Race-Based Discriminatory Termination Claim Survives Summary Judgment Against Molina Healthcare

In Harlow v. Molina Healthcare, Inc., 5:20-CV-1382, 2024 WL 1126736 (N.D.N.Y. March 15, 2024), the court, inter alia, denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment on her race-based termination claim, asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New York State Human Rights Law.

Here is the court’s application of the law to the facts – specifically, its discussion and analysis of the three-step burden-shifting framework applicable to such claims:

Upon review, Harlow has established a prima facie case. The parties agree that Harlow was both a member of a protected class and that she suffered an adverse employment action when she was terminated from her position with Molina. Pl.’s Facts ¶ 1; Pl.’s Reply ¶ 23. Plaintiff has also gathered more than enough evidence to support a “minimal” inference of discrimination.

Harlow asserts that statements made by her supervisor, Luke Gozzi, employed “a common stereotype of Black women as aggressive.” Pl.’s Opp’n at 20. Plaintiff cites instances in which Gozzi characterized plaintiff as “toxic” and a “troublemaker” at work. Pl.’s Facts ¶ 31; Ex. 16 at 14–15. Gozzi later characterized plaintiff’s sexual harassment complaint against Browne as “fighting” in the workplace and as making “a big deal about nothing.” Pl.’s Facts ¶ 18, 21; Ex. 14 at 2. By contrast, Gozzi told Browne, who is white, “not to worry” about Harlow’s complaint. Pl.’s Facts ¶ 21; Ex. 7 at 30. Plaintiff asserts that her sexual harassment complaint against Browne had been substantiated and that it was “patently irrational” for Gozzi to disbelieve her. Pl.’s Opp’n at 20.

A reasonable jury may well infer from Gozzi’s statements that he harbored racial bias against Harlow. Specifically, Gozzi’s characterization of plaintiff’s sexual harassment complaint as “fighting” and making “a big deal about nothing” when plaintiff’s claims had been substantiated by Molina. See Banks, 81 F.4th at 271–72 (collecting cases). Accordingly, plaintiff has established a prima facie case of race discrimination.5

Moving on to step two in the McDonnell analysis, Molina must present a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating plaintiff. Defendant asserts that it terminated Harlow for “unacceptable behavior and poor performance.” Def.’s Mem. at 15. Misconduct and/or poor performance is an acceptable reason to terminate an employee. The Court then proceeds to the third step of the analysis: pretext.
Harlow asserts that she can demonstrate pretext: Molina admitted that it was manufacturing a reason to terminate her. Pl.’s Opp’n at 17. Plaintiff points to statements from Hendrix confirming that defendant had actively “built a case” to terminate her. Id.; Pl.’s Resp ¶ 19; Ex. 7 at 6–7 (“Yeah. Well, I know that they were putting – putting things in action to make it look like she didn’t meet her production goals.”).

Evidence that defendant fabricated a reason to terminate plaintiff, coupled with Gozzi’s statements perpetuating racial stereotypes is sufficient to defeat summary judgment. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 148, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000) (“Thus, a plaintiff’s prima facie case, combined with sufficient evidence to find that the employer’s asserted justification is false, may permit the trier of fact to conclude that the employer unlawfully discriminated.”).

Therefore, Harlow has marshalled sufficient evidence, that, if credited, would permit the factfinder to conclude that Molina’s reason for terminating her was pretext for race discrimination.

Based on this, the court concluded that defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s disparate treatment claims based on her termination must be denied.

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