Diabetic Plaintiff’s Disability Discrimination Complaint Survives Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings

In Zavala v. Cornell University, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York recently denied defendant’s Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings on plaintiff’s disability discrimination claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq.

Plaintiff, who suffers from diabetes, worked as a network technician for Cornell University. He alleged that defendant subjected him to disparate treatment and a hostile work environment because of his disability. In particular, he claimed (among other things) that defendant reassigned him to a “less prestigious” position, refused a fit-for-duty letter, took away his vehicle, and gave him a negative evaluation for a non-existent infraction.

On plaintiff’s disparate treatment claim, the court held that his “allegations of economic harm and a material change in responsibilities” following his reassignment “suffice to establish an adverse action.” Therefore, at least at this (early) stage of the litigation, plaintiff “alleged sufficient facts to state a claim for discriminatory treatment based on the reassignment.”

In addition, while “an unsatisfactory performance evaluation alone does not amount to an adverse employment action because such evaluation does not constitute a material change in employment … warnings and evaluations can constitute adverse actions if they lead to more substantial employment actions that are adverse.” Here, it was “reasonable to infer that Plaintiff’s transfer resulted from criticism that Plaintiff received in the performance evaluation” and thus “a claim that the performance evaluation was an adverse action may proceed.”

Moreover, defendant’s refusal of plaintiff’s right-to-work letter after his first disability leave “also caused material detriment to” his employment, as he “was forced to continue working in a low-level customer service job despite being able to return to the Backbone team.” Therefore, his “loss of overtime pay and reassignment to less fulfilling work during the time between the refused and accepted right to work letters renders the refusal of the letter an adverse action.”

The court also held that plaintiff’s amended complaint stated a hostile work environment claim:

Plaintiff has alleged that actions taken by Huijts and Butler, including their threats regarding Plaintiff’s use of internal human resources mechanisms, unreasonably interfered with Plaintiff’s job performance. With knowledge of Plaintiff’s mobility limitations, Defendant took away Plaintiff’s vehicle, forcing him to arrange rides with other team members to and from work sites. When Plaintiff requested accommodation to work on less walking-intensive jobs, Butler responded by assigning Plaintiff to tasks that required more walking. Huijts attempted to force Plaintiff to pursue permanent disability. These alleged incidents of harassment are of such quality or quantity that a reasonable employee would find the conditions of her employment altered for the worse.

The court also held that plaintiff sufficiently pled a continuing violation, citing the “recurring” nature of the defendant’s discriminatory actions.

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