Race/National Origin Discrimination Jury Verdict for Plaintiff Upheld

In Emamian v. Rockefeller University, 2020 WL 4811383 (2d Cir. Aug. 19, 2020) (Summary Order), the court affirmed the district court’s denial of defendant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law, following a jury verdict for plaintiff on their race and national origin discrimination claims.

Defendant asserted that “there was insufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find in Emamian’s favor on her claim of intentional discrimination on the basis of race or national origin and that, accordingly, the district court erred in denying its motion to set aside the verdict.”

Initially, the court summarized the standard applicable to defendant’s motion:

Judgment as a matter of law should be granted only when “(1) there is such a complete absence of evidence supporting the verdict that the jury’s findings could only have been the result of sheer surmise and conjecture, or (2) there is such an overwhelming amount of evidence in favor of the movant that reasonable and fair minded [persons] could not arrive at a verdict against [it].” Cruz v. Local Union No. 3 of Int’l Bhd. of Elec. Workers, 34 F.3d 1148, 1154 (2d Cir. 1994) (quoting Bauer v. Raymark Indus., Inc., 849 F.2d 790, 792 (2d Cir. 1988)).

Applying the law, the court held:

Rockefeller falls short of this demanding standard. Considering, as we must, the “totality of the circumstances” and the “overall context in which the challenged conduct occurs,” the trial record contains sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict. Mihalik v. Credit Agricole Chevreux North Am., Inc., 715 F.3d 102, 111 (2d Cir. 3013) (internal quotation marks, alterations, and citation omitted). Under the capacious NYCHRL standard, which is generously construed to facilitate its “uniquely broad and remedial purposes,” id. at 109, “the plaintiff need only show differential treatment—that she is treated ‘less well’—because of a discriminatory intent,” id. at 110. Here, Emamian introduced ample evidence of being “treated less well” in the lab of Dr. Greengard (“Greengard”), including being paid a lower salary, being subjected to harsher criticism and ridicule, and being denied office space and resources relative to non-Iranian employees. Moreover, there was sufficient evidence at trial to permit a reasonable jury to conclude that this differential treatment was caused at least in part by a discriminatory motive. The jury could have concluded that Greengard harbored such a motive based on testimony regarding a conversation between Greengard and Emamian during which, according to Emamian, Greengard aggressively questioned her about her headscarf in a hostile manner. Moreover, Greengard testified that he had been informed by his secretary, whom Greengard described as a “highly educated woman who grew up in Tehran, as did Dr. Emamian,” that Emamian’s headscarf indicated her submissiveness to men and that Greengard should not have hired her. Joint App’x 2161–62. In addition, the jury could have found probative the email sent to the entire lab by Dr. Marc Flajolet (“Flajolet”), another scientist in the lab, which contained language that, according to Emamian’s testimony, constituted a racist slur directed specifically at her. Rockefeller’s attempt to discount the Flajolet email as irrelevant because it was not sent by Greengard is unavailing, particularly in light of our obligation to consider the totality of the circumstances in determining whether Emamian was treated less well at least in part because of her race or national origin and given Greengard’s subsequent testimony, upon reviewing the email in the course of litigation, that he found “nothing objectionable in it.”

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