Articles Posted in Second Circuit

Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On November 21, 2017, in Martinez v. Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, the Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of a race discrimination case at summary judgment. Plaintiff Eunice Martinez, a web editor at the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP (“Davis Polk”), claimed that Davis Polk—despite Martinez’s repeated requests to be promoted to a management-level position—awarded her lower salary raises and failed to promote her into a managerial position because she is Hispanic. The district court concluded that Martinez failed to establish a prima facie case for either claim. Second Circuit Judges Rosemary S. Pooler, Debra Ann Livingston, and Denny Chin affirmed the decision.

To prove pay discrimination, Martinez had to satisfy the “demanding” standard of the equal work inquiry, which requires evidence that the jobs compared are “substantially equal.” Showing that two positions are “substantially equal” is easier said than done, as even small differences in duties or responsibilities can suffice to show that two positions are not “substantially equal.” Here, Martinez conceded that she “holds a unique position and there is no point of comparison” for her particular job and testified during her deposition that she was not qualified to do the jobs of six of her proposed seven comparators. As a result, Martinez could not show that her comparators were “substantially equal” and therefore could not show that they did “equal work.”

Lev Craig

Last week, on November 20, 2017, in Chauca v. Abraham, the New York State Court of Appeals set the standard for punitive damages awards in claims brought under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). The New York  Court of Appeals, in keeping with the New York State common law standard, held that the NYCHRL entitles a plaintiff to punitive damages “where the wrongdoer’s actions amount to willful or wanton negligence” or “recklessness” or involve “a conscious disregard of the rights of others or conduct so reckless as to amount to such disregard.”

In 2009, Plaintiff Veronika Chauca became pregnant, took a period of maternity leave from her job as a physical therapy aide, and was terminated after her return from leave. She then filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, bringing sex and pregnancy discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL), and the NYCHRL.

Owen H. Laird, Esq.

We recently wrote about two labor and employment law cases that will be heard by the United States Supreme Court in its current session: Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and Encino Motorcars, LLC, v. Hector Navarro, et al. These cases, however, were not the only labor and employment law cases submitted to the Court for certiorari. The Supreme Court only takes a small fraction of the cases that are submitted to it each year, and, this year, the Court elected not to weigh in on several significant employment law cases. Because the Court decided not to hear the appeals, the decisions of the circuit courts in those cases will stand.  Two cases in particular, Stevens v. Rite-Aid Corp. and Bartels v. 402 East Broughton Street Inc., could have a significant impact on employees.

In Stevens v. Rite-Aid Corp., the Second Circuit addressed the question of what constitutes an essential job function for the purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits discrimination in employment against a “qualified individual” on the basis of their disability. A “qualified individual” is defined as someone who, with or without reasonable accommodations, can perform the “essential functions” of their job. In short, employers may not discriminate against employees with disabilities that do not prevent job performance, but when an employee cannot perform the essential functions of the job, even with an accommodation, the employer can terminate the employee.

Lev Craig

On August 10, 2017, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated the lower court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s sex discrimination and FMLA interference claims in Shultz v. Congregation Shearith Israel of the City of New York. The Second Circuit found that the defendant’s notice to the plaintiff of her future termination constituted an adverse employment action, even though the notice of termination was later revoked.

Alana Shultz began working as Program Director at a New York City synagogue in 2004. In June 2015, Shultz, who was pregnant at the time, got married and notified her employer that she was pregnant. Shortly after Shultz disclosed her pregnancy, the synagogue notified Shultz that her employment would be terminated effective August 14, 2015, purportedly due to “restructuring.” Suspecting that the supposed “restructuring” was pretext for terminating her because of her pregnancy and because the synagogue’s leadership “disapproved of the fact that she was pregnant at the time of her marriage,” Shultz retained counsel, who then notified the synagogue of Shultz’s intent to pursue legal claims. Several days later, the synagogue rescinded its notice of termination, telling Shultz that it had “reinstated” the Program Director position and that she would therefore retain her position.

Owen H. Laird and Walker G. Harman, Jr.

On Wednesday, President Trump and his administration took two major actions against LGBT rights: First, President Trump tweeted that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the U.S. military; then, the Department of Justice (DoJ) filed a brief in an ongoing Second Circuit case, arguing that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII)—a major federal anti-discrimination statute—does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. These two actions clearly demonstrate Trump’s position on LGBT rights: He does not support them, and his actions are disturbing and intolerant. As Trump forces the LGBT community—and all of us—to take giant steps backward, we all need to bear arms (so to speak) to protect the rights of all those marginalized within the LGBT community.

Last year, President Obama instituted a new policy allowing transgender people to serve in the military. On Wednesday, President Trump, via Twitter, announced that transgender people would no longer be able to serve, claiming that the armed forces could not afford the “tremendous medical costs and disruption” supposedly caused by transgender people serving in the military. Trump provided no empirical support for his offensive statement. The backlash against Trump’s statement was swift, with Democrats and LGBT advocates swiftly decrying the decision. There are estimated to be anywhere between 5,000 and 15,000 transgender people currently serving in the U.S. military, and Trump’s announcement puts their careers at risk.

Lev Craig

On July 19, 2017, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated a jury verdict for the defendant in Woods v. START Treatment & Recovery Centers, Inc. In Woods, the plaintiff claimed that she had been terminated in retaliation for taking leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The court held that FMLA retaliation claims should be evaluated using the “motivating factor” causation standard and found that the jury had been incorrectly instructed on the applicable law, as the Woods jury had been instructed to apply the “but-for” causation standard, not the motivating factor standard. Accordingly, the Second Circuit vacated the lower court’s verdict and remanded the case for a new trial.

In 2007, Cassandra Woods began working as a substance abuse counselor at START, a New York–based nonprofit providing treatment and counselling to individuals addicted to narcotics. Woods has several debilitating medical conditions, including severe anemia. According to Woods, she repeatedly asked to take FMLA leave due to these medical conditions during her employment at START, but was denied on multiple occasions. In April 2012, Woods was hospitalized for a week, a period which START acknowledged was protected by the FMLA. Shortly after Woods’s return to work, START terminated her employment, purportedly because of performance deficiencies.

By Harrison C. Paige

On April 18, 2017, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York’s decision in Zarda v. Altitude Express, dismissing Donald Zarda’s sexual orientation discrimination claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). In reaching its decision, the Second Circuit relied on its 2000 decision in Simonton v. Runyon, where the court held that Title VII does not protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, on May 25, 2017, the Second Circuit granted en banc review in Zarda, signaling that the Second Circuit may be ready to reexamine Simonton and revisit its position on Title VII sexual orientation discrimination claims.

In Simonton, Dwayne Simonton, a postal worker, was harassed because of his sexual orientation. The harassment was so severe that Simonton suffered a heart attack as a direct result of the abuse. While the Second Circuit’s decision noted the severity of the harassment and rebuked the behavior, the court nonetheless held that Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination based on “sex” does not include discrimination based on sexual orientation and dismissed Mr. Simonton’s Title VII sexual orientation discrimination claims. The precedent set by Simonton has prevented countless individuals from bringing sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII, leaving individuals stranded in their search for justice.

Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

In Griffin v. Sirva Inc., the New York Court of Appeals announced how New York State Human Rights Law § 296 (Section 296) should be interpreted with respect to employer and nonemployer liability for criminal conviction discrimination. Griffin involves two former employees of Astro Moving and Storage Co. Inc. (Astro), Tranthony Griffin and Michael Godwin. Griffin and Godwin sued Astro, a moving and storage company; Allied Van Lines, Inc. (Allied), a nationwide moving company with whom Astro had contracted to perform moving services­; and Sirva Inc. (Sirva)­, Allied’s parent company, for discriminating against them by terminating their employment for failing to pass Allied’s criminal background screen due to prior criminal convictions for sexual offenses.

After hiring Griffin and Godwin, Astro contracted with Allied to perform moving services. The contract required Astro to adhere to Allied’s Certified Labor Program guidelines, which provide that employees who “conduct the business of Allied at customer’s home or place of business […] must have successfully passed a criminal background screen […] as specifically approved by Allied.” If Astro violated these guidelines by using unscreened labor, it was subject to escalating monetary penalties. Under the Certified Labor Program guidelines, employees automatically failed the criminal background screen if they had ever been convicted of a sexual offense. In 2011, Griffin and Godwin consented to have Sirva investigate their criminal records, which identified their convictions, and Astro terminated them shortly afterward. Griffin and Godwin sued Astro, Allied, and Sirva, alleging criminal conviction discrimination under Section 296.

Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On May 22, 2017, in Makinen v. City of New York, the Second Circuit certified the following question: does the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) preclude a plaintiff from bringing a disability discrimination claim based solely on a perception of untreated alcoholism?  The question will be answered by the New York State Court of Appeals.

Plaintiffs Kathleen Makinen and Jamie Nardini served as New York Police Department (NYPD) officers for several years.  During their employment, each was referred to the NYPD’s Counseling Service Unit (CSU), which offers treatment and rehabilitation for officers struggling with substance abuse. Once an officer is referred to CSU with alleged alcohol-related problems, a trained counselor conducts an intake interview and contacts references to gather information regarding the officer’s reported alcohol use. If an officer is diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder, CSU staff develops a personal treatment plan, which may include educational videos, counseling, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, outpatient treatment, or inpatient treatment. An officer who refuses treatment is referred to the NYPD’s Medical Division, which may order the officer to undergo treatment or face disciplinary action. The officer is entitled to challenge the disciplinary action in administrative proceedings by filing a grievance with the agency that oversees CSU or through an Article 78 proceeding. Otherwise, once an officer is diagnosed with an alcohol-related problem, receipt by CSU of subsequent evidence of alcohol consumption triggers a mandatory reassessment and, potentially, further treatment.

Lev Craig

On May 9, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit denied summary judgment in Ahmed v. Astoria Bank, where plaintiff Sherin Ahmed brought religion, race, and national origin discrimination claims against her former employer. The Second Circuit held that the district court had erred in concluding that Ahmed had not presented evidence of discrimination and harassment sufficient to meet the threshold for a hostile work environment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). As such, the court vacated the lower court’s granting of summary judgment, allowing the case to proceed to trial.

Ahmed, who is originally from Egypt and immigrated to the U.S. in 2001, is a practicing Muslim woman and wears a hijab as part of her religious observance. In 2013, Ahmed interviewed for a quality control analyst position at Astoria Bank, a Long Island City­-based bank serving the New York metropolitan area, and was hired, conditional upon a 90-day probationary period. But, she alleges, Astoria Bank discriminated against her based on her race, religion, and national origin beginning as early as the day of her interview, when Anthony Figeroux, a Vice President at the bank, told her that she and two other Middle Eastern employees were “suspicious” and that he was glad he was “in the other side of the building in case you guys do anything.”