MARTHA D. BENITEZ
JOHN B. SUSA, NANCY KOLMAN VENTRONE, and CAMILLE VELLA WILKINSON, in Their Capacities as Commissioners of the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights; MICHAEL D. EVORA, in His Capacity as Executive Director for the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, PYRAMID CASE COMPANY, REYNAR VAZQUEZ, BLANCA CRUZ, and MARIO MELETZ
Plaintiff: Mark P. Gagliardi, Esq.
Defendant: Francis A. Gaschen, Esq.; Marissa Janton, Esq.;
Charles N. Redihan, III, Esq.; Ryan Hurley, Esq.
D. Benitez (Benitez or Appellant) brings this appeal from a
December 11, 2012 decision and order of the Rhode Island
Commission for Human Rights (the Commission) dismissing her
complaint. This appeal was first assigned to this Judge for
Decision on March 19, 2019, after the parties finally
submitted their briefs. In 2012, the Commission found that
Benitez failed to prove a violation of the Fair Employment
Practices Act, (FEPA), G.L. 1956 § 28-5-7. This Court
exercises jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to G.L. 1956
§ 42-35-15(g). For the reasons set forth herein, the
Court affirms the decision of the Commission.
Facts and Travel
D. Benitez was born in Ecuador and speaks only Spanish.
(Hr'g Tr. at 16-17, Feb. 14, 2012 (Vol. I).) She came to
the United States in 1987 and began working at Pyramid Case
Company (Pyramid) on March 23, 2003, where she remained
continuously employed until temporarily leaving work on sick
leave in November, 2007. Id. at 17, 33-34. She
returned to work on March 11, 2008, and remained employed
until May 9, 2008, when she was laid off allegedly due to
lack of work. Id. at 34, 28. Her starting wage was
$7.00 per hour which increased to $8.00 per hour by the time
she left her employment in 2008. Id. at 18.
firm employed workers from various national origins,
including Puerto Rico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Bolivia,
Honduras, and Ecuador. (Id. at 19, 70; Hr'g Tr.
at 79, 104, Feb. 15, 2012 (Vol. II); Hr'g Tr. at 9, Feb.
16, 2012 (Vol. III).) By all accounts, Benitez was a good
worker and operated a single needle sewing machine for the
company. (Hr'g Tr. Vol. II at 89-90, 109.) Pyramid
manufactured eye glass cases to be supplied to optical
companies. (Hr'g Tr. Vol. I at 84-86; Hr'g Tr. Vol.
III at 18.) Benitez never qualified to work on more complex
machinery which would have required the worker to demonstrate
greater strength and skill to operate. (Hr'g Tr. Vol. II
at 7-8, 89-90, 109, 119; Hr'g Tr. Vol. III at 29.)
times material hereto, Blanca Cruz and Mario Meletz
supervised Benitez. (Hr'g Tr. Vol. I at 19-20; Hr'g
Tr. Vol. III at 12.) Reynar Vazquez maintained the company
machines and may have had managerial responsibilities at
Pyramid. (Hr'g Tr. Vol. I at 19-20; Hr'g Tr. Vol. II
at 66, 75.) Vazquez, Cruz, and Meletz are of Guatemalan
events allegedly occurred in 2007 pertinent to Benitez's
allegations against her former employer. These events
predated Appellant's sick leave. First, in August 2007,
Benitez purportedly asked Cruz, Meletz, and Vazquez for a
raise in pay. (Hr'g Tr. Vol. I at 21.) Apparently, none
of those individuals passed her request on to her employer,
Joseph Caruso, the owner of the company. Id. at 24,
74. However, it does appear that Cruz and Meletz did
communicate similar requests to him on behalf of other
employees. Id. On October 19, 2007, Benitez and her
daughter, Paola Harris (Harris), who assisted her with
English translation and sometimes communicated on her behalf,
met with Caruso. Id. at 23-24, 73. He told Benitez
that he had not received her request for a pay increase, to
which she responded that the failure to pass along her
request was due to discrimination against her. (Id.
at 28, 75; Hr'g Tr. Vol. III at 26, 44.) She claimed that
the supervisors favored Guatemalans, and she was Ecuadorian.
(Hr'g Tr. Vol. I at 24-26, 28, 75.) Caruso brought Cruz
into the meeting, and he asked her about Benitez's job
performance, which Cruz acknowledged was good. Id.
to Benitez, Caruso later spoke to Harris and promised that
her mother would receive a $1 wage increase, and that she
also would be given an opportunity to work on more complex
machines. Id. at 27; 52-53, 76-77. For his part,
Caruso maintains that the promised raise was fifty cents, not
a dollar. (Hr'g Tr. Vol. II at 6-7.) Caruso claims that
he communicated the pay raise to his secretary, Marilyn
Martinez (Martinez), but apparently, the raise was not
processed. Id. at 7. Benitez did not receive the
increase in pay. Id.
October 23, 2007, Benitez claims that she was called to
Caruso's office where she found Caruso, Vazquez, Cruz,
Meletz, and Martinez laughing and speaking in English.
(Hr'g Tr. Vol. I at 29-30.) She claims that she thought
that their comments and humor were directed at her, and she
left the meeting upset. Id. at 30-31.
continued working at Pyramid until she took sick leave in
November 2007. Id. at 33-34. When she returned on
March 11, 2008, her particular station was occupied by
someone else, and she claims that she was unable to find
personal items she had left at work when she became ill.
Id. at 34, 36. Apparently, she was given a different
work station and continued working on a single needle machine
until May 9, 2008, when she received a letter from the
company stating that she was being laid off due to lack of
work as of May 12, 2008. Id. at 38-40; see
also Complainant's Ex. 1.
October 3, 2008, Benitez filed a charge with the Commission
against Pyramid, Cruz, Meletz, and Vazquez, alleging
discriminatory terms and conditions of employment, harassment
and termination based upon her ancestral origin, and
retaliation for opposing unlawful employment practices in
violation of § 28-5-7. (Compl. ¶ 3). On February 23,
2009, she amended the charge against the respondents, raising
the same allegations. Id. The Preliminary
Investigating Commissioner found probable cause that Pyramid,
Cruz, Meletz, and Vazquez violated § 28-5-7, as alleged.
October 1, 2010, the Commission issued a Notice of Hearing
and Complaint. The hearing on the Complaint was conducted on
February 14, 15, and 16, 2012. The following persons provided
testimony at the hearing: Benitez, her daughter, Harris; two
former co-workers who received similar termination letters;
and Caruso, Martinez, Meletz, and Cruz. The Commission also
received numerous exhibits.
hearing, Benitez appeared as the first witness. She testified
that she had worked as a sewer at Pyramid sewing boxes,
pockets, Velcro, and zippers. (Hr'g Tr. Vol. I at 18.)
Benitez also testified that although she had not received a
pay raise in three years, some of her co-workers had received
raises. Id. at 22. She stated that she was aware
that Vazquez, Cruz, and Meletz had put in for pay raises for
her co-workers, so in August 2007, she asked them for a
raise. Id. at 21. When Benitez did not receive an
immediate response, she repeated her request several times.
Id. at 22. They informed her that Caruso was away on
a trip. Id.
later decided that she should meet with Caruso to discuss a
pay raise, and she asked her daughter, Harris, to help with
translation. Id. at 23-24. On October 19, 2007,
Benitez, Harris, and Caruso met to discuss Benitez's
raise. Id. at 24-28. It was at this meeting that
Benitez discovered that her supervisors had not forwarded her
previous requests to Caruso. Id. at 24. According to
Benitez, the supervisors had forwarded pay-raise requests
from eight of her co-workers, only two of whom were not
Guatemalan. Id. at 25.
testified that she told Caruso that she believed she did not
receive a raise because she was Ecuadorian and not
Guatemalan. Id. at 28. Benitez further testified
that her supervisors treated her differently by not fixing
her machine in a timely manner after it broke, even though
they would timely fix the machines of her Guatemalan
co-workers. Id. at 29. She also stated that
Guatemalan employees would get the "best jobs" and
that any mistakes that they made would be discarded; whereas,
she would have to "break the stitches and resew it
again." Id. It is unclear from her testimony,
however, whether Benitez informed Caruso about this purported
summoned the supervisors to his office to make inquiries
about Benitez's work performance, but Cruz was the only
one to appear. Id. at 26. Cruz told Caruso that
Benitez "was a good worker." Id. At that
point, Benitez returned to her work station, while Harris
remained behind to speak to Caruso. Id.
testified that Caruso told Harris that he would check her
mother's employment file. Id. at 27. She stated
that Harris informed Caruso that her mother "was a very
serious person at work and always on time . . . ."
Id. Caruso then allegedly told Harris that he would
give Benitez a one dollar raise "under the condition
that I [Benitez] wouldn't tell anything to any of my
co-workers, but for that they were going to change me to
another machine." Id. Benitez testified that
her understanding was that Caruso would have her try to work
on another machine so that she could make more money, but
that they never put her on a different machine. Id.
at 52-53. Benitez had never graduated from the single needle
machine for which she had been hired to operate. See
2003 Appl. for Employment.
testified that four days later, on October 23, 2007, Vazquez
instructed Benitez to go to Caruso's office for a
meeting. Id. at 29. She testified that when she
arrived, Cruz, Meletz, Vazquez, Martinez, and Caruso already
were present, and that they were speaking in English and
laughing. Id. at 30. Benitez stated that she became
very upset because she did not understand what they were
saying, but that she "kn[e]w they were talking about
[her] at that time." Id. Benitez left the room
and returned to her work station. Id. According to
Benitez, Caruso and Martinez then came to her work station to
inquire about her wellbeing, and that "[t]hey were very
upset because I had brought in my daughter."
testified that her supervisors began to treat her differently
after the October 19, 2007 meeting by talking "behind
[her] back" and giving overtime to workers who mostly
were from Guatemala. Id. at 32-33. On November 23,
2007, Benitez was hospitalized, and did not return to her job
until March 11, 2008, at which time another employee was
occupying her work station and she discovered that her
personal belongings were missing. Id. at 34-36.
Benitez testified that she always performed her job in an
excellent manner, that she always was punctual, and that she
never had received a probation or suspension from work.
Id. at 37-38.
9, 2008, Pyramid laid off Benitez due to an alleged lack of
work. Id. at 38. Benitez testified that she had not
noticed any slowdown in work at the time. Id. at 40.
She also testified that despite her continuous efforts to
find a new job (as of the date of her testimony during the
February 14, 2012 hearing), she had not succeeded in doing
so, and that she suffers from depression following her
separation from Pyramid. Id. at 40-46. At the
February 14, 2012 hearing, Benitez stated that she was then
taking the medication Lexapro to treat her symptoms of
depression. Id. at 45.
daughter, Harris, testified next. She stated that she arrived
at Pyramid without an appointment to meet with Caruso on
October 19, 2007. Id. at 72-73, 79. She did so
because she wanted to serve as a translator at a meeting
between Benitez and Caruso. Id. at 73-74. Harris
testified that Caruso expressed surprise when he learned that
Benitez previously had requested a pay raise. Id. at
74. According to Harris, Caruso stated that the supervisors
had requested raises for "Juana, Carlos, Elba, Arelis,
Martha Garcia, [and] Betty[, ]" and that "[t]hey
were the only workers that received a raise."
Id. She stated that according to her mother, four of
those workers were Guatemalan, one was from Bolivia, and one
was from "Salvador." Id. Harris testified
that Benitez told Caruso that she believed she was not given
a raise because she was from Ecuador rather than from
Guatemala. Id. at 75, 77.
then stated that when Cruz joined the meeting, Cruz reported
that Benitez was a good worker. Id. at 75. Harris
also stated that Caruso said that he would review
Benitez's employment file, and that he later called
Harris to inform her that "he agreed to give a $1 raise
to [her] mother and [Benitez] need[ed] to be quiet about the
raise and she would be working on different machine."
Id. at 77.
testified that he has owned the forty-year-old Pyramid Case
Company since 1989. Id. at 83-84. Traditionally, the
company only made cases for optical companies for their
designer glasses; however, it since has expanded into
contract work such as making bullet proof vests for the
government. Id. at 84. Caruso testified that during
the time period relevant to this case, Pyramid had a lot of
low-end contract work. Id. at 85. He stated that
factory employees make between $7.50 and $8.50 per hour, and
that Benitez was making $8 when she was laid off. (Hr'g
Tr. Vol. II at 17-21, 30.) He further stated that Benitez
worked on the single needle machine making the basic case.
(Hr'g Tr. Vol. I at 89; Hr'g Tr. Vol. III at 24.)
Caruso said that the basic case required great volume in
order to render it a viable, worthwhile product to make.
(Hr'g Tr. Vol. III at 24.) He also stated that Vazquez
was not on the payroll, and that Vazquez provided maintenance
work as an independent contractor. (Hr'g Tr. Vol I at 93;
Hr'g Tr. Vol. III at 27.)
testified that Benitez told him at the October 19, 2007
meeting that her supervisors had discriminated against her
based on her national origin. (Hr'g Tr. Vol. III at 44.)
He denied considering a person's background in making a
hiring decision, because in his opinion, all his employees
are "Americans[.]" Id. at 33; see also
id. at 53 ("I made it a point, I always looked at
them, you know, the same. They're Americans, they have a
job to do.").
also testified that the October 23, 2007 meeting was
"cordial" and "professional." (Hr'g
Tr. Vol. III at 28.) He stated that the meeting was
"under control . . . I wouldn't let anyone laugh at
anybody . . . We were trying to figure out if she can do some
other jobs." Id. Caruso further testified that
when he asked Meletz and Cruz at the meeting whether they
were "discriminating against [Benitez] because she's
from Ecuador," they denied the accusation. (Hr'g Tr.
Vol. III at 45.) He said Vazquez also denied the same
question. Id. Caruso admitted that he agreed to give
Benitez a pay raise, but he disputed the amount, testifying
that he agreed to a fifty-cent raise rather than one dollar.
(Hr'g Tr. Vol. II at 6-7.) He stated that he told his
secretary to give Benitez a fifty-cent raise, but that
"it didn't happen" and "that was a
mistake." Id. at 7.
also testified that although Benitez met his legitimate
expectations with respect to the particular glasses case that
she made, she was unable to run "other machines,"
because she would break the needles. (Hr'g Tr. Vol. I at
88, 104-105; Hr'g Tr. Vol. II at 5-6; Hr'g Tr. Vol.
III at 29.) Thus, he testified when he gave her an
opportunity to work on more complex machines, the effort
failed. She could not operate them successfully. (Hr'g
Tr. Vol. II at 7-8; Hr'g Tr. Vol. III at 29.) Caruso
testified that the company lost a contract to manufacture the
type of case that utilized a single needle machine-the same
open end case that Benitez made on her machine-and that this
led to a "lack of work." (Hr'g Tr. Vol. I at
107-111; Hr'g Tr. Vol. III at 30, 39-42.)
result, he testified that "[eleven] employees were
terminated around the same time as Ms. Benitez" because
of "lack of work. Because of the work they did."
(Hr'g Tr. Vol. II at 45.) He further testified that
Pyramid's business was shifting during this period, and
that it was producing products which required a more
"sophisticated" type sewing that Benitez was unable
to perform. (Hr'g Tr. Vol. I at 122-123; see
also Hr'g Tr. Vol. III at 31, 50, 61-62.)
stated that Pyramid did not recall any of the eleven laid-off
workers back to work; however, it did hire nine new workers
"a few months later" because work increased
"in other areas." (Hr'g Tr. Vol. II at 46.)
Caruso further stated that he has to keep his "workforce
very lean[, ]" and that he only hires people with the
requisite skills needed by the company. (Hr'g Tr. Vol. I
at 130, 132.) Caruso acknowledged that Pyramid still
manufactures the basic case that Benitez was capable of
sewing; however, because it lost most of that business to a
competitor, Caruso assigns current employees who also can
"run the other machines" to manufacture the basic
case because such work does not "justify a full-time
employee." (Hr'g Tr. Vol. I at 124-25, 128.) Caruso
"did not rehire anyone to do single needle work."
(Hr'g Tr. Vol. I at 125.)
Pyramid employee Vanessa Echevarria testified at the
hearing. (Hr'g Tr. Vol. II at 61.) She stated
that Vazquez hired her and was her supervisor, and that he
also performed other tasks such as fixing machines.
Id. at 63-66. Echevarria admitted that she did not
know Cruz, and only had limited interactions with Meletz.
Id. at 70, 72-73. She testified that she believed
Pyramid laid her off because "they weren't satisfied
with my job anymore[;]" however, she said that her
termination letter indicated that the reason for her lay off
was because Pyramid "didn't have a lot of
work." Id. at 67-68.
Hawksley, a Bolivian, testified that she is a former Pyramid
employee who held the position of machine operator until she
was laid off due to lack of work. Id. at 73-75, 81.
She testified that Cruz and Meletz were her supervisors, and
that she did not report to Vazquez, who apparently held
himself out as a manager. Id. at 76-77. Hawksley
testified that she believed that Cruz, Meletz, and Vazquez
gave preferential treatment to Guatemalans when assigning
overtime work because "[t]he ones not from Guatemala
they would send us home." Id. at 78-79.
However, when asked if she was claiming that she had been
denied overtime due to her ethnicity, Hawksley responded
"No." Id. at 83. She also testified that
she had never observed Cruz, Meletz, or Vazquez mistreat
Benitez. Id. at 79.
stated that on October 23, 2007, she saw Benitez enter the
office along with Vazquez, and that shortly thereafter, Cruz
and Meletz also entered the office. Id. at 80;
see also id. at 85 (stating "the lady went in
there, and then after that the other people went in").
Hawksley further stated that when Benitez returned to the
factory floor, "she was bad, she was shaking, red, her
eyes very, very reddish . . . [s]he couldn't talk to me
she was so bad." Id. at 80.
native of Guatemala, testified next. Id. at 87, 98.
She stated that during the time period in question, she
worked as a supervisor. Id. at 88. Cruz testified
that Pyramid produced three bags during the relevant time
period, but that Benitez only sewed the basic single needle
case and "wouldn't" do other types of sewing.
Id. at 89-90. Cruz stated that Pyramid now produces
fewer basic cases than it did before. Id. at 93,
testified that she encouraged Benitez to try to learn to use
other machines, but that Benitez was unable to productively
use those other machines. Id. at 92. She testified
that she is not involved in hiring, firing, giving pay
raises, or giving overtime work-Caruso makes those decisions
based on an employee's worksheets-and that had she seen
or heard of anyone harassing Benitez, she would have reported
it to Caruso. Id. at 91, 94-95.
cross-examination Cruz testified that Caruso would ask both
her and Meletz to give him feedback about an employee's
performance, and that he would rely on their responses in
making decisions. Id. at 97. However, Caruso would
make the ultimate decision. Id. at 98. Cruz also
testified that she did not recommend that Caruso lay off
Benitez, and that Benitez never reported to Cruz that she had
been mistreated on the basis of ethnic origin. Id.
at 99, 105.
Meletz took the stand next. Id. at 106. He testified
that Benitez worked the single needle machine to make basic
cases. Id. at 107. He then discussed the different
sewing machines that employees use at Pyramid. Id.
at 108-113. For example, some machines require more strength
to operate. Id. at 109. Meletz testified that
Pyramid does very little straight stitching anymore; instead,
it has expanded its line to include gloves and hard bags.
Id. at 111.
further testified that he never complained to Caruso about
any worker, never discouraged Caruso from giving a raise to
any employee, and that if he had seen anyone harassing
Benitez, he would have addressed the issue. Id. at
113. Meletz stated that he does not assign overtime in the
sewing department, and that he has never received any
complaints about him giving preferential treatment to
Guatemalans. Id. at 114. Meletz testified that
Caruso would rely upon his recommendation concerning pay
raises, but that usually he recommends that an employee
directly ask Caruso to give him or her a pay raise.
Id. at 121, 123.
office manager and Caruso's personal secretary, Martinez,
also testified. (Hr'g Tr. Vol. III at 4.) Martinez, who
is bi-lingual, testified that she attended the October 23,
2007 meeting as a translator. Id. at 6. She stated
that Caruso speaks only English while some others, including
Benitez, Cruz, and Meletz speak only Spanish. Id. at
8. She testified that the meeting was scheduled to discuss
how to justify a pay raise for Benitez, a sewer who worked
only on a simple needle machine. Id. at 7.
denied the allegation that all were speaking English,
laughing or raising their voices. Id. at 7-8.
Instead, she described the meeting as "very
professional" and "civilized[.]" Id.
at 7-8. Martinez further denied Benitez's contention that
she and Caruso tried to comfort Benitez after she left the
meeting; later, Martinez admitted that she had no
recollection of attempting to comfort Benitez. Id.
who acted as translator between Caruso and non-English
speaking employees, testified that in her twelve years as
office manager, she never had heard an employee complain of
discrimination due to ethnic background. Id. at 3-4,
8. She further testified that she maintained employee
personnel files, including copies of their green cards, but
that until the instant matter arose, she was unaware that
Benitez was from Ecuador. Id ...