Disability Discrimination Claims Survive Summary Judgment

The Eastern District of New York recently held, in Baron v. Advanced Asset and Property Management Solutions LLC, that plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment on his disability discrimination claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the New York State Human Rights Law.

Plaintiff, who worked for defendant as an Assistant Controller, suffered from a heart condition (an “aortic insufficiency”). Defendant fired plaintiff, allegedly for signing checks without permission. Plaintiff claimed that defendant fired him because of his disability.

The court initially held that plaintiff’s heart condition qualified as a “disability” under the statutes. It pointed to a declaration from plaintiff’s treating physician stating, among other things, that plaintiff’s condition “affected the function of his circulatory system” and that he “assessed plaintiff’s heart function as being substantially impaired compared to that of a normal individual.” Based on this the court found that “a reasonable trier of fact could conclude that plaintiff suffered from a disability under the ADA.” Plaintiff’s condition also qualified as a “medically diagnosable impairment”, and hence a “disability”, under the State Human Rights Law.

Next, the court held that plaintiff presented sufficient evidence of discrimination based on disability. Initially, there was sufficient evidence from which a trier of fact could infer that defendant discriminated against plaintiff because of his disability:

[P]laintiff alleges that he told [his supervisor] Zerbo about his need for surgery approximately 5–6 weeks prior to his termination. This proximity coupled with Zerbo’s comment to the plaintiff, “you’re sick and this is a business decision” could lead a reasonable trier of fact to infer that defendant discriminated against plaintiff. Moreover, defendant’s argument that Zerbo’s comment was a “stray remark” is unavailing. Although, stray remarks, even by a decision-maker, without a demonstrated nexus to the adverse action will not defeat a motion for summary judgment, plaintiffs have provided sufficient evidence of that nexus here. Here, the alleged comment in referring to plaintiff as “sick” directly references plaintiff’s disability. In addition, according to plaintiff, Zerbo’s comment was in direct response to plaintiff’s inquiry as to whether he was going to be fired. Furthermore, plaintiff states that this conversation took place no later than August 1, 2009, approximately 6 weeks prior to his termination. Based on these facts, a reasonable trier of fact could infer that defendant discriminated against plaintiff because of his disability.

Since plaintiff conceded that defendant articulated a “legitimate, non-discriminatory rationale” for firing him, the court turned to the question of whether plaintiff met his “burden of showing that the stated reason was pretextual, and that more likely than not discrimination motivated the adverse employment action.” Generally, “[a]n employment discrimination claimant may show pretext by demonstrating such weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherences, or contradictions in the employer’s proffered legitimate reasons for its action that a reasonable factfinder could rationally find them unworthy of credence and hence infer that the employer did not act for the asserted non-discriminatory reasons.” 

Plaintiff met his burden as to this issue:

Like in Primmer [v. CBS Studios, Inc., 667. F.Supp.2d 248 (S.D.N.Y.2009)], the comment from plaintiff’s supervisor, Zerbo, coupled with the temporal proximity between the time when plaintiff told Zerbo about his need for surgery and his termination raises an inference of discrimination. In addition, although plaintiff’s supervisors may have sent plaintiff emails expressing their dissatisfaction, there are no internal documents noting that plaintiff’s employment was in jeopardy or that defendant ever expressed the same to plaintiff. Furthermore, there is no dispute that when plaintiff took over as Assistant Controller, his hiring form clearly indicated that he was replacing the individual who formerly held that position. That Vicente’s hiring form did not indicate that she was replacing plaintiff and listed an entirely different position from plaintiff’s as her job title, along with defendant’s failure to terminate plaintiff until months after it hired Vicente casts doubt on defendant’s position that it had already decided to fire plaintiff prior to hiring Vicente. 

The court thus concluded that “a reasonable trier of fact could conclude that discrimination was a motivating factor for plaintiff’s termination” and denied defendant’s summary judgment motion.

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