Disability-Related Hostile Work Environment Claims Survive Summary Judgment

In Schmitt v. City of New York et al, 15-CV-05992, 2018 WL 5777019 (E.D.N.Y. Nov. 1, 2018), the court, inter alia, denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s disability-related hostile work environment claims.

This decision teaches, among other things, that the facts underlying such claims must be evaluated as a whole, rather than piecemeal. The court wrote:

Schmitt makes several allegations in support of his hostile work environment claim. In considering the totality of the circumstances, the Court concludes there are genuine issues of material fact as to whether the harassment by his supervisors was so “severe or pervasive” that it altered the conditions of his employment and created an abusive work environment. Defendants claim that summary judgment should be granted because calling Schmitt a “scammer” is rude but does not establish a hostile work environment, locker room cartoons are more akin to “simple teasing,” and that the alleged behavior and comments are unactionable “petty slights and trivial inconveniences.” … Defendants are asking the Court to “view individual incidents in isolation” and “view the record in a piecemeal fashion,” but that is not the proper way to address Schmitt’s hostile work environment claims.

While calling Schmitt a “scammer” and posting alcohol-related cartoons do not, on their own, establish a hostile work environment, there is a genuine issue of fact as to whether those characterizations by Sgt. Mai and her harsh assignments evidence her intent to punish Schmitt for taking sick leave and whether Sgt. Mai and Lt. Campos told other officers about his sick leave in disregard of its confidentiality, thus sparking the postings mocking his disability. Other District Courts in this Circuit have held that a jury could conclude that a supervisor’s comments made in front of plaintiff’s colleagues, and ranged from tasteless to cruel and humiliating, created a hostile work environment.

The court also held that “there is a genuine issue of fact as to whether Defendants’ conduct after Schmitt returned from sick leave was because he was ‘scamming’ the sick leave system rather than because he is an alcoholic[,]” noting that “[i]f it is found to be the former, then he would not be able to prove that he was subject to a hostile work environment because of his alcoholism.”

There were also issues of fact as to whether defendants knew about plaintiff’s “symptoms relating to his IBS, orthostatic hypotension, and hyponatremia before giving him assignments that exacerbated his symptoms.”

Accordingly, the court denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s hostile work environment claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the New York State Human Rights Law.

Having reached this conclusion, the court turned to plaintiff’s claim under the comparatively broader New York City Human Rights Law:

The NYCHRL’s protections are even broader than those of the ADA and the NYSHRL. A plaintiff can seek relief under the NYCHRL without demonstrating that the harassment was severe or pervasive. Forgione v. City of New York, No. 11-CV-5248, 2012 WL 4049832, at *7 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 13, 2012). A plaintiff states a claim under the NYCHRL when he pleads that he was “treated less well than other employees because of his protected class.” Id. An employer may avoid liability by the affirmative defense that “the conduct complained of consists of nothing more than what a reasonable victim of discrimination would consider petty slights and trivial inconveniences.” Id.
*7 Schmitt alleges that he was subjected to months of alcohol-related advertisements mocking his disability, that Defendants ignored his existing accommodations, that Defendants purposely assigned him to posts that exacerbated his symptoms, and that they repeatedly called him a “fucking scammer” in front of other officers and supervisors. These allegations alone create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Defendants “treated [Schmitt] less well than other employees because of his [disabilities].” Id. For the same reasons discussed above, Defendants’ motion for summary judgment of Schmitt’s hostile work environment claim under the NYCHRL is denied.

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