Plaintiff in Disability Discrimination Case Against Cornell University Defeats Second Summary Judgment Motion

On March 21, 2014, the Federal Court for the Northern District of New York denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment in the case Zavala v. Cornell University.

Plaintiff Jose A. Zavala alleges that while employed by Cornell University he was subject to discrimination because of his disability. Zavala worked as a network technician at Cornell, one of the core members of the department known as the “backbone team.” After suffering from type I Diabetes with complications for years, in October 2009 he was treated for swelling in his foot and was diagnosed with early-stage kidney failure. At that time Zavala asked his supervisor Jeremy Butler (“Butler”) to reduce the amount of walking he would have to do at work. Instead, Butler assigned him to different tasks that required more walking.

On his next performance evaluation, the Butler told Mr. Zavala that he had been downgraded because he had missed time for medical appointments, which slowed the work of his team. When he refused to sign the evaluation Director of Operations Sasja Juijts (“Huijts”) threatened him and demanded that he do so. Zavala then applied for and was granted a three-week leave to address his and his wife’s health conditions.

When he returned from leave, Juijts was moved to a customer service position, and his tools and company vehicle were not returned to him. Asking to return to his previous position, Zavala gave Juijts a fit-for-duty letter from a nurse who had treated him, which Juijts rejected. Plaintiff then requested a meeting with human resources manager Mittman, who ignored his complaints and then disclosed information from the meeting in violation of company policy. Mittman advised him to speak to a different representative from human resources if he still believed his transfer to customer service was discriminatory, which he did. He was then offered his original position, under the supervision of Juijts and Butler, which he refused.

“To establish a prima facie case of disparate treatment under the ADA,” the Court noted, “a plaintiff must show that (1) her employer is subject to the ADA, (2) she was disabled within the meaning of the ADA; (3) she was otherwise qualified to perform essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation; and (4) she suffered adverse employment action because of his disability.” The Defendant’s arguments in support of its motion are all attempts to show that Plaintiff has failed to meet condition (4)–that is, he has failed to allege any adverse employment action by Cornell.

The Court thoroughly rejects these arguments. Assuming the Plaintiff’s narrative of the relevant events were true, Cornell would have taken several adverse actions against Zevala. They demoted him to a position with significantly different responsibilities, in this case doing far less interesting work than he had done as a member of the “backbone team.” They also withheld his equipment, took his company vehicle so that he had to arrange rides with coworkers, required him to do more walking despite knowing about his requests for accommodation, and gave him a negative performance review that probably led to his demotion to a lower position that offered less complex work and fewer opportunities for overtime. And by taking these actions, Juijts and Butler might well have created a hostile work environment.

Defendant argues that because Zavala turned down his old job when it was offered, his reassignment cannot have been an adverse action. Rejecting this argument, the Court writes: “That Plaintiff declined an offer to return to the Backbone team does not alter the fact that, at least for some time, he was reassigned without the right to return to his former position.” In short, the Plaintiff was subject to several adverse actions, and a viable claim of disability discrimination.

If you believe your employer has discriminated against you because of a disability, a medical condition, or a request for medically-required leave, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.