Evidence, Including Derogatory Comments About Plaintiff’s Walk, Was Sufficient to Overcome Summary Judgment on Plaintiff’s Disability Discrimination Claims

In Lewis v. Blackman Plumbing Supply Co. 51 F. Supp. 3d 289 (SDNY 2014), the Southern District of New York denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s claims that defendants terminated him because of his hip-related disability, failed to accommodate him, and subjected him to a hostile work environment.

As to plaintiff’s discriminatory-discharge claim, while defendants proffered a nondiscriminatory reason for plaintiff’s termination, plaintiff presented sufficient evidence of pretext to survive summary judgment:

Plaintiff alleges that [manager] Harpster knew about his disability, that [manager/harasser] Robinson did participate in the termination decision, that his sales numbers were no worse than several other employees whom Defendants did not terminate at that time, that Plaintiff had received positive performance reviews and had not been warned about poor performance, that Defendants gave inconsistent explanations—one of which directly evidences discrimination—for their termination decision, and that Defendants replaced Plaintiff with a less experienced employee who was not disabled. Taken together, these allegations are sufficient to support a jury’s finding that Defendants stated reasons for terminating Plaintiff were pretextual, and that Defendants terminated Plaintiff because he was disabled.

Next, the court denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s failure-to-accommodate claim, finding a genuine dispute of material fact over whether defendants had notice of his disability and his request for a reasonable accommodation. It cited an affidavit in which plaintiff advised his manager of his disability and need for accommodation and expressed his concerns that another manager (at the facility where plaintiff was about to return) had “mocked and ridiculed [him] all the time about [his] disability” and called him names.

The court also denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim, citing evidence that, for example, plaintiff’s manager mocked his “clumsy walk” in front of customers and several times made reference to “having a ‘shovel’ and needing a ‘bag of fertilizer'”, referring to plaintiff being “near death and ready to be buried.”

It concluded by noting:

[W]hether conduct is “actionable” in the context of a hostile-work-environment claim is usually a question of fact best presented to a jury. … [A federal] judge is not a hierophant of social graces and is generally in no better position than a jury to determine when conduct crosses the line between boorish and inappropriate behavior and actionable … harassment. Here, as in other cases, the “haziness” of that line “counsels against summary judgment.”

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