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  • New York Appellate Court Provides Guide for Courts Considering Discrimination Claims on Summary Judgment

    Bennett v. Health Mgt. Sys., Inc. 2011 NY Slip Op 09206 (1st Dept. Dec. 20, 2011).

    In a recent case, a New York State Court examined whether, and to what extent, the three-step burden-shifting approach set forth in the Supreme Court’s McDonnell Douglas v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973) decision, must be modified for New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) claims, particularly in the context of the adjudication of summary judgment motions.

    The case involved a 47-year-old Caucasian male who was hired by the defendant. After four years of working in one department, he was asked to join another department, which he accepted. One month into the new position, the plaintiff asked to be transferred back to the original department because, he alleged, the African-American manager of the new department, “unfairly and intemperately criticized his performance often and without cause, making it impossible for [him] to master his job.”  The plaintiff’s request was denied and he was terminated shortly afterwards. According to the defendant, the plaintiff was terminated because of poor job performance, including consuming alcohol on the job. The plaintiff subsequently brought claims under the NYCHRL, and a trial court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss the complaint in its entirety.

    In considering the evidentiary burden required under each step of the McDonnell Douglas test [1]in such a way that would not “undercut the [NYCHRL’s] intent to maximize the opportunities for discrimination to be exposed,” the Appellate Court decided not to modify the framework provided by the Supreme Court, but rather drafted an opinion that acts as a guide for courts attempting to apply that framework on NYCHRL summary judgment motions.  In doing so, the court wrote that for purposes of consideration of summary judgment motions in discrimination cases brought under the NYCHRL:

    (1) If a court were to find it necessary to consider the question of whether a prima facie case has been made out, it would need to ask the question, “Do the initial facts described by the plaintiff, if not otherwise explained, give rise to the McDonnell Douglas inference of discrimination?”

    (2) Where a defendant has put forward evidence of one or more non-discriminatory motivations for its actions, however, a court should ordinarily avoid the unnecessary and sometimes confusing effort of going back to the question of whether a prima facie case has been made out. Instead, it should turn to the question of whether the defendant has sufficiently met its burden, as the moving party, of showing that, based on the evidence before the court and drawing all reasonable inferences in plaintiff’s favor, no jury could find defendant liable under any of the evidentiary routes — McDonnell Douglas, mixed motive, “direct” evidence, or some combination thereof.

    (3) If the plaintiff responds with some evidence that at least one of the reasons proffered by defendant is false, misleading, or incomplete, a host of determinations properly made only by a jury come into play, and thus such evidence of pretext should in almost every case indicate to the court that a motion for summary judgment must be denied.

    When applying these principles to the case at bar, the court held that the defendant was entitled to summary judgment because the defendant presented non-discriminatory motivations, specifically, credible evidence of numerous reports of plaintiff’s unsatisfactory work performance, and the plaintiff did not produce any evidence that rebutted this claim.  Ultimately, the Appellate Court affirmed the lower court’s decision to grant the defendant’s motion to dismiss the complaint, without costs.

    1. [1] Generally, in most employment discrimination cases, a court on summary judgment will apply the three-step burden-shifting approach set forth in the McDonnell Douglas case.  This approach initially requires that an employee make a prima facie showing of membership in a protected class and that an adverse employment action had been taken against him, which occurred under circumstances that give rise to an inference of discrimination.  Once that minimal showing is made, the burden then shifts to the employer to articulate a non-discriminatory reason that actually motivated the employer at the time of their action.  If the employer satisfies its burden, then the burden shifts back to the employee to show that (1) the employer’s reason was pretextual — that is, the employer’s reason was false, incomplete, or misleading; or (2) show that, regardless of any legitimate motivations the employer may have had, the employer was motivated at least in part by discrimination (i.e. the employer had “mixed motives”).