Disability-Based Hostile Work Environment Claim Survives Summary Judgment Under the New York City (But Not New York State) Human Rights Law

In Ramos v. Metro-North Commuter Railroad, No. 153742/18, 2020 WL 2041968, 2020 N.Y. Slip Op. 31061(U) (N.Y. Sup Ct, New York County Apr. 03, 2020), the court denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s disability-based hostile work environment claim asserted under the New York City Human Rights Law.

The court reached this conclusion, however, after concluding that plaintiff’s claim could not survive under the New York State Human Rights Law. This decision, as such, illustrates the difference between the two statutes.

Specifically, the court explained:

Under the NYSHRL, a hostile work environment is found where “the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment [internal quotation marks and citation omitted].” Forrest, 3 NY3d 295 at 310. “Whether a workplace may be viewed as hostile or abusive — from both a reasonable person’s standpoint as well as from the victim’s subjective perspective — can be determined only by considering the totality of the circumstances.” Father Belle Community Ctr. v New York State Div. of Human Rights, 221 AD2d 44, 51 (4th Dept 1996). These circumstances include “frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance [internal quotation marks and citation omitted].” Forrest, 3 NY3d 295 at 310-11. Generally, isolated remarks or occasional episodes of harassment will not support a finding of a hostile or abusive work environment: only pervasive conduct is actionable. Father Belle Community Ctr., 221 AD2d 44 at 51. In contrast, the NYCHRL is less stringent in its requirements, requiring only that a Plaintiff demonstrate that she was treated “less well” than other employees, but more than “petty slights and grievances. Williams v New York City Hous. Auth., 61 AD3d 62, 79 (1st Dept 2009). Under the NYCHRL, it is the employer that carries the burden of proving the conduct’s triviality.

Applying the law as to the NYSHRL, the court explained:

Several of Plaintiff’s complaints about the comments made by her colleagues and supervisors could be considered by some as trivial in nature. The court certainly does not condone **19 this conduct and is mindful of Plaintiff’s described discomfort due to certain statements and actions. However, these are not enough to establish that she was subject to a “severe or pervasive” hostile work environment under the NYSHRL.

Continuing, the court explained why it reached the opposite conclusion as to plaintiff’s NYCHRL claim:

However, there is a question of fact as to whether Defendants’ conduct exceeds what a reasonable person would consider mere “petty slights and trivial inconveniences” as required by the NYCHRL since there is evidence Plaintiff was treated differently from her colleagues in several materials respects. For example, her office was moved several times, each time farther away from her home, and there is evidence that no arrangements were made by her supervisors for basic equipment or even office space. There is also testimony that although other investigators were late in handing in their accident reports, only the Plaintiff was given a PIP. When her PIP was revised, **20 Mr. Streany testified that this was done not because of Plaintiff’s conduct during her probation period, but because the original PIP was vague (Streany Dep. p. 77). However, Plaintiff’s work schedule was pushed back 30 minutes, even though she had previously advised her supervisors of the need to start her day earlier to make her afternoon physical therapy appointments. No justification was offered for this change. And instead of receiving credit for the time she already operated under the first PIP — 56 days — her probation period was extended for another 90 days. These actions appear to have been punitive in nature. Since a jury could find that this alleged unequal treatment was related to her disability, Plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim under the NYCHRL should proceed to trial.