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NEW YORK—A decision by a New York appeals court sets strict standards for granting summary judgment in dismissing employment discrimination cases in New York City.
Tuesday's decision in Kenneth Bennett vs. Health Management Systems Inc. involved a 47-year-old Caucasian employee who had filed charges including age and race discrimination claims in connection with his termination in 2008 from New York-based HMS.
HMS presented evidence that he had taken naps while working his night shift and that he had been drinking on the job. A lower court granted HMS summary judgment dismissing the case.
While the unanimous ruling by the New York Supreme Court's appellate division favored the employer in the case, the judgment stated that the evidence standards for New York City Human Rights Law claims “must be modified…particularly in the context of the adjudication of summary judgment motions.”
“We recognize that there has been a growing emphasis on using summary judgment in discrimination cases to promote ‘judicial efficiency,”” said the five-judge panel in its ruling.
“But at least in the context of the City (Human Rights Law) the (New York City Local Civil Rights Restoration Act) provides a clear and unambiguous answer: A central purpose of the legislation was to resist efforts to ratchet down or devalue the means by which those intended to be protected by the City HRL could be most strongly protected. These concerns warrant the strongest possible safeguards against depriving an alleged victim of discrimination of a full and fair hearing before a jury…. In short, evidence of pretext should in almost every case indicate to the court that a motion for summary judgment must be denied.”
In this case, however, the court ruled that summary judgment was justified.
“Plaintiff put forward no evidence that defendant’s explanations were not pretextual nor any evidence that discriminatory motive co-existed with the legitimate reasons supported by the defendant’s evidence,” said the court. “Defendant’s proof is equally unrebutted when it comes to plaintiff's claims of race discrimination.”
Barbara L. Hoey, a shareholder with law firm Littler Mendelson P.C., who was not involved in the case, said the decision clarified that New York City’s human rights law is “uniquely broad” and goes beyond state or federal civil rights laws.
The decision will make it harder for employers to win summary judgment in employment discrimination cases. To the extent it is not already true in New York City, every plaintiffs attorney is now “going to tack on a city human rights claim,” she said.