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Smith v. Comhar Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 9, 2017

COMHAR, INC., Defendant.


          Gerald Austin McHugh United States District Judge

         This is an unusual Title VII case, both because it concerns a sex discrimination claim by a male plaintiff, and because that plaintiff was a manager who now alleges that he was fired largely due to the actions of employees whom he supervised. According to Plaintiff, these employees objected to working for a male boss and therefore waged a campaign of misinformation and insubordination in an attempt to get him fired. Plaintiff further maintains that his employer, Defendant COMHAR, was complicit in this effort, leading to his termination. Alternatively, Plaintiff argues that Defendant fired him because he filed a sex discrimination complaint. Because the record contains marginal if any evidence of discriminatory animus or retaliatory intent, and because Plaintiff fails to rebut Defendant's non-discriminatory rationale for his termination, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted and Plaintiff's claims are dismissed.


         Defendant COMHAR is a nonprofit organization serving individuals with mental illness and with mental and physical disabilities. Among other things, Defendant provides Targeted Case Management services for those with “severe and persistent mental illness . . . who have overused psychiatric emergency services and experienced psychiatric hospitalization and/or homelessness.” MSJ at 3. In April 2014, Plaintiff Orlando Smith was promoted to the position of Targeted Case Management (TCM) Supervisor.[1] In this capacity, he oversaw a team of six Case Managers, each of whom worked directly with around 30 clients. The decision to hire Plaintiff was made by Catina Anastasiadis, who had previously served as TCM Supervisor before being promoted to TCM Director. As TCM Director, Anastasiadis was Plaintiff's boss.

         Plaintiff's tenure as TCM Supervisor got off to difficult start. Within two weeks, he began having problems with two of his direct reports: Tammy Hairston and Lori Mina. These problems first arose in the context of daily morning team meetings. Because Case Managers spend much of their time serving clients in the field, these meetings were the only regular opportunities for Plaintiff to interact with his entire team. Plaintiff used the morning meetings to make announcements and to gather information about his team members' clients.

         As early as his first week on the job, Plaintiff maintains that Hairston was insolent and uncooperative at morning meetings. By way of example, Plaintiff claims that during at least one morning meeting, Hairston worked on an office computer instead of listening to her co-workers, did not look up from the computer screen when speaking to Plaintiff, and refused to provide additional information about her clients when Plaintiff requested it. According to Plaintiff, Hairston's unpleasant and obstinate attitude carried over from morning meetings to their individual encounters. For instance, Plaintiff claims that during one-on-one meetings, Hairston “sighed, eye rolled, and played with her cell phone . . ., and grudgingly gave limited information as I asked for a report on each client.” MSJ Ex. 4 at *81. He also claims that Hairston routinely violated COMHAR procedures by failing to provide Plaintiff with her notes detailing client interactions, and that she delayed in complying with Plaintiff's directives.

         Plaintiff claims that he did nothing to warrant Hairston's insubordination; rather, he says that Hairston defied him because she harbored a general disdain for men. In support of this theory, Plaintiff proffers testimony from Kelli Seibert, a Case Manager at COMHAR, but not one of his direct reports. According to Seibert, Hairston did not “like men. So she treated all men like crap.” Resp. Ex. A at 13.

         Whatever caused Hairtson's hostile demeanor, Plaintiff eventually responded by admonishing her in front of her colleagues during morning meeting. Mina took issue with Plaintiff's public rebuke. In an e-mail to Plaintiff and his superior, Anastasiadis, Mina claimed that Plaintiff's poor facilitation resulted in chaotic morning meetings, and that Plaintiff had unfairly singled out Hairston for a reprimand when others were engaged in similarly disruptive behavior.

         Prompted by Mina's e-mail and Plaintiff's complaints about Hairston, Anastasiadis intervened. On May 5, 2014, she mediated meetings both between Plaintiff and Hairston and Plaintiff and Mina. Plaintiff describes Anastasiadis as a passive participant in these meetings, but there is evidence that she reiterated to Hairston and Mina that Plaintiff was their supervisor, that the format and content of the morning meetings were matters committed to Plaintiff's discretion, and that Hairston was obligated to provide Plaintiff with information on her clients.

         Any improvement following the May 5 meeting was fleeting. Four days later, during the morning meeting on May 9, Plaintiff publicly reprimanded Mina for using her computer after he had expressly requested that team members refrain from doing so. This reproach prompted Mina to again e-mail Plaintiff and Anastasiadis, and again accuse Plaintiff of selectively doling out demerits while ignoring other unruly behavior.

         To Plaintiff's annoyance, Mina's habit of airing her grievances with Plaintiff in e-mails to Anastasiadis resurfaced less than three weeks later, on May 28. On that day, Plaintiff was notified that one of Mina's clients was having a medical emergency. Believing that Mina was in a meeting and therefore unavailable, Plaintiff “proceeded to seek coverage . . . based on the information available to me, using my judgment and discretion as supervisor.” Resp. Ex. F at *4. Unbeknownst to Plaintiff, Mina had already arranged for another colleague to attend to her client. Later that afternoon, Mina copied Anastasiadis on an e-mail to Plaintiff in which she criticized him for failing to call her before intervening with her client, and claimed that his failure to communicate had caused panic and confusion. Id.

         At or around this time, Plaintiff claims that Anastasiadis revealed to him that Hairston and Mina disagreed with her decision to hire Plaintiff as TCM Supervisor. During his deposition, Plaintiff remembered his conversation with Anastasiadis this way:

She said, I talked with the team before you were hired and let -- and I tried to keep them in the loop about who we were considering. And she said, the only two people that had any problem were those two [(Hairston and Mina)] and it seemed to be about the men. That was when gender came into it. I mean, that's when--
Q. What does that mean, it seemed to be about the men?
A. Well, from what I understood, about the men she was considering for the job. She said . . . she was keeping the team abreast of who she was considering for the position. . . . And I assume she was giving names or -- I think there was another gentleman that -- there was another case manager who applied.

Resp. Ex. B at 40.

         Faced with what he perceived as insubordinate behavior by two employees who had apparently objected to his hire, Plaintiff attempted in late May to initiate more formal disciplinary action against Hairston and Mina. At Anastasiadis's recommendation, Plaintiff drafted “Memos of Concern, ” documenting his grievances with each. Also at Anastasiadis's recommendation, Plaintiff shared these memos with Tonica Lowe-Miller, Defendant's Assistant Director of Human Resources, and asked for her permission to send the memos to Mina and Hairston. Because Plaintiff had only been a TCM Supervisor for short time, Lowe-Miller withheld her permission and instead directed Plaintiff to verbally communicate his concerns to his team members.

         Unhappy with Lowe-Miller's proposed approach, Plaintiff appealed for help to Michelle Feeney, Division Director for Intensive Behavioral Services and Anastasiadis's boss. In an e-mail dated June 19, Plaintiff wrote to Feeney, apparently in reference to Hairston: “I'm really sorry to bother you with this but I don't know what else to do. I may have to ask you to intervene in helping myself and Catina with a personnel matter that we can't seem to fix.” Resp. Ex. C. In response, Feeney directed Anastasiadis to meet again with Plaintiff and Hairston.

         Plaintiff's growing sense of frustration was apparently shared by Mina and Hairston. Around the time of Plaintiff's e-mail to Feeney, both of them complained to Anastasiadis that Plaintiff's management style was unprofessional and domineering; Mina further alleged that Plaintiff's failure to communicate effectively was adversely affecting his team's ability to serve clients. MSJ Ex. 5 at 3.

         In response to Plaintiff's e-mail to Feeney, Anastasiadis convened and mediated another meeting between Plaintiff and Hairston on June 26. According to Plaintiff, at that meeting, Anastasiadis told Plaintiff and Hairston that “she expected us to be able to work together, ” and that “if things didn't get better . . . it would go to HR” and Hairston would likely be transferred off of Plaintiff's team. MSJ Ex. 4 at *25.

         Anastasiadis's performance at the June 26 meeting failed to satisfy Plaintiff, who left feeling unsupported in his role as supervisor. According to Anastasiadis, Plaintiff's exasperation boiled over in a meeting she had with him the next day, June 27. While it is unclear what was discussed at that meeting, [2] Anastasiadis claims that Plaintiff behaved inappropriately. More specifically, she claims he “act[ed] in a condescending manner towards me, was disrespectful and spoke in a very aggressive manner”-observations that mirrored reports from Mina and Hairston regarding Plaintiff's demeanor. MSJ Ex. 5 at 4. Plaintiff disputes Anastasiadis's account of their June 27 meeting and claims that his demeanor was professional at all times.

         By early July, with no signs of improvement in Plaintiff's relationship with Mina and Hairston, Anastasiadis decided it was time to enlist HR in the effort to broker peace. Accordingly, Plaintiff, Lowe-Miller, and Anastasiadis met once on July 8 and three times on July 14. At the first of the three July 14 meetings, Anastasiadis, Lowe-Miller, and Plaintiff discussed Plaintiff's perceived lack of support and his behavior during the June 27 meeting with Anastasiadis. At the second and third meetings, Lowe-Miller, Anastasiadis, and Plaintiff met with Hairston and Mina, respectively. Lowe-Miller described those meetings as “counseling sessions” for Hairston and Mina, both of whom were to “receive documentation . . . with regards to what it is that was expected of them.” MSJ Ex. 8 at *14. This documentation was to be based on written feedback from Plaintiff.

         Anastasiadis and Plaintiff remember the July 14 meetings differently. According to Anastasiadis, the meetings “seemed to be positive . . . we agreed that we would work together as a team in the future [and] seemed to be able to resolve the issues.” MSJ Ex. 5 at 5. Where Anastasiadis saw a productive discussion, Plaintiff saw another missed opportunity to punish Hairston and Mina. Regarding the documentation that was to come out of the meeting, Plaintiff said “we were going to submit our feelings about the meeting or what we thought needed to be heard to [Anastasiadis]” who would then “draw up a memo or something.” MSJ Ex. 4 at *44-45. Plaintiff described this process as “kind of prolonging the issue and not coming to a resolution.” Id. at *45. He therefore decided to take a different approach.

         On the evening of July 14, Plaintiff sent an e-mail to Barry McLaughlin, Director of Human Resources, and copied Anastasiadis. In that e-mail, he vented his frustration with what he saw as a lack of support and alleged for the first time that he was a victim of sex discrimination. As Plaintiff put it: “This message is to inform you of my concern that I am being discriminated against because I am a man. . . . [E]veryone who is critical of my supervision of Ms. Mina and Ms. Hairston are women.” Id. at *92. Anastasiadis reacted to Plaintiff's e-mail with exasperation, writing that night in an e-mail to Lowe-Miller, “I have tried to work with Orlando to resolve these issues and be supportive but now the accusations of discrimination.” Resp. Ex. E at 75. McLaughlin replied to Plaintiff the same evening and suggested he meet with H.R. to discuss his concerns. The following day, Plaintiff declined McLaughlin's offer, and, citing his recent experience, expressed his belief that further discussion would prove futile. McLaughlin offered to meet with Plaintiff if he changed his mind and encouraged him to follow-up on the July 14 meetings by “provid[ing] written feedback” to Lowe-Miller and Anastasiadis. MSJ Ex. 4 at *91. McLaughlin further advised Plaintiff to “[g]ive Catina the opportunity to prepare the memo, then consider your steps for resolution.” Id. Instead, on July 16, Plaintiff filed a complaint with Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) in which he alleged that Hairston and Mina were treated better than he was because “I received criticism and they were favored” by “women in management positions . . . because they were women.” MSJ Ex. 11 at 3.

         On or around Wednesday, July 30, [3] Plaintiff had a tense meeting (or meetings) with Mina in his office. Mina later described “arguing back and forth” with Plaintiff after trying to “state [her] side” of an issue. MSJ Ex. 2B at 1. According to Mina, this interaction “put me in tears.” Id. Samuel Nelson, Mina's co-worker and one of Plaintiff's direct reports, overheard the aftermath of Mina's meeting with Plaintiff. He claims that Mina was “furious” when she exited Plaintiff's office, that she slammed the door, and “ever so loudly” said “I'm going to get that bastard fired, I promise I'm going to get him fired.” Resp. Ex. D at 10.

         August 1 marked the beginning of the end of Plaintiff's tenure as TCM Supervisor. The previous evening, in anticipation of a two-day absence from work the following week, Mina sent an e-mail to Plaintiff and her teammates in which she provided an update on four of her more challenging clients. Regarding one of those clients, KM, Mina wrote:

She has been using PCP a lot.[4] Stopped going to D&A program and swears she is fine. I will be meeting her on Friday [August 1]. Only concern with her is an overdoes [sic] or getting into legal trouble. I will inform her tomorrow that I will be gone and give her the office number.

MSJ Ex. 4 at *93.

         COMHAR acts as a representative payee for some of its clients, including KM. In this capacity, it receives clients' entitlement benefits and disburses funds to those clients over the course of the month. Per a previous agreement that Mina had reached with KM, KM was to have received a portion of her monthly benefits payment on August 1. On the morning of August 1, KM came to Defendant's office and asked for her money. This happened some time before 9:15, when Mina arrived at work. Maggie Wiernicki, a clerical worker, notified Plaintiff of KM's presence and asked Plaintiff if, in Mina's absence, he would be willing to bring KM her funds. Plaintiff agreed and handed over KM's benefits allotment without first contacting Mina. When Mina arrived a short time later, she expressed dismay at Plaintiff's actions, faulted him for not calling her before surrendering funds to a client who had recently relapsed, and ...

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