Second Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Chinese-Based National Origin Discrimination Claim

In Huayuan Chen v. Stony Brook University Advancement et al, 2022 WL 289317 (2d Cir. Feb. 1, 2022), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment dismissing, on summary judgment, plaintiff’s claim of national origin discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

After summarizing the relevant law (particularly the three-step burden-shifting framework applicable to such claims, per the Supreme Court’s decision in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green), the court applied the law to the facts.

It explained:

Even assuming that Chen met her prima facie burden, we affirm the district court’s conclusion that “a reasonable jury could not ultimately find … that the decision not to renew Plaintiff’s contract was discriminatory.” App’x at 34. Defendants proffered legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for their actions—namely, their belief that Chen acted unprofessionally, lacked the skills necessary for her position, and failed to complete assigned projects correctly and on time. The burden thus shifted to Chen to establish, not only that these reasons were false, but also that it was “more likely than not [that] discrimination was the real reason” for the employment actions. Van Zant v. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, 80 F.3d 708, 714 (2d Cir. 1996) (cleaned up); see also Zimmermann v. Assocs. First Cap. Corp., 251 F.3d 376, 382 (2d Cir. 2001) (“[A] record that include[s] evidence of a prima facie case and evidence permitting a finding of pretext d[oes] not suffice to permit a finding of discrimination.”).

*2 Chen did present evidence—principally in the form of her own declaration—that she did not act unprofessionally and that her work was not deficient. Under the circumstances of this case, this evidence could suffice to establish a genuine dispute as to whether the reasons given by Defendants were pretextual—but not that the reasons were pretext for national origin discrimination.

Chen presented no direct evidence of anti-Chinese animus. Although the record contains evidence of some stray references to Chen’s national origin during her employment, these comments do not support an inference of discrimination because there is no evidence that the speakers were involved in the decision to terminate Chen’s employment and there is no evidence that the decisionmakers were aware of them.

In fact, the undisputed record evidence undermines Chen’s claim of national origin discrimination. The people who decided that Chen’s employment should be terminated—Defendants Kathleen Le Viness and Edward Testa—were the same people who recommended that she be hired, and these decisions were made within a period of a few months: Chen applied for the position in January 2014 and began work in March, and Testa documented their intent to fire Chen in May. See Grady v. Affiliated Cent., Inc., 130 F.3d 553, 560 (2d Cir. 1997) (“[W]hen the person who made the decision to fire was the same person who made the decision to hire, it is difficult to impute to her an invidious motivation that would be inconsistent with the decision to hire. This is especially so when the firing has occurred only a short time after the hiring.”). Indeed, the record indicates that Le Viness and Testa recommended Chen for the position over another candidate, a white woman, who had more relevant business experience.

The court considered, and rejected, plaintiff’s remaining arguments. For example, the court held that, even assuming that plaintiff showed she was treated less favorably than a similarly situated white coworker, she failed to provide any evidence that this was due to discrimination based on her origin.

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