Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Second Circuit sustains unique claim for interracial engagement discrimination

This case raises a series of complex issues, but the central holding is that the white plaintiff has a constitutional claim for wrongful discharge because of his engagement to a black woman. This is the first time the Second Circuit has held that the right to intimate association under the Fourteenth Amendment covers the engagement relationship, not just marriage.

The case is Matusick v. Erie County Water Authority, decided on January 6. Plaintiff worked for a public entity. When his co-workers learned that plaintiff was engaged to a black women, they subjected him to vile names, and his working relationship with a racist supervisor, Bluman, collapsed. Management knew about this hostile work environment, but Bluman wouldn't stop. Other co-workers threw around the N-word as well. Management knew about it but did nothing.

The case was not a slam-dunk for Matusick, though. Plaintiff was accused of sleeping on the job, watching TV in the office and blocking the surveillance cameras to avoid getting caught. He lost a Section 75 hearing that found him guilty of work-related misconduct, and he was terminated from his position. Still, the jury found the Water Authority and two individual supervisors liable for wrongful termination under state law, awarding him more than $300,000 in lost wages. The jury also found the Water Authority and three individuals liable for the racial harassment, though it awarded plaintiff no damages for this. On the federal claim (brought under Section 1983), the Water Authority and three individuals were found liable for violating plaintiff's right of intimate association. Here is what the Court of Appeals (Sack, Lohier and Raggi) did:

1. The unlawful termination claim against the Water Authority is sustained. While there is no evidence that higher-ups participated in the harassment over plaintiff's inter-racial relationship, the harassment was pervasive, and the jury could find that the harassment "tainted the investigation into Matusick's misconduct and that the [Water Authority] was aware of that fact, or at least that such animus was a substantial factor in the [Authority's] decision to follow the Section 75 hearing officer's recommendation of termination." The same people who tolerated the harassment conducted the investigation into plaintiff's misconduct and terminated his employment. In addition, other employees engaged in similar misconduct but were not disciplined. While no co-workers engaged in precisely the misconduct that plaintiff did, their misdeeds were close enough. In finding that plaintiff was singled out, the Court of Appeals also factors in the general racist environment in the workplace.

2. On the intimate association claim under Section 1983 and Fourteenth Amendment, the Court of Appeals reviews the flowery but hard-to-define guidelines governing these cases. In Roberts v. United States Jaycees (1984), the Supreme Court said that the Constitution protects certain intimate relationships, like marriage. The Second Circuit finds that this must include "romantic relationships beyond marriage." It adds, "The Courtʹs specific reference to marital relationships therefore should not, we think, be viewed as a formalistic recognition of a particular, narrow legal status entitled to protection. Rather, at least to the extent that a relationship of betrothal constitutes an expression of oneʹs choice of marital partner, it shares the qualities ascribed by the Roberts court to marriage and other protected forms of intimate association. We therefore conclude that Matusickʹs betrothal to Starks fulfilled the standards set out in Roberts and is entitled to protections similar to those that marital relationships enjoy under the right to intimate association." Plaintiff's right to intimate association was violated because the government cannot articulate any interest in furthering this kind of harassment.

3. The Water Authority is liable for this rights violation under Monell, which allows plaintiffs to hold municipalities liable under Section 1983 if a policy or practice caused the plaintiff's injury. The widespread nature of the harassment made that harassment a municipal policy. "A custom or policy of harassment and other discriminatory acts giving rise to hostile work environment claims can form the basis of section 1983
claims." That principle applies here. However, the right to intimate association because of an engagement relationship was not clearly-established under the Constitution at the time plaintiff suffered the wrongful discharge. Under qualified immunity principles, individuals cannot be liable for constitutional violations if the state of the law was unclear. The individual defendants were not on notice that this abhorrent behavior violated the Constitution. While this behavior might have violated Title VII, that does not mean the defendants had reason to know it violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The Section 1983 verdict against the individuals is tossed. Fortunately for plaintiff, since the Section 1983 and state law verdicts against the Water Authority stand, the damages award stands, as municipalities are not entitled to qualified immunity. But the punitive damages against the individuals ($5,000) is gone.

This ruling is interesting for a number of reasons. First, its length: 101 pages, the longest decision I've seen from the Second Circuit for a single-plaintiff claim. That's because of two concurrences and Judge Raggi's dissent which, among other things, disagrees with the holdings that the Constitution protects the engagement relationship or that the municipality is liable for plaintiff's termination. Concluding that plaintiff should have instead sued under the Equal Protection Clause, Judge Raggi says the real beneficiary of the majority's constitutional ruling is plaintiff's attorney, who recovers attorneys' fees for a "dubious" claim under the Fourteenth Amendment that triggers the fee-shifting statute. Other matters of interest include Judge Sack's footnotes. Footnote 1 shows that romantic love still exists in our cynical and twisted world. Footnote 3 highlights the Court's discomfort with using the racially-charged N-word in judicial opinions. Footnote 5 tells us about an historic Buffalo Bills football game that plaintiff was watching on the job as he slacked off in his office. Judge Lohier's concurrence tells us more than you ever wanted to know about the tradition of marital engagements in American history. A separate holding offers an interesting take on the relevance of an adverse Section 75 personnel decision at trial. And the decision as a whole acquaints us with a word that you had probably never heard before: Betrothal.

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