, 75, 79, 95, 98.)*fn4 The remainder of this factual background will outline Plaintiff's experiences with each of these supervisors.

A. Sheila Gardner: Plaintiff's Supervisor from January 2006 to August 2006 In January 2006, Sheila Gardner ("Gardner") became Interim Director of ISSS. (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶ 33; Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 33.) Gardner assigned Plaintiff additional job duties such as adding advisors' schedules to the ISSS online appointment scheduler, but Plaintiff refused to perform these duties. (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶ 35; Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 35.) Plaintiff contends that she was "forced to take on" these additional duties because one of her co-workers, Suat Albulut ("Albulut"),*fn5 had refused to do them. (Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 35.) In Plaintiff's deposition, she commented that "when I said no [to Gardner], that's what created the whole hoopla and [Gardner] was like, [']How the hell[?] You have to do it. Either you listen to me or you will be fired.[']" (Doc. No. 17, Ex. 1, Plaintiff's Dep. 87-89; 92-93.)

On June 23, 2006, Gardner issued a performance review for Plaintiff, in which Gardner noted that Plaintiff "needed to improve her 'adaptability' and team work, and that she would be expected to promptly assume new job duties assigned to her." (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶¶ 39-40 (citing Doc. No. 17, Ex. 8); Doc. No. 20-3 ¶¶ 39-40.) Plaintiff claims that, prior to this performance review, she had filed a discrimination complaint against Gardner with Defendant's Ombudsman, Dr. Gulban O'Connor ("Ombudsman O'Connor"). (Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 38.) Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that, although Gardner would grant Plaintiff's co-workers' (such as Albulut's) requests to work from home, when Plaintiff had a plumbing emergency and requested to work from home, "Gardner refused her request and required [Plaintiff] to complete a time off request sheet." (Id.) Plaintiff claims that she provided documentation to support her discrimination complaint to Ombudsman O'Connor as well as to the Executive Director of Defendant's Office of International Programs ("OIP"), Dr. JoAnn McCarthy. (Id.) Furthermore, Plaintiff alleges that, at the time Gardner issued her performance review, Gardner was "aware of [Plaintiff's] hostile [work] environment[,]" and had observed a co-worker, Sharmayne Sin ("Sin"),*fn6 "scream and shout at [Plaintiff] and generally create mayhem in the office[.]" (Id. ¶ 40.)

B. Rodolfo Altamirano: Plaintiff's Supervisor from August 2006 to May 2007

In August 2006, Rodolfo Altamirano ("Altamirano") became Director of ISSS. (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶ 41; Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 41.) Plaintiff testified in her deposition that she initially had a good relationship with Altamirano and that he told Plaintiff she did a "very good job." (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶ 46; Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 46.) However, while Defendant alleges that Altamirano told Plaintiff "he wanted her to stay working at UPenn but that [Plaintiff] needed to do what was asked of her[,]" Plaintiff denies that Altamirano ever made this statement. (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶ 46; Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 46.) Additionally, Defendant claims that Plaintiff "took offense" when Altamirano asked her to "work together and cooperate with [] Sin, one of her co-workers[,]" but Plaintiff denies that this request offended her. (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶ 47; Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 47.) Altamirano had a conference with Plaintiff and Sin, in which Altamirano issued a written warning to both employees regarding their cooperation, or lack thereof. (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶ 49 (citing Doc. No. 17 Ex. 9); Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 49.)

After this initial conference, Altamirano held regular meetings with Plaintiff and Sin to discuss the progress of their working relationship. (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶ 50; Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 50.) Plaintiff alleges that Altamirano's handling of this situation was discriminatory because he "would meet with Sin . . . but he would not meet with [Plaintiff] and allow her to discuss the details of her complaints about Sin. [In addition,] Altamirano typically accepted Sin's complaints as true, and, in an email, would convey them to [Plaintiff]." (Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 51.)*fn7

Plaintiff also claims Altamirano made an offensive discriminatory comment to her during a meeting with Plaintiff and Sin, in which Altamirano commented that Plaintiff's "cultural background" was an influence in her perception of workplace events and in her conduct. (Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 190.) In its Brief in Support of the Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendant acknowledges that Altamirano made this comment but contends that it was "not even disparaging[,]" and that Plaintiff herself "admitted that the substance of Altamirano's observation was true, because she and Sin were in fact from different cultural backgrounds[.]" (Doc. No. 17-2 at 8.)

Plaintiff also alleges Altamirano discriminated against her by subjecting her to differential treatment regarding her lunch schedule. (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶ 52; Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 52.) Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that, although she requested an earlier lunch hour, Altamirano assigned her to a later one in order to accommodate Josie Yaller and Jackie Mower, two of Plaintiff's white, female colleagues who wanted to have lunch together. (Id.)

Plaintiff continued to have workplace conflicts with co-workers Albulut and Sin. (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶ 53; Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 53.) In April 2007, Altamirano issued a performance review of Plaintiff in which he rated her performance as "unacceptable" and requiring "significant improvement." (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶ 55 (citing Doc. No. 17, Ex. 11); Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 55.) Plaintiff objected in writing to Altamirano's negative review of her performance. (Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 55.)

C. Kate Zheng: Plaintiff's Supervisor from May 2007 to December 2007

In May 2007, Defendant hired Kate Zheng ("Zheng") as the Associate Director of ISSS, and Zheng became Plaintiff's immediate supervisor. (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 7; Doc. No. 3 ¶ 7.) Plaintiff alleges that, thereafter, Zheng "began a campaign of severe and pervasive harassment against [Plaintiff] based solely on [Plaintiff's] . . . national origin." (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 8.) Plaintiff cites several specific examples of what she asserts are discriminatory treatment by Zheng. These allegations include: (1) disproportionate work assignments compared to her co-workers, (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶ 63; Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 63); (2) refusing to allow Plaintiff to attend English Language Program ("ELP") presentations while permitting her white co-worker to do so (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶ 73; Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 73); and (3) forcing Plaintiff to perform job tasks related to the processing of immigration paperwork that a white, female co-worker refused to do (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶¶ 80-99; Doc. No. 20-3 ¶¶ 80-99). Plaintiff made written and verbal objections to both Altamirano and Zheng. (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶¶ 63, 73, 77; Doc. No. 20-3 ¶¶ 63, 73, 77.) She also refused to complete an assigned self-evaluation and refused to perform certain assigned job tasks because they were "not [her] job." (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶¶ 65-69, 75, 79, 95, 98; Doc. No. 20-3 ¶¶ 65-69, 75, 79, 95, 98.)

In October 2007, Plaintiff copied Defendant's HR Director, Susan Curran ("Curran"), on an email to Altamirano in which Plaintiff claimed Zheng was discriminating against her and subjecting her to unfair treatment. (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶ 155 (citing Doc. No. 17, Ex. 30); Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 155.) Curran investigated Plaintiff's discrimination claim. She met with Plaintiff and Zheng in October 2007, and asked Plaintiff and Zheng to provide documentation and other information. (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶¶ 157-65; Doc. No. 20-3 ¶¶ 157-65.) Defendant contends that Curran then had a meeting with Plaintiff on October 18, 2007 and stated that her conclusion was that Plaintiff had refused to perform assigned job tasks, in response to which Plaintiff became visibly upset. (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶¶ 166-68.) Plaintiff denies that Curran ever met with her to discuss the results of the investigation. (Doc. No. 20-3 ¶¶ 166-68.)

Curran referred Plaintiff to Pat Miller ("Miller") in Defendant's Office of Affirmative Action. (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶¶ 171-73; Doc. No. 20-3 ¶¶ 171-73.) Plaintiff met with Miller in October 2007 and completed a complaint form. (Id.) Miller investigated Plaintiff's complaint, interviewing Plaintiff, Zheng, Altamirano, and several of Plaintiff's co-workers. (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶ 180; Doc. No. 20-3 ¶ 180.) Following the investigation, Miller concluded that there was no information to support Plaintiff's allegations of discriminatory treatment, and that, on the contrary, Plaintiff's supervisors had taken appropriate action in response to Plaintiff's "genuine performance and behavior issues." (Doc. No. 17-1 ¶ 187; ...

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