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Szestakow v. Metropolitan District Commission

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 6, 2016




         This is an action by plaintiff Donna Szestakow against defendant Metropolitan District Commission, alleging retaliation in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) (Count I); discrimination on the basis of disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) (Count II); harassment and discrimination on the basis of disability in violation of the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (“CFEPA”) (Count III); retaliatory discharge in violation of the CFEPA (Count IV); retaliatory discharge in violation of the ADA (Count V); and retaliatory discharge in violation of the FMLA (Count VI). Defendant has moved for summary judgment on all counts. For the following reasons, the motion will be denied.


         The following facts are gleaned from the parties' statements of fact, affidavits, deposition transcripts, and other exhibit documentation.

         Defendant is a nonprofit municipal corporation chartered by the Connecticut General Assembly in 1929 and provides critical water and wastewater treatment services and products to eight member towns and to other municipal entities within its service area.

         A 29-member Board of Commissioners, referred to as the District Board, governs the District. Seventeen commissioners are appointed by the member municipalities, eight are appointed by the Governor, and four are appointed by the leadership of the Connecticut State Legislature. All commissioners serve without remuneration for terms of six years and those commissioners appointed by the member municipalities and legislative leadership serve until their successor is appointed and qualified, while commissioners appointed by the Governor serve for the defined term.

         Plaintiff commenced her employment with defendant in November 1992. By 2007, plaintiff was working as a Senior Human Resources Analyst. The position was a professional level, salaried, nonunion position classified as an “EE-11" in defendant's job classification system. Plaintiff's responsibilities included implementing human resources policies and practices, including recruitment and employment benefits. Beginning in June 2002, plaintiff reported to the Director of Human Resources, Patricia Speicher Werbner.

         At plaintiff's request, defendant's then Chief Executive, Charles Sheehan, agreed to meet with plaintiff before work to discuss plaintiff's concerns regarding her supervisor, Ms. Werbner. Mr. Sheehan told plaintiff to put her concerns in writing, which she did in an August 10, 2007, letter to Mr. Sheehan. Part of plaintiff's letter asserted that Ms. Werbner had treated plaintiff in a derogatory and hostile manner for the previous five years. Plaintiff's letter indicated that Ms. Werbner (1) called plaintiff's personal cell phone on her days off; (2) refused to conduct annual performance reviews for plaintiff; (3) failed to address a request to reclassify plaintiff's position to a higher pay grade; (4) made belittling comments concerning plaintiff to HR staff; (5) refused to respond to questions from plaintiff; (6) assigned plaintiff work with little to no lead-time; and (7) gave inconsistent directives and feedback to plaintiff.

         Defendant responded to plaintiff's letter by retaining attorneys Albert Zakarian and Stacey Smith Walsh from Day Pitney LLP to investigate plaintiff's concerns. Attorney Walsh interviewed plaintiff in August 2007. Plaintiff never explicitly stated that her alleged treatment by defendant was based upon her status as a single mother with two special needs children, or her stress and anxiety, or her use of FMLA leave.

         Attorneys Zakarian and Walsh concluded that plaintiff's claims did not constitute hostile work environment harassment or a violation of defendant's policies. On September 19, 2007, defendant informed plaintiff of the investigation's findings. Mr. Sheehan also communicated to Ms. Werbner that performance reviews needed to be completed annually. Mr. Sheehan assigned Robert Zaik, Manager of Labor Relations for defendant, and attorney David Ryan to review plaintiff's 2002 reclassification request.

         Plaintiff took a leave of absence from January through March of 2008 based upon her own medical issues - major depression and anxiety - and to care for her special needs son.

         Defendant approved plaintiff's reclassification request based upon finding, consistent with plaintiff's assertions, that plaintiff performed a quasi-supervisory role. Plaintiff was reclassified to a lead position of HR Technical Officer. This change made plaintiff the highest classified analyst in the HR department at that time. Defendant made the adjustment retroactive to September 2002, the approximate time when the reclassification request should have been completed. As a result, plaintiff received a payment of approximately $18, 000.

         Plaintiff returned to work from her medical leave on March 31, 2008. Defendant informed plaintiff of her new, reclassification-based job responsibilities at an April 9, 2008, HR department staff meeting.

         Ms. Werbner discussed with plaintiff the need to have plaintiff train other people in the HR department on defendant's software system. Ms. Werbner explained to plaintiff that defendant realized while plaintiff was on medical leave that employees in the HR department were overly reliant on plaintiff, especially with regard to defendant's software system.

         Plaintiff again submitted concerns about Ms. Werbner to defendant on April 10, 2008. Plaintiff complained of (1) repeated rescheduling of the meeting to discuss her change in job duties; (2) perceived animosity from Ms. Werbner, based in part on plaintiff's attendance of her son's medical appointment. In response, defendant again hired Zakarian and Walsh to investigate plaintiff's concerns. Their report concluded that no law or policy had been violated; the HR department simply failed to get along. Defendant notified plaintiff of the investigation's findings.

         Defendant decided to transfer plaintiff from Human Resources to Customer Service in August 2008. At the time of transfer, Ms. Webner reported directly to Robert Moore, defendant's Chief Administrative Officer. Defendant contends that plaintiff was transferred because it determined that the relationship between plaintiff and Ms. Werbner was not going to be constructive. Plaintiff responds that she was transferred in retaliation for making complaints. Plaintiff was informed of her reassignment on September 10, 2008. Her salary and benefits did not change as a result of the transfer. Defendant directed plaintiff to contact Ms. Evelyn Tousignant, Principle HR Officer, to coordinate the appropriate file transition and status update work.

         Plaintiff asserts that she was unable to get in touch with Ms. Tousignant the following morning of September 11, 2008. The following Saturday at 7:30 p.m., plaintiff went to work to collect her belongings. She tried to use her electronic keycard, but it did not work, so plaintiff entered using her metal key. Defendant then investigated plaintiff's entry and removal of files to determine whether any confidential or sensitive HR department information was improperly removed. The investigation concluded that plaintiff had not removed any such files. Plaintiff maintains (1) she had never been told that she was not permitted to collect her belongings; (2) no one told her that she was no longer permitted entry to the HR offices; (3) no one ever asked her to turn in her keycard or metal key; ...

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