Court Clarifies Summary Judgment Analysis For Discrimination Claims Under the New York City Human Rights Law

In Bennett v. Health Mgt. Sys., Inc., 2011 NY Slip Op. 09206 (N.Y. App. Div. 1st Dept. Dec. 20, 2011), the Appellate Division, First Department for the first time provided “an examination of whether, and to what extent, the three-step burden-shifting approach set forth in McDonnell Douglas v Green (411 US 792 [1973]), must be modified for [New York City Human Rights Law] claims, particularly in the context of the adjudication of summary judgment motions.”  The New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”) – codified at Title 8 of the New York City Administrative Code – is one of the most comprehensive civil rights laws in the country.

Informing the court’s analysis was the New York City Local Civil Rights Restoration Act of 2005 (Local Law 85) pursuant to which the NYCHRL “explicitly requires an independent liberal construction analysis in all circumstances … that must be targeted to understanding and fulfilling what the statute characterizes as the City HRL’s uniquely broad and remedial purposes, which go beyond those of counterpart State or federal civil rights laws”.

The court summarized “for purposes of consideration of summary judgment motions in discrimination cases brought under the City HRL” the following points:

(1) If a court were to find it necessary to consider the question of whether a prima facie case has been made out, it would need to ask the question, Do the initial facts described by the plaintiff, if not otherwise explained, give rise to the McDonnell Douglas inference of discrimination?

(2) Where a defendant has put forward evidence of one or more non-discriminatory motivations for its actions, however, a court should ordinarily avoid the unnecessary and sometimes confusing effort of going back to the question of whether a prima facie case has been made out. Instead, it should turn to the question of 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 — McDonnell Douglas, mixed motive, “direct” evidence, or some combination thereof.

(3) If the plaintiff responds with some evidence that at least one of the reasons proffered by defendant is false, misleading, or incomplete, a host of determinations properly made only by a jury come into play, and thus such evidence of pretext should in almost every case indicate to the court that a motion for summary judgment must be denied.

On the facts of the case, defendant was entitled to summary judgment on plaintiff’s age and race discrimination claims.  Defendant presented evidence of non-discriminatory motivations, including reports of plaintiff’s unsatisfactory work performance, poor attendance and lack of job focus.  It also presented evidence that defendant slept on the job, left early without explanation, and consumed alcohol at work.  Plaintiff was also replaced by an older worker and failed to introduce evidence that defendant’s explanations were pretextual or that a “discriminatory motive co-existed with the legitimate reasons supported by defendant’s evidence”, which was fatal to his age discrimination claim.  As to plaintiff’s race discrimination claim, plaintiff (who was white) did not produce any evidence that there were “black coworkers who were similarly situated to plaintiff in terms of poor performance or non-performance, let alone evidence that a similarly situated black coworker was treated more leniently” or “any of the innumerable other types of evidence that can point to race playing a role in his employer’s decision-making.”

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