Race Discrimination Jury Verdict for Plaintiff Upheld

In Rosas v. Balter Sales Co., Inc. et al, 12-CV-6557, 2018 WL 3199253 (S.D.N.Y. June 29, 2018), the court, inter alia, upheld a jury verdict – i.e., denied defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law under Fed. R. Civ. P. 50 – in plaintiff’s favor on his race discrimination (termination) claim.[1]It also denied defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law on plaintiff’s hostile work environment, retaliation, and battery claims, but remitted jury awards for emotional distress from $800,000 to $180,000 and punitive damages from $1.4 million to $700,000. I do not address these aspects of the decision in this blog post.

The court summarized the well-known legal standard/framework applicable, as relevant here, to employment discrimination claims asserted under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:

A plaintiff first bears the burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination by showing: (1) membership in a protected class; (2) that he performed his duties satisfactorily; (3) that he suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) that the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination on the basis of his race. … If the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden then shifts to the defendant to provide evidence that the adverse action was based upon a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason. … If the defendant articulates a nondiscriminatory explanation for the adverse employment action, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to demonstrate by competent evidence that the legitimate reasons offered by the defendant were not its true reasons, but were a pretext for discrimination. … A plaintiff may do so either directly by persuading the court that a discriminatory reason more likely motivated the employer or indirectly by showing that the employer’s proffered explanation is unworthy of credence.

Turning to the first part of the test, the court held that plaintiff offered evidence during the trial that his termination occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination:

Here, Marc Balter [defendant’s co-owner] mimicked a Latin accent in a stereotypical and offensive manner throughout the duration of Plaintiff’s employment, … and less than a month before firing Plaintiff attributed certain aspects of Plaintiff’s job performance to his “Latin attitude[.]” … Given the allegedly ongoing and pervasive nature of these taunts, which reasonably could be viewed as discriminatory, and the fact that they were made by Marc Balter—the person who fired Plaintiff—these comments could have been interpreted by the jury as more than just “stray remarks.” … Furthermore, Plaintiff testified that he complained to Marc Balter about his treatment in both August and December 2011, including approximately one week prior to being fired. … The close proximity of these events, without any suggestion that Defendants took steps to remedy the situation, could allow a reasonable juror to infer discrimination in Plaintiff’s firing.

As such, plaintiff established a “prima facie case” of discrimination. The burden then shifted to defendant to demonstrate that the alleged adverse employment action (plaintiff’s termination) was based upon a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason. It did so by citing its suspicion that plaintiff stole company merchandise.

At this point, the the burden shifted back to plaintiff to demonstrate pretext. Plaintiff did so.

Plaintiff did so:

Plaintiff offered evidence that: (1) the glassware that he had been accused of stealing was found immediately after his termination …; (2) Marc Balter did not seem to care that the glassware was found…; (3) Defendants acknowledged that the surveillance video footage on which they largely based their belief that Plaintiff had stolen from them did not unequivocally support that belief …; and (4) Balter Sales was not well organized and was in a chaotic state during the time Plaintiff allegedly stole the glasses… . Such “weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, [and] contradictions[]” …, coupled with the temporal connection between Plaintiff’s complaints and his firing, could allow a reasonable jury to conclude that the theft allegations were merely pretext for the discriminatory termination of Plaintiff’s employment.

The court also found that plaintiff presented evidence to satisfy the lower standard for liability under the NYC Human Rights Law. As to this point, the court explained:

Plaintiff testified that Marc Balter treated white employees more favorably than minority employees. For instance, Marc Balter did not speak to white employees in a mocking accent …, and used derogatory and offensive terms, including “spic” and “nigger,” when speaking about minority employees … . Plaintiff’s co-workers similarly testified that they perceived Marc Balter as treating white employees more favorably than black and Hispanic employees, including Plaintiff.

1 It also denied defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law on plaintiff’s hostile work environment, retaliation, and battery claims, but remitted jury awards for emotional distress from $800,000 to $180,000 and punitive damages from $1.4 million to $700,000. I do not address these aspects of the decision in this blog post.
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