Every now and then the Second Circuit sends a case to the New York Court of Appeals to untangle a state law question. In this case, the Second Circuit asked the State's highest court to rule on whether the New York City Human Rights Law prohibits disciplining or firing an untreated alcoholic.
The case is Makinen v. City of New York, decided by the New York Court of Appeals on October 17. The two plaintiffs were New York City police officers. They were referred to the police department's internal counseling unit, which is like an EAP for police officers. Plaintiffs were not alcoholics, but the CSU determined that they "suffered from some sort of alcoholism." This lawsuit alleges that they suffered adverse employment actions because the City had wrongly believed they were untreated alcoholics. After the jury awarded them good money at trial, the City appealed, claiming the City Human Rights Law did not cover this form of discrimination. The Second Circuit referred the case to the New York Court of Appeals, which now holds that plaintiffs have no case because the City law does not explicitly prohibit this form of discrimination.
The Americans with Disabilities Act and the New York State Human Rights Law do prohibit discrimination where an employee is perceived to be an untreated alcoholic. The express terms of the City law do not prohibit that form of discrimination. The reason why the case got this far is that the City law was intended to provide for greater rights than federal and state law. On that basis, plaintiffs say, it is reasonable to interpret the City law to also prohibit discrimination against persons perceived as untreated alcoholics. Anyone familiar with the scope of the City law and its legislative history -- which demands that courts interpret it in the most plaintiff-friendly manner possible -- would understand where plaintiffs are coming from on this issue. Unfortunately for them, the State Court of Appeals does not see it that way, setting aside the pro-plaintiff statutory interpretation principles in favor of a plain reading of the statute, which takes priority over legislative intent under state law.
The State Court of Appeals concludes that "the [City law] does not consider a mistaken perception of alcoholism to be a disability covered by the [City law]." While the City law provides greater protections than federal and state law, and the legislative history and even portions of the statute tell courts to liberally construe the City law, the State Court of Appeals says "this is a rare case where through its express language, the City Council has mandated narrower coverage than" state or federal law.
This is not a unanimous decision. Five judges agreed with the City, and two judges dissent. Judge Garcia notes that courts must construe the City law "broadly in favor of discrimination plaintiffs whenever such a construction is reasonably possible." The State Court of Appeals said that in Albunio v. City of New York, 16 N.Y.3d 472 (2011). As Judge Garcia sees it, plaintiff's interpretation of the statute is "reasonably possible," concluding that legislative intent is the primary consideration in reviewing a statute's meaning. Under that interpretative model, plaintiffs are correct, Judge Garcia says, because the City law broadly protects against disability discrimination and the provision at issue in this case does not modify the broad definition of "disability" under the statute. This is a complex argument, but a reasonable one, the dissent says, even if the City also advances a reasonable argument. Under the statutory construction principles advanced by the City law, even if both sides advance a reasonable interpretation, the court must accept the plaintiff's interpretation. But, since the majority disagrees with Judge Garcia's analysis, the case returns to the Second Circuit, which must apply the majority's interpretation to the facts of the case. In all likelihood, the Second Circuit will vacate the jury award on the basis that the City law does not protect plaintiffs from this form of disability discrimination.
About seven years ago, Donald Zarda, a Long Island sky-diving instructor, shared a bit of personal information with a female student as they prepared for a jump. He was, he told the woman, “100 percent gay.”
He made the disclosure, he later explained, because the woman had seemed uncomfortable with the close physical contact. Her boyfriend was watching and a friend had been teasing her about being strapped in so tightly to another man.
After the woman’s boyfriend called the sky-diving school to complain about the encounter, Mr. Zarda was fired. He sued, setting in motion a legal case that has grown more consequential as it has worked its way through the courts over the past several years.
On Tuesday, Mr. Zarda’s firing was dissected before a panel of 13 federal appellate judges in Manhattan, who were wrestling with whether federal discrimination law provided protection for employees facing discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation.
But the most curious division was not among the judges, but between lawyers for the federal government who, over two hours of arguments, staked out opposing positions on the reach of federal discrimination law.
A lawyer for the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Jeremy Horowitz, sided with the sky diver, arguing that federal law did prohibit employers from discriminating against employees because they are gay.