Thursday, June 25, 2015

For collateral estoppel fans

If you represent public employees in discrimination cases, one hurdle to victory is any findings of misconduct against him at a departmental due process hearing. If the hearing officer says plaintiff did something wrong, can he still claim he was the victim of discrimination? Sometimes he can.

The case is Leon v. City of New York, a summary order decided on May 22. Following her termination, Leon asserted claims for discrimination and retaliation. But at a Section 3020-a hearing, it was found that Leon did something wrong at work. What did she do wrong? The decision does not say. But whatever she did, the district court held it prevented her from suing for discriminatory and retaliatory discharge because it undercut her prima facie case.

There is some surface logic to the district court's ruling. To make out a prima facie case of discrimination, plaintiff has to show she was qualified for the job but was fired under circumstances creating an inference of discrimination. If a neutral hearing officer says plaintiff did something wrong at work, then how can she claim discrimination?

The law does not always reflect surface logic. You can still be the victim of discrimination if you screwed up at work. Someone else may have engaged in the same misconduct without termination. Being singled out is prima facie evidence of discrimination. The hearing may have been fair, but it may not have addressed the issue of whether plaintiff was fired for discriminatory reasons. Applying settled collateral estoppel rules, the Court of Appeals (Parker, Kearse and Wesley) says:

There is no indication that the Section 3020-a hearing addressed, much less “actually decided,” whether the charges leading to Leon’s termination were driven, even in part, by discriminatory or retaliatory intent. The court’s error thus stems from the faulty assumption that termination for cause necessarily precludes the possibility of termination motivated by unlawful animus. “[T]he hearing officer’s determination that [the plaintiff] had engaged in the charged conduct, and that these violations called for h[er] termination, does not preclude a jury from later finding that [the plaintiff] was also terminated at least in part because of [discriminatory reasons]. The plaintiff could be successful on the [discrimination or retaliation] claims even if the jury were to accept that there were legitimate reasons for terminating h[er], too.” Matusick v. Erie Cnty. Water Auth., 757 F.3d 31, 47 (2d Cir. 2014).

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