Plaintiff Defeats Summary Judgment on National Origin, Race, and Color Discrimination Claims; Claims Not Precluded By Collective Bargaining Agreement

In Viruet v. Port Jervis City School Dist., the Southern District of New York held that plaintiff, a Hispanic bus driver for defendant school district, presented enough evidence on her Title VII discrimination claim to defeat defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

Plaintiff claimed that defendant refused to permit her to “bid” for a contract bus run, terminated her health care benefits, and denied her a step pay increase following a leave of absence, while allowing these benefits to similarly-situated Caucasian employees.

Initially, the court held that plaintiff was not required to file a grievance her collective bargaining agreement prior to filing suit.  Quoting the Supreme Court’s decision in 14 Penn Plaza LLC v. Pyett, 556 U.S. 247 (2009), the court noted that “a collective-bargaining agreement that clearly and unmistakably requires union members to arbitrate [discrimination] claims is enforceable as a matter of federal law.”

Here, plaintiff’s CBA did not meet this standard:

[T]he CBA at issue here does not clearly and unmistakably require union members to arbitrate discrimination claims under Title VII or any other anti-discrimination statute. Rather, the CBA defines a grievance as a dispute over the interpretation, inequitable application, misapplication, or alleged violation of the terms of [the CBA]. … Defendant argues that because Plaintiff’s allegations arise out of, and are undisputedly connected with, specific portions of the applicable collective bargaining agreement, the grievance procedure outlined in the CBA is applicable to Plaintiff’s Title VII claim. … Although Defendant’s defenses to Plaintiff’s allegations may rely on its interpretation of the CBA, Plaintiff clearly states a claim of discrimination under Title VII that does not solely rely upon allegations that the District inequitably or incorrectly applied the provisions of the CBA. Rather, Plaintiff alleges that the District treated her differently than similarly-situated employees by, inter alia, precluding her from participating in the August 2008 Driver Pick Day and terminating her health insurance due to her four-month leave of absence. …

Unlike the contractual provisions at issue in the [cases cited by defendant], the CBA here does not state that claims made pursuant to Title VII are subject to its grievance procedures; indeed, the CBA nowhere indicates that discrimination of any kind is prohibited. Accordingly, because the CBA does not clearly and unmistakably require[ ] union members to arbitrate [Title VII] claims … plaintiff was not required to file a grievance under the CBA.

As for the merits of plaintiff’s Title VII discrimination claim, the court initially held that plaintiff suffered an “adverse employment action”, in that the defendant’s actions forming the basis for plaintiff’s claims “caused or resulted in a decrease in plaintiff’s pay and a loss of her benefits.”

Furthermore, plaintiff presented enough evidence to support an inference of discrimination, namely, that “she was treated differently than similarly situated Caucasian drivers.”  Specifically:

Plaintiff has submitted evidence that Ms. Shima [who is white] was permitted to participate in the August 2008 Driver Pick Day, notwithstanding the fact that she was on leave [during the relevant period][,] … [that] unlike Plaintiff, Ms. Shima received District health benefits during the entirety of her one year leave of absence[,] … [and] that Ms. Shima received a step increase during her one-year leave of absence.

Finally, the court held that plaintiff presented sufficient evidence on the issue of defendant’s intent.

Specifically, defendant failed to cite any evidence in support of its proffered legitimate nondiscriminatory purpose for the actions it took against plaintiff.  For example, while it argued that certain “practices” precluded plaintiff from participating in the “driver pick day”, it failed to present any evidence of them.

However, even assuming defendant supported its nondiscriminatory explanation with evidence, plaintiff still prevailed because she presented evidence, which defendant failed to rebut, that a similarly-situated Caucasian employee took a leave of absence yet was permitted the benefits denied to plaintiff.  There was also testimony suggesting that plaintiff was the only bus driver “who did not have their health care coverage restored upon their return from a leave of absence.”

Based on this (and other) evidence, the court denied defendant’s motion.

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