Disability-Based Hostile Work Environment Claim Stated, Court Holds

In Rella v. New York State Office of Mental Health, 2020 WL 918767 (N.D.N.Y. Feb. 26, 2020), the court, inter alia, held that plaintiff sufficiently alleged a claim for hostile work environment under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

After rejecting defendant’s argument that such claims are not cognizable under the ADA, the court turned to the merits of plaintiff’s claims.

Summarizing the law, the court explained:

As to the sufficiency of Plaintiff’s allegations, she must allege: “(1) that the harassment was ‘sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [his] employment and create an abusive working environment,’ and (2) that a specific basis exists for imputing the objectionable conduct to the employer.” Alfano v. Costello, 294 F.3d 365, 373 (2d Cir. 2002) (quoting Perry v. Ethan Allen, Inc., 115 F.3d 143, 149 (2d Cir. 1997)). In other words, Plaintiff must allege “either that a single incident was extraordinarily severe, or that a series of incidents were sufficiently continuous and concerted to have altered the conditions of her working environment.” Id. at 374. Relevant factors thus include “the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it [was] physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interfere[d] with [the plaintiff’s] work performance.” Id. (quoting Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 23 (1993)).

Next, the court proceed to apply the law to the facts.

*5 Here, Plaintiff alleges that she was subjected to mistreatment by RN Williams on multiple occasions, from June to October 2018. According to Plaintiff, the harassment included: storming out when Plaintiff asked for help, “angry glares,” “slamming of the door,” “yelling and the minimization of Plaintiff’s disabilities.” (Dkt. No. 1, ¶¶ 18–19, 21, 25–26). Plaintiff claims that RN Williams “shamed and humiliated” her “as a result of her disabilities and the need for specialized hands on learning.” (Id., ¶ 18). And Plaintiff alleges that she sought to avoid further harassment but was denied a shift-change. (Id., ¶¶ 28–29). Plaintiff also alleges that on her last day at work, RN Williams yelled and threatened her. (Id., ¶ 44).

Although Defendant argues that this alleged treatment does not rise to the level of creating a hostile work environment, (Dkt. No. 7-1, p. 12), the Second Circuit has cautioned against “setting the bar too high” at the motion to dismiss stage. Terry v. Ashcroft, 336 F.3d 128, 148 (2d Cir. 2003). “While a mild, isolated incident does not make a work environment hostile, the test is whether the harassment is of such quality or quantity that a reasonable employee would find the conditions of her employment altered for the worse.” Id. (citation omitted). Taking the above facts as true, Plaintiff has sufficiently alleged a hostile work environment that altered the conditions of her employment for the worse.

The next question is whether Plaintiff has sufficiently alleged a nexus to her disability. Defendant argues that the answer is no because, by Plaintiff’s own allegations, RN Williams treated other staff poorly, regardless of whether they had a disability. (Dkt. No. 7-1, p. 13). Plaintiff’s allegations in her federal complaint suggest that RN William harassed Plaintiff “as a result of her disabilities and need for hands on learning.” (Dkt. No. 1, ¶ 18). On the other hand, Plaintiff’s workplace complaint (which is incorporated into the federal one by reference) alleges that RN Williams bullied and belittled her and “other staff members … making our work environment unsafe.” (Dkt. No. 1-2, p. 7). The latter could indicate that the alleged harassment was unrelated to Plaintiff’s learning difficulties. However, drawing all reasonable inferences in her favor, Plaintiff’s allegations as a whole suggest that she was singled out for worse treatment on account of her disability.

The court also concluded that plaintiff alleged a sufficient basis for imputing the objectionable conduct to her employer, noting plaintiff’s allegation “that her employer failed to intervene and stop the harassment, even after she complained to her supervisor, made a workplace complaint, and filed a NYSDHR complaint.” If true, held the court, these facts show a specific basis for imputation. In support of this conclusion, the court cited the Second Circuit’s decision in Petrosino v. Bell Atl., 385 F.3d 210, 225 (2d Cir. 2004), for the proposition that “objectionable conduct may be imputed to the employer upon a showing that the employer knew (or reasonably should have known) about the harassment but failed to take appropriate remedial action.”

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