Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hearsay exceptions allow plaintiff to argue that obesity is a protected disability

Hearsay is a tricky thing. That's why evidence class in law school spends so much time on it. Here's a real-life example of how hearsay works, and the Court of Appeals provides that analysis in an interesting disability discrimination claim alleging that obesity is a protected disability under the New York City Human Rights Law.

The case is Speigel v. Schulmann, decided on May 6. (The case is also notable for holding that the Americans With Disabilities Act does not provide for individual liability in retaliation claims).

Speigel argues that he was fired from a karate school because of his weight. Defendant says that Speigel was fired because of job performance. This is the classic dispute in employment discrimination cases. You can get around management's defense with direct evidence of discriminatory intent. Speigel has it, but the district court threw out the case under the hearsay rules.

The first hearsay issue looks like an easy one. Spiegel testified that Schulmann told him that he was fired because of his weight. In dismissing this case on summary judgment, the district court somehow overlooked this evidence. Since Schulmann has an ownership interest in the business and he's a party to the lawsuit, it's a party-opponent admission under Rule 801(d)(2)(A) of the Federal Rules of Evidence.

The other hearsay problem is that Spiegel testified that Vincent Gravina, the leader of the Center at the time of plaintiff's termination, told him that the termination was based on his weight. The district court said this was inadmissible hearsay, but it isn't, the Court of Appeals (Hall and Livingston) says. Gravina and Schulmann were co-owners of the corporation that owned the school. According to plaintiff, Gravina said he was told to fire him because of his weight. That's enough for the Court of Appeals to find that plaintiff can win the case:

The relationship between Gravina and Schulmann, as well as Schulmann's direction to another center's owner to fire Spiegel, creates the inference that Gravina was acting as Schulmann's agent or servant when he told Spiegel that the termination was based on Spiegel's weight. If this inference is drawn in the Plaintiff's favor, Spiegel's description of Gravina's statement is admissible against Schulmann as the statement of his agent or servant, made during the existence of the relationship between Gravina and Schulmann.

The final tricky issue here is whether obesity is a protected disability under the New York City Human Rights Law. The Americans With Disabilities Act and New York State Human Rights Law does not protect plaintiff. But courts are beginning to recognize that the New York City Human Rights Law provides broader protections to employees than the Federal and State counterpart. This issue is sent back to the district court to think it over light of the broad definition of "disability" under that law and the New York City Council's intent that "analysis [of NYCHRL provisions] must be targeted to understanding and fulfilling what the statute characterizes as the City HRL’s ‘uniquely broad and remedial’ purposes, which go beyond those of counterpart State or federal civil rights laws.”

1 comment:

Josh said...

This shows how the law is creeping beyond immutable characteristics in defining protected classes.