Gender-Based Hostile Work Environment Claims Sufficiently Alleged Against MetLife

In Moazzaz v. MetLife, Inc. et al, 2021 WL 827648 (S.D.N.Y. March 4, 2021) (J. Oetken), the court, inter alia, denied defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiff’s claims of gender-based hostile work environment under the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL).

Here is the court’s discussion of that issue:

In support of her NYSHRL and NYCHRL claims, Moazzaz marshals three categories of supposed gender discrimination. First, she argues that her colleagues subjected her to pejoratives and criticisms that penalized her for being aggressive and encouraged her to conform to gender stereotypes. She is undoubtedly correct that the comments made by Hediger and Hijkoop in 2014 and 2015, referring to her as a “bitch” and instructing her to “be nicer,” like a woman who “participates in community service activities and supports not-for-profit organizations,” are gendered comments. See Passananti v. Cook Cnty., 689 F.3d 655, 665 (7th Cir. 2012) (“[E]vidence that ‘bitch’ is ‘sex based’ for purposes of establishing gender-based harassment is not necessary.”); Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, 250 (1989) (“[A]n employer who acts on the basis of a belief that a woman cannot be aggressive, or that she must not be, has acted on the basis of gender.”). Hediger’s previous comments, though outside the limitations period, “permit[ ] the inference that the remainder of his [purportedly] discriminatory conduct,” i.e., his 2018 decision to start calling Moazzaz the “little one” in conversations with senior leaders, “was also due to [her] sex.” Gregory v. Daly, 243 F.3d 687, 695 (2d Cir. 2001). The same applies to Hijkoop’s references to Moazzaz’s “sharp elbows” in 2017, in light of his failure to discipline Hediger for calling Moazzaz a “bitch,” his time-barred gender-based criticism of Moazzaz, and his belief, publicly stated at a conference in 2014, that “women are too emotional” if they view “MetLife’s ‘ole boys’ club’ culture” as an impediment to their career advancement. (Dkt. No. 20 ¶ 118.)

Second, Moazzaz argues that she was subjected to gender-based reviews and investigations of her conduct. The Complaint alleges that Human Resources reviewed or investigated Moazzaz for being “too mean” twice, in succession, in 2018. Moazzaz describes the first review, which involved interviews and surveys of more than 20 of her colleagues, as “humiliating,” “fact-less,” and “extremely damaging to [her] reputation.” (Dkt. No. 20 ¶¶ 107, 110.) The reviewer, an external leadership coach retained by Podlogar, concluded and informed Moazzaz that she “need[ed] to choose between being pretty and being smart because men” — presumably the male colleagues interviewed — “[could not] put [her] in both boxes.” (Dkt. No. 20 ¶ 111.) Just months after this intervention, Human Resources opened another investigation into Moazzaz’s demeanor, based on a male subordinate’s complaint about her “tone.” As the Supreme Court observed in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, “[i]t takes no special training to discern sex stereotyping … if an employee’s flawed ‘interpersonal skills’ can be corrected by a soft-hued suit or a new shade of lipstick.” 490 U.S. at 256. The gendered nature of MetLife’s investigations is further evidenced by the contrast between Human Resources’s readiness to investigate Moazzaz and its alleged inaction with respect to men accused of using the word “bitch” and of discriminating against African American employees.

*10 Third, Moazzaz argues that women, in general, faced day-to-day discrimination at MetLife. The Complaint lists five other female leaders who were “repeatedly told by male leaders that they were ‘too aggressive’ ” or did not “fit into MetLife’s ‘culture.’ ” (Dkt. No. 20 ¶ 116.) It contextualizes these statements by noting that, in 2014, MetLife attendees of a women-only diversity conference identified “MetLife’s ‘ole boys’ club’ culture” as “the biggest impediment for career advancement for women at MetLife.” (Dkt. No. 20 ¶ 118.) The Complaint also details a 2018 incident in which MetLife removed a mural from its common space after male leadership complained that the mural was “too feminine” and “excluded” men. (Dkt. No. 20 ¶¶ 130–34.) The mural, which had been installed at the request of Moazzaz, read:

ADVANCING WOMEN: Humankind is a bird with two wings; One is women, the other is men. Only when both wings are equal can we soar.

(Id.) The statements directed at Moazzaz’s female colleagues and the removal of the mural are plausibly pleaded as gendered conduct.

Taken together, Moazzaz’s allegations are not “so inadequate as to warrant dismissal.” Pryor, 992 F. Supp. 2d at 258. Defendants are correct that “trivial and isolated comments” (Dkt. No. 26 at 13 n.8) cannot sustain a claim under the NYSHRL or NYCHRL, see Alvarado v. Nordstrom, Inc., 685 F. App’x 4, 8 (2d Cir. 2017). Here, however, the comments alleged are not trivial: They were made by Human Resources personnel who controlled Moazzaz’s compensation, they were made not to Moazzaz in private but instead to her male colleagues, and they may have impugned Moazzaz’s ability to perform her job collaboratively. See Howley v. Town of Stratford, 217 F.3d 141, 154 (2d Cir. 2000). Nor are Moazzaz’s grievances limited to a handful of isolated comments. Human Resources personnel allegedly subjected her to two specious, gender-based investigations in 2018. Although courts have previously treated discriminatory investigations as “discrete acts” that are “not actionable as part of [a] plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim,” Beesen-Dwars v. Morris, No. 06-cv-5593, 2007 WL 2128348, at *7–8 (N.D. Ill. July 24, 2007) (rejecting argument that an employer’s investigation of the plaintiff’s racist statements created a hostile work environment); Dawson v. Rumsfeld, No. 05-cv-1270, 2006 WL 325867, at *1, 4 (E.D. Va. Feb. 8, 2006) (same), an employer cannot traffic in gender stereotypes under the guise of conducting an investigation and then evade liability for the resulting environment. The investigations, which appear to have touched on Moazzaz’s physical appearance, humiliated Moazzaz and damaged her reputation at MetLife. Moreover, they created the Kafkaesque prospect that Moazzaz might be under perpetual investigation, insofar as a new review could be triggered by something as amorphous as her “tone” or “too short” emails. Finally, Moazzaz alleges “harassment directed at [female] co-workers” and other aspects of the “environment as a whole” that gesture toward the second-class status of women and aversion to gender equality at MetLife. Leibovitz v. New York City Transit Auth., 252 F.3d 179, 190 (2d Cir. 2001) (emphasis in original); see also Petrosino v. Bell Atlantic, 385 F.3d 210, 214 (2d Cir. 2004) (holding that images in the workplace “that conveyed a low regard for women” supported the plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim). Even though these conditions did not target Moazzaz specifically, under Second Circuit law they are still “relevant to [her] own claim of hostile work environment discrimination.” Leibovitz, 252 F.3d at 190.

The Court recognizes that, based on the allegations, “this is not the most egregious of cases,” but “it also is not a circumstance in which Defendants are obviously free from potential liability,” particularly with respect to Moazzaz’s NYCHRL claim. Pryor, 992 F. Supp. 2d at 259; see also Gregory, 243 F.3d at 695 (“[The Second Circuit] has found workplace situations discriminatory under a hostile work environment theory where the conduct at issue, though lacking any sexual component …, could, in context, reasonably be interpreted as having been taken on the basis of plaintiff’s sex.”). In Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., the Supreme Court described a “discriminatorily abusive work environment” as one that “can and often will detract from employees’ job performance, discourage employees from remaining on the job, or keep them from advancing their careers.” 510 U.S. at 22. Moazzaz has alleged facts sufficient for the Court to conclude that gender discrimination at MetLife produced or was liable to produce these “tangible effects.” Id.

Based on this, the court concluded that plaintiff “has sufficiently pleaded her NYSHRL claim and pleaded facts beyond those necessary to sustain her NYCHRL claim.”

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