Employment Discrimination Claim Against Culinary Institute of America Dismissed

In Averbeck v. Culinary Inst. of Am., 2020 NY Slip Op 01139 (App. Div. 2d Dept. Feb. 19, 2020), the court affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff’s national origin discrimination claim against the Culinary Institute of America.

Plaintiff, who was born and raised in Germany, was employed by Culinary Institute of America, from November 2004 through May 2012, when the defendant terminated his employment as a member of its faculty. Plaintiff sued, alleging that he was wrongfully terminated from employment on the basis of his national origin in violation of the New York State Human Rights Law, Executive Law § 296. Specifically, plaintiff alleged that one of his supervisors mocked his accent, and that he was terminated on grounds not generally applied to American professors.

The court summarized the relevant law as follows:

A plaintiff can establish a prima facie case of discrimination in employment by showing that: “(1) [he or] she is a member of a protected class; (2) [he or] she was qualified to hold the position; (3) [he or] she was terminated from employment . . . ; and (4) the discharge . . . occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination” (Forrest v Jewish Guild for the Blind, 3 NY3d 295, 305; see Matter of New York State Div. of Human Rights v Roadtec, Inc., 167 AD3d 898, 899-900). In moving for summary judgment, a defendant “need only establish, prima facie, the absence of any of these elements” of discrimination (see Singh v Covenant Aviation Sec., LLC, 131 AD3d 1158, 1159; Forrest v Jewish Guild for the Blind, 3 NY3d at 305). Regarding the fourth element, the defendant can demonstrate that the termination did not occur under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination by providing a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the termination, and demonstrating the absence of a material issue of fact as to whether its reason for termination was merely pretextual.

Applying the law, the court found, initially, that defendant satisfied its burden on its motion for summary judgment by establishing a legitimate, nondiscriminatory, and nonpretextual reason for terminating the plaintiff’s employment, namely,

that it received student complaints about the plaintiff’s demeaning and insulting behavior towards students for years, that it had disciplined and warned the plaintiff multiple times that he needed to improve on how he communicated with students, that it issued the plaintiff a final warning about his treatment of students, and that the plaintiff’s employment was terminated following an investigation by an independent investigator, which occurred after the defendant received another complaint regarding the plaintiff’s conduct.

Therefore, the burden shifted to plaintiff to demonstrate the existence of a triable issue of fact as to whether the reason given for his termination was merely pretextual.

The court concluded that plaintiff failed to satisfy this burden:

The plaintiff failed to raise a triable issue of fact in this regard. The plaintiff failed to demonstrate how one colleague’s insult about his nationality six years prior to his termination and how one supervisor’s comments mocking his accent one year prior to his termination had any causal relationship with his termination following years of student complaints and warnings from the defendant (see Forrest v Jewish Guild for the Blind, 3 NY3d at 308; cf. Sandiford v City of N.Y. Dept. of Educ., 22 NY3d 914, 916). Further, the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that his termination was the result of disparate treatment due to his national origin. His colleagues were not similarly situated to him and their conduct was not comparable to his (see Ruiz v County of Rockland, 609 F3d 486, 493-494 [2d Cir]). Thus, the plaintiff failed to raise a triable issue of fact as to whether the reason proffered by the defendant was merely pretextual