Stidhum v. 161-10 Hillside Auto Ave, LLC et al
ORDER denying 18 Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim. For the reasons set forth in the attached Order, Defendants' motion to dismiss is denied. Ordered by Judge Hector Gonzalez on 9/15/2022. (Nkodo, Julie-Irene)
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UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
LETICIA FRANCINE STIDHUM,
161-10 HILLSIDE AUTO AVE, LLC,
HILLSIDE AUTO MALL, INC., ISHAQUE
THANWALLA, JORY BARON, RONALD M
BARON and ANDRIS GUZMAN,
MEMORANDUM & ORDER
21-CV-07163 (HG) (RLM)
HECTOR GONZALEZ, United States District Judge:
Plaintiff Leticia Francine Stidhum (“Plaintiff”) brings this action against Defendants 16110 Hillside Auto Ave, LLC (d/b/a Hillside Auto Outlet), Hillside Auto Mall Inc. (d/b/a Hillside
Auto Mall), Ishaque Thanwalla, Jory Baron, Ronald M. Baron and Andris Guzman (collectively,
“Defendants”) for alleged violations of: (i) Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended
by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq; (ii) New York State Human
Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. § 290 et seq.; and (iii) New York City’s Pregnant Workers Fairness Act
of New York City Human Rights Law, NYC Admin. § 8-107(22) et seq. Presently before the
Court is Defendants’ motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s Complaint, Plaintiff’s opposition, and
Defendants’ reply. ECF Nos. 19, 21, 23. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants’ motion to
dismiss is denied.
The two corporate defendants in this case, Hillside Auto Outlet and Hillside Auto Mall,
are car dealerships located “four blocks away from each other” and allegedly share common
owners, managers, and inventory. ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 14–19. Plaintiff alleges that they formed a
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single enterprise or, alternatively, jointly employed her. Id. ¶ 20. Defendants Thanwalla, Jory
Baron, and Ronald Baron are each allegedly part owners of the corporate defendants, and
Thanwalla was allegedly one of Plaintiff’s supervisors. Id. ¶¶ 21–23. Guzman was initially an
employee in the Finance Department of Hillside Auto Outlet but, as explained in greater detail
below, was later promoted within the department to become one of Plaintiff’s supervisors. Id. ¶
Plaintiff alleges that Thanwalla hired her in May 2018 to work at Hillside Auto Outlet
and that she was initially supervised by a general manager who is not a party to this case. ECF
No. 1 ¶¶ 25–26; ECF No. 19 at 2. In August 2018, Plaintiff’s former supervisor was replaced by
Guzman, who supervised Plaintiff through the end of her employment. Id. ¶¶ 30, 32. Guzman’s
position was further elevated in December 2018 when Thanwalla went on vacation and Guzman
was put in charge of the Finance Department in his absence. Id. ¶¶ 45–46. This period
coincided almost exactly with when Plaintiff informed her coworkers that she was pregnant.
Plaintiff had learned that she was pregnant on November 23, 2018, and she informed her
coworkers, including Thanwalla and Guzman, on December 1, 2018. Id. ¶¶ 42–44.
Plaintiff alleges that she received her salary, bonus, and commission before Guzman took
control of the Finance Department in Thanwalla’s absence. Id. ¶ 33. However, she alleges that
once Guzman took control, her bonus decreased, and she was denied her commission. Id. ¶¶ 34,
52. Prior to December 2018, Plaintiff describes her work performance as “exemplary,” alleging
that she sold between 25 and 31 cars per month. Id. ¶ 35. During this period, on the basis of her
exemplary performance and unlike all the other car salespeople, Thanwalla gave Plaintiff special
access to a program called “Dealertrack,” which allowed her to run the credit histories of
customers and pre-fill their automobile purchase financing applications. Id. ¶¶ 36–37. This
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special access helped expedite the purchase process for customers, who would otherwise have to
wait long periods of time for Guzman and the Finance Department to run their credit histories.
Id. ¶¶ 38–39. As a result, before Guzman took over the Finance Department, the wait time for
Plaintiff’s customers to speak with the Finance Department had been a little less than twenty
minutes. Id. ¶ 47.
However, Plaintiff alleges that after she announced her pregnancy and Guzman took over
the Finance Department, the following things happened: (i) her access to Dealertrack was
restricted; (ii) Guzman started making her customers wait anywhere between forty and sixty
minutes; and (iii) her customers walked out of Hillside Auto Outlet as a result of the longer wait
times. Id. ¶¶ 36, 49–50. Plaintiff further alleges that due to Guzman’s actions she sold only
eight to ten cars between the day that she informed her co-workers that she was pregnant and her
last day of employment. Id. ¶ 51. Plaintiff claims that she called Guzman “constantly” to inquire
about the customer wait times during this period. Id. ¶ 53. He reportedly told her all salespeople
had to wait this long, but Plaintiff alleges that the wait time for other salespeople remained at
approximately twenty minutes (compared to her forty to sixty minutes). Id. ¶¶ 54–55, 59.
As a result of Plaintiff’s drop in sales, her bonus was reduced, and she was denied her
commission. Id. ¶ 52. When Thanwalla returned from vacation on January 10, 2019, Plaintiff
informed him of Guzman’s alleged “sabotage.” Id. ¶ 56. Thanwalla allegedly told Plaintiff he
would give her a bonus of two hundred dollars. Id. ¶ 57. However, he failed to provide Plaintiff
with any bonus, discipline Guzman, or restore Plaintiff’s usual wait times. Id. ¶¶ 58, 61. On
January 14, 2019, Plaintiff resigned. Id. ¶ 60.
On January 24, 2019, Plaintiff texted Defendant Jory Baron, a part owner of Hillside
Auto Outlet and Hillside Auto Mall, to inform him that she had not been paid her full bonus. Id.
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¶ 62. Baron called Plaintiff and she explained to him why she had quit and how Thanwalla owed
her money. Id. ¶ 63. Baron told Plaintiff he would call her back the following Monday but did
not do so. Id. ¶ 64.
Plaintiff previously filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against Defendants in
this District in September 2019. See Stidhum v. 161-10 Hillside Auto Ave, LLC et al, 19-cv05458, ECF No. 30 at 5. Defendants moved to dismiss that lawsuit arguing that it was premature
because the EEOC had not yet issued Plaintiff a “right-to-sue letter.” Id. Judge Kovner granted
Defendants’ motion and dismissed the case without prejudice with leave to refile the Complaint
“once the EEOC either (i) dismisses her charge and issues her a proper notice of right to sue, or
(ii) processes her charge for an additional eighty-nine days and issues her a proper notice of right
to sue.” Id. at 9–10.
The EEOC issued Plaintiff a notice of right to sue on September 30, 2021, and Plaintiff
subsequently filed her Complaint. ECF No. 1 ¶ 10. Defendants then filed this motion to dismiss
principally contending that Plaintiff’s Complaint fails to plausibly allege that Defendants: (i)
took adverse action against her, and (ii) that her sex, pregnancy or “disability” was a motivating
factor in any employment decision. ECF No. 19 at 7.
“To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter,
accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556
U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). “A claim has facial plausibility when
the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the
defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. “When determining the sufficiency of
plaintiffs’ claim for Rule 12(b)(6) purposes, consideration is limited to the factual allegations in
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plaintiffs’ amended complaint, which are accepted as true, to documents attached to the
complaint as an exhibit or incorporated in it by reference, to matters of which judicial notice may
be taken, or to documents either in plaintiffs’ possession or of which plaintiffs had knowledge
and relied on in bringing suit.” Brass v. Am. Film Techs., Inc., 987 F.2d 142, 150 (2d Cir. 1993).
The Court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party, however,
“[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory
statements, do not suffice” to state a plausible claim. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.
Title VII and NYSHRL Claims
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), it is unlawful for an
employer “to discharge . . . or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his
compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s . . .
sex.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). The Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended Title VII to
define discrimination “on the basis of sex” to include discrimination “because of or on the basis
of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” Farmer v. Shake Shack Enters, LLC,
473 F. Supp. 3d 309, 323 (S.D.N.Y. 2020) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k)). The Pregnancy
Discrimination Act therefore “makes clear that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination
applies to discrimination based on pregnancy.” Id.
Plaintiff also alleges that she was discriminated against on the basis of her pregnancy in
violation of the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”). ECF No. 1 ¶ 1. “Claims
under both Title VII and the NYSHRL, including sex and pregnancy discrimination, are
generally treated as analytically identical and addressed together. Both are governed by the
familiar three-step burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green,
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411 U.S. 792 (1973).” Farmer, 473 F. Supp. 3d at 323–24 (internal citations and quotation
marks omitted). That framework applies at the summary judgment stage and requires a plaintiff
to “establish a prima facie case of discrimination by showing that: (1) she is a member of a
protected class; (2) she is qualified for the position; (3) she suffered an adverse employment
action; and (4) the circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination.” Vega v.
Hempstead Union Free Sch. Dist., 801 F.3d 72, 83 (2d Cir. 2015).
However, at the motion to dismiss stage, a plaintiff “is not required to plead a prima facie
case under McDonnell Douglas.” Vega, 801 F.3d at 84. In order to defeat a motion to dismiss, a
plaintiff must “plausibly allege that (1) the employer took adverse action against [her] and (2)
[her] race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was a motivating factor in the employment
decision.” Id. at 87. In assessing whether a plaintiff’s allegations are plausible, “the court must
be mindful of the elusive nature of intentional discrimination” and that plaintiffs will “rarely” be
able to present “direct, smoking gun, evidence of discrimination” “[b]ecause discrimination
claims implicate an employer’s usually unstated intent and state of mind.” Id. at 86 (internal
quotation marks omitted). A plaintiff may therefore meet her pleading burden “by identifying
bits and pieces of evidence that together give rise to an inference of discrimination.” Id. at 87
(internal quotation marks omitted).
1. Adverse Action
Defendants argue that because Plaintiff admits she voluntarily resigned, she does not
meet the required elements of an adverse employment action, which requires “a materially
adverse change in the terms and conditions of employment such as termination, demotion
evidenced by a decrease in salary or wage, being given a less distinguished title, a material loss
in benefits, significantly diminished material responsibilities, or some other action deleterious to
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the plaintiff’s current or future employment.” ECF No. 19 at 6–7 (citing Davis-Garett v. Urban
Outfitters, Inc., 921 F.3d 30, 43 (2d Cir. 2019)). Plaintiff agrees that “[a]n adverse employment
action is one which is more disruptive than a mere inconvenience or alteration in job
responsibilities,” but argues that she has pleaded significantly diminished material
responsibilities and a decrease in take-home pay (including a reduction in bonuses), which
satisfy the standard. ECF No. 21 at 8 (citing Vega, 801 F.3d at 85).
Plaintiff’s allegations that she was deprived access to the Dealertrack program and “could
no longer run customer credit scores or pre-fill financing applications” are not enough to
constitute adverse action because as Plaintiff herself described, she was given unique access and
received a benefit that none of her colleagues received. ECF No. 21 at 8; ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 36–37,
39. However, the Court finds that a decrease in Plaintiff’s take-home pay can constitute an
adverse action. See Davis v. N.Y. City Dep’t of Educ., 804 F.3d 231, 236 (2d Cir. 2015) (finding
that “[t]he district court erred in ruling that denial or reduction of a bonus could not constitute an
adverse employment action”); McKenna v. Santander Inv. Secs., Inc., No. 21-cv-941, 2022 WL
2986588, at *9 (S.D.N.Y. July 28, 2022) (finding that a plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to
raise a question of fact as to whether defendants discriminated against her as a result of her
pregnancy by reducing her bonuses). Here, Plaintiff has plausibly alleged that Defendants
decreased her bonus by increasing the average wait time for her customers after she announced
her pregnancy, without doing the same to the customers of her non-pregnant coworkers, thereby
decreasing the number of sales she was able to make. See ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 47, 49–52.
2. Motivating Factor
Defendants further argue that Plaintiff’s claim of discriminatory intent amounts to
“speculation and conjecture, and must . . . be treated as a conclusory assertion rather than a well-
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pled fact.” ECF No. 19 at 6. The Second Circuit held that at the pleadings stage of an
employment discrimination case, “a plaintiff has a minimal burden of alleging facts suggesting
an inference of discriminatory motivation . . . . [T]he facts alleged in the complaint must provide
at least minimal support for the proposition that the employer was motivated by discriminatory
intent.” Vega, 801 F.3d at 85 (citing Littlejohn v. City of New York, 795 F.3d 297, 310 (2d Cir.
2015)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Plaintiff alleges that, as compared to her nonpregnant coworkers, her customers’ wait times increased (thus impacting her bonus and
commission) after she told her colleagues and supervisors about her pregnancy. ECF No. 1 ¶¶
43, 47–55. The Court finds that Plaintiff has met her “minimal” burden by alleging that the
adverse employment action began once she announced her pregnancy. See Vale v. Great Neck
Water Pollution Control Dist., 80 F. Supp. 3d 426, 437 (E.D.N.Y. 2015) (“As other courts within
the Second Circuit have held, temporal proximity is sufficient to raise an inference of
discrimination to plausibly state a claim of employment discrimination.”) (citation and internal
quotation marks omitted). “On a motion to dismiss, the question is not whether a plaintiff is
likely to prevail, but whether the well-pleaded factual allegations plausibly give rise to an
inference of unlawful discrimination.” Vega, 801 F.3d at 87. Accordingly, Plaintiff sufficiently
alleges facts suggesting an inference of discriminatory motivation.
Plaintiff further alleges that Defendants discriminated against her on the basis of her
pregnancy in violation of the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”). ECF No. 1 ¶ 87
(citing N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-107(22)). “The New York City Human Rights Law was
intended to be more protective than [its] state and federal counterpart. To state a claim for
gender discrimination under the NYCHRL, a plaintiff need only show differential treatment—
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that she is treated less well—because of a discriminatory intent.” Antoine v. Brooklyn Maids 26,
Inc., 489 F. Supp. 3d 68, 84 (E.D.N.Y. 2020) (internal citation and internal quotation marks
omitted). Because Plaintiff has adequately pled a claim for employment discrimination under
Title VII and NYSHRL, she has also done so under the NYCHRL. Id. at 84–85.
For the foregoing reasons, Defendants’ motion to dismiss is DENIED.
/s/ Hector Gonzalez_________
United States District Judge
Dated: Brooklyn, New York
September 15, 2022
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