Harsher Punishment For Workplace Altercation Creates Issue of Fact as to Pretext; Summary Judgment Denied on Employment Discrimination Claim

In Trail v. New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, 17-cv-7273, 2020 WL 5504277 (SDNY Sept. 10, 2020), the court, inter alia, denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s disparate treatment discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, relating to his claim that he suffered an “adverse employment action” in the form of harsher discipline.

From the decision:

The record evidence indicates a genuine dispute of material fact as to why plaintiff received a harsher punishment than Kanojia for his involvement in the June 16, 2016, altercation with Kanojia. Defendant contends plaintiff received a harsher punishment—a two-week, unpaid suspension, lessened from an original punishment of dismissal and loss of accrued leave—rather than what Kanojia received—a formal counseling memorandum—because plaintiff’s “actions were more serious.” (Shipley Decl. ¶ 13). According to defendant, “Mr. Kanojia cursed at Mr. Trail, but Mr. Trail tried to punch Mr. Kanojia. The two actions are not comparable.” (Id.).

But here, based on the record evidence, a reasonable factfinder could conclude defendant’s articulated reason for the varying discipline is a mere pretext for unlawful discrimination. Indeed, the video shows Kanojia did not just curse at plaintiff, as defendants contend, but that he also pushed a hand cart at plaintiff, walked toward plaintiff, and then pushed boxes at plaintiff, which made contact with plaintiff and caused plaintiff to take several steps back, before plaintiff projected his right arm at Kanojia.

Accordingly, although the record evidence, including the video and plaintiff’s testimony, indicates plaintiff projected his right arm toward Kanojia at some point in time, it does not demonstrate such contact was the only contact between plaintiff and Kanojia during the altercation. Indeed, the counseling memorandum Kanojia received states that DSA Wojnar “reminded [Kanojia] that Taconic and the department have zero tolerance for any type of work place violence,” suggesting DOCCS viewed Konojia’s actions to also have been violent. (Doc. #92).6 However, defendant’s stated reason for plaintiff’s harsher punishment was that he made physical contact with Kanojia. Accordingly, there are genuine disputes of material fact as to why Kanojia received a lesser punishment than did defendant, and whether defendant’s stated reason for the different discipline imposed was mere pretext for otherwise discriminatory conduct.

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