NEW YORK, Dec 21 (Reuters) - A unanimous state appeals
court ruled Tuesday that employers seeking to defeat
discrimination actions brought under New York City's
human-rights law must explain and prove beyond dispute the
non-discriminatory motives for their actions.
The First Department, Appellate Division, said that Kenneth
Bennett's appeal of a trial court's dismissal of his suit
against former employer Health Management Systems Inc. gave the
court "the opportunity to address the evidentiary showing
required at the summary judgment stage in a discrimination case
brought pursuant to the New York City Human Rights Law."
Bennett, a 47-year-old white man, sued Health Management
Systems in 2008, alleging he was fired from his job in
technical operations for age- and race-related reasons,
including run-ins with his black team manager.
Health Management Systems moved for summary judgment,
saying that Bennett's managers had received several reports
from co-workers who said Bennett was "drinking and sleeping on
Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Diamond granted
Health Management System's motion in March 2010.
In affirming Diamond's ruling, the appeals court laid out a
three-prong test for determining whether employers should be
granted the "extraordinary remedy" of summary judgment in cases
brought against them by employees under the New York City Human
First, the court must determine whether the facts of the
case, as described by the plaintiff, point toward a possible
showing of discrimination under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973
ruling in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v Green, which requires
plaintiffs to make a prima facie case of discrimination because
of race, sex, age or any other protected status.
Second, the court must decide whether the defendant has
sufficiently met its burden, as the moving party, to show that
no jury could find it liable for discrimination under any
possible evidentiary scenario, according to the ruling.
Finally, if the plaintiff comes forward to rebut the
evidence offered by the defendant as to its non-discriminatory
motives in the challenged action, the court should defer to a
jury to resolve the factual disputes, the ruling said.
'MAXIMUM DETERRENT EFFECT'
"It is difficult enough to discern a defendant's motive or
motives in those circumstances without giving it a tactical
advantage to throwing numerous non-discriminatory
justifications against the wall and seeing which stick,"
Justice Rolando Acosta wrote for the majority. "It must thus be
the defendant's obligation to articulate its true reasons for
acting in the way that it did.
"And the maximum deterrent effect sought by the City Human
Rights Law can only be achieved where entities understand that,
whatever the urge may be to cover up their actual motivations
before arriving in court, there can be no benefit for doing so
once in court," Acosta wrote.
Applying that test to Bennett's case, the lower court was
justified in ruling in favor of Health Management Systems, the
appeals court found. Not only could the company prove it had
legitimate concerns about Bennett's job
performance--corroborated by coworkers' testimony that he was
once found asleep under his cubicle desk while under the
influence of alcohol--but it replaced him with someone older
than he was, according to the ruling.
Barbara Hoey, an employment litigator at Littler Mendelson,
said that, in its decision, the court was "most definitely
signaling that lower courts should not be so quick to grant
summary judgment dismissing City Human Rights Law claims."
"If there is doubt, that doubt should be resolved in favor
for the plaintiff," Hoey said.
Attorneys for both parties did not immediately return
requests for comment Wednesday.
The case is Bennett v. Health Management Systems Inc, in
the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division: First
Department, no. 115015/08.
For Bennett: Sheldon Karasik of Simon Eisenberg & Baum.
For Health Management Systems: Richard Steer and Tara Toevs
of Tarter Krinsky & Drogin.
(Reporting by Jessica Dye)
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