Court Holds That “Stray Remarks” Doctrine May Apply to Claims Brought Under the New York City Human Rights Law

In Godbolt v Verizon N.Y. Inc., the Appellate Division, First Department affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff’s claims that he was terminated from his employment on the basis of his race and past criminal convictions in violation of the New York State and City Human Rights Laws.

“Defendant explained that it terminated plaintiff because he failed to disclose his prior criminal convictions on his employment applications, which plaintiff admitted, and demonstrated that every one of its employees who were found to have falsified an employment application was terminated.”

Initially, the court held that plaintiff failed to demonstrate pretext:

Plaintiff failed to raise an issue of fact. He presented no evidence that defendant’s proffered reason for his termination was pretextual and identified no evidence that he was treated differently from similarly situated employees because of his race or criminal history. There is no evidence to support his claim that the investigator exceeded his investigative authority or that his investigation was animated by racial bias. The fact that the investigation, which initially was focused on claims of intoxication at work, found evidence of unrelated criminal convictions did not render the investigation unreasonable or improper.

Even under the mixed-motive analysis applicable to City Human Rights Law claims, plaintiff’s claim fails, because there is no evidence from which a reasonable factfinder could infer that race or criminal history played any role in defendant’s decision to terminate him.

Next, the court rejected plaintiff’s reliance on a remark relating to plaintiff’s prior conviction record:

Plaintiff relies on one remark made in an email exchange that took place weeks after the decision to terminate him was made and that concerned the resolution of his union’s grievance following the termination. In the email, one of defendant’s employees responsible for making the decision to terminate plaintiff declined to reconsider the penalty because of the nature of plaintiff’s convictions and his concern about the liability that defendant would assume if plaintiff committed a similar crime while on company time. However, [s]tray remarks such as [this], even if made by a decision maker, do not, without more, constitute evidence of discrimination. Indeed, plaintiff did not demonstrate a nexus between the employee’s remark and the decision to terminate him.

It concluded by rejecting plaintiff’s invitation to hold “that the stray remarks doctrine may not be relied on in determining claims brought pursuant to the City Human Rights Law.” That “doctrine is not inconsistent with the intentions of the law, since statements ‘constitute evidence of discriminatory motivation when a plaintiff demonstrates that a nexus exists between the allegedly discriminatory statements and a defendant’s decision to discharge the plaintiff'”.

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