Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Plaintiffs do not always win under the City Human Rights Law

The New York City Human Rights Law is regarded as a "pro-plaintiff" civil rights law, mostly because it reaches further than federal and state law. In the employment discrimination context, the First Department has been issuing rulings that make it clear that the City law should be liberally construed. But not everyone wins under the City law.

The case is Cadet-Legros v. New York University Hospital, issued on December 8. Plaintiff is a black woman who worked at the Hospital. Over time, she received a series of warnings, then final warnings, before management terminated her employment. Plaintiff then sued for racial discrimination, claiming the employer's articulated reasons for her termination were pretextual and that decisionmakers had made racially-coded statements. The First Department disagrees, and the case is dismissed. But along the way, the Court offers more guidance on how this law works, and how it differs from federal and state law.

In cases like this, "the court should focus on whether the defendant has sufficiently met its burden, as the moving party, of showing that, based on the evidence before the court and drawing all reasonable inferences in plaintiff's favor, no jury could find defendant liable under any of the evidentiary routes [applicable to discrimination cases]." One way for a plaintiff to defeat summary judgment is by offering some evidence that at least one of the reasons proffered by defendant is false, misleading, or incomplete." If the plaintiff can accomplish this, "such evidence of pretext should in almost every case indicate to the court that a motion for summary judgment must be denied."

The Court goes on: "This is because once a plaintiff introduces 'pretext' evidence, 'a host of determinations properly made only by a jury come into play, such as whether a false[, misleading, or incomplete] explanation constitutes evidence of consciousness of guilt, an attempt to cover up the alleged discriminatory conduct, or an improper discriminatory motive coexisting with other legitimate reasons.' This formulation, founded on the uniquely broad and remedial purposes of the City HRL, provides the framework for evaluating the sufficiency of evidence, and differs significantly from federal civil rights law (by assigning, for example, more weight to the possibility that a pretextual justification reflects consciousness of guilt)."

A few points. First, unlike the Second Circuit's interpretation of Title VII, the City law allows the plaintiff to reach a jury on pretext alone. In other words, if plaintiff belongs to a protected class and can show the employer offered a bogus reason for her discharge, that's enough to permit a finding of discriminatory intent. Also, even if the employer offers a variety of reasons, plaintiff's evidence that only one of those reasons is false is enough to win the case. This goes much further than most federal courts in Title VII cases.

In a footnote, the First Department also says that "animus" is not needed for plaintiff to win the case. Animus would take the form of hatred or general dislike of people in plaintiff's protected class, such as age. "An 'animus' requirement is not supported by [the City law's] statutory language or by legislative history. Whether a defendant is motivated by animus, or misguided benevolence, or some other consideration, the conduct in question is illegal so long as it was (at least in part) because of protected class status and operated to the disadvantage of the plaintiff. Thus, for example, a company vice president may think fondly of older employees even as that vice president is explaining that it is 'time for new blood'; that fondness does not take away from the fact that the phrase suggests that it is time for older workers to move on and that any decision to fire older workers may have been based on their age."

These broad principles don't help plaintiff in this case. It accepts that plaintiff's performance was deficient and that plaintiff could not poke holes in that factual argument:

Defendant submitted evidence -- essentially undisputed by plaintiff -- of a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for firing plaintiff. As the motion court explained, defendant had been warning plaintiff for years that her conduct was unacceptable. This conduct included "insubordination, disrespect of her supervisors, and failure to communicate." The record contains written documentation of multiple warnings to plaintiff about her conduct, and documentation, including emails from plaintiff, that illustrate an ongoing struggle, apparently unrelated to race, as to whether and from whom plaintiff was going to accept direction. Indeed, one of the most striking things about the record is that it conveys an unusual willingness on defendant's part to continue working with an employee who was repeatedly insubordinate and disruptive of the workplace. 
Plaintiff did argue that a supervisor made a racial comment in saying about her, 'A leopard does not change its spots." This phrase actually has a racist history, but it dates to 1902, and the First Department does not think it has that same meaning today. Today's meaning, the Court says, simply is that someone's pattern of behavior will not change. Plaintiff also argued that another word, "tirade," has a racial meaning. The Court rejects that argument, too, finding instead that it referred to plaintiff's outbursts.

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