Plaintiff Suffering From Depression Adequately Stated Disability Discrimination Claim Under New York City Human Rights Law

In Romanello v. Intesa Sanpaolo, S.p.A., decided Oct. 10, 2013, the New York Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) reinstated plaintiff’s disability discrimination claim under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) but held that plaintiff’s claim under the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) was properly dismissed.

In doing so, it highlighted crucial distinctions between the NYSHRL and the NYCHRL with respect to disability discrimination claims, and more particularly, what constitutes a “reasonable accommodation”.

Plaintiff, a former executive of defendant, worked for defendant for about 25 years when he became unable to work after being diagnosed with a series of disorders, including major depression.

After plaintiff was absent from work for almost five months, defendant sent plaintiff’s counsel a letter advising that plaintiff’s leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act was set to expire, and asking whether he “intends to return to work or to abandon his position.”

Plaintiff’s counsel responded by advising that plaintiff has that plaintiff “been suffering from severe and disabling illnesses that have prevented him, and continue to prevent him, from working in any capacity, let alone in the capacity in which he had been serving” defendant and that plaintiff “has not at any time evinced or expressed an intention to ‘abandon his position’ with [Intesa]. Rather, he has been sick and unable to work, with an uncertain prognosis and a return to work date that is indeterminate at this time.” Defendant then fired Mr. Romanello.

Plaintiff sued, alleging that defendant engaged in disability discrimination under the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) and New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL).

Initially the Court outlined the distinctions between the two laws:

In the context of employment discrimination, the term “disability” as defined in the [NYSHRL] is “limited to disabilities which, upon the provision of reasonable accommodations, do not prevent the complainant from performing in a reasonable manner the activities involved in the job or occupation sought or held”. … A “reasonable accommodation” means actions taken which permit an employee with a disability to perform in a reasonable manner activities involved in the job, and “do not impose an undue hardship on the business”. … To state a claim under the [NYSHRL], the complaint and supporting documentation must set forth factual allegations sufficient to show that, “upon the provision of reasonable accommodations, [the employee] could perform the essential functions of [his or] her job”. … Indefinite leave is not considered a reasonable accommodation under the State HRL. … [U]nlike “the NYSHRL (as well as the [Americans with Disabilities Act]). . . there is no accommodation (whether it be indefinite leave time or any other need created by a disability) that is categorically excluded from the universe of reasonable accommodation” under the [NYCHRL].

The Court held that plaintiff failed to state a claim under the NYSHRL:

Here, neither plaintiff’s communications with his employer just prior to his termination nor the complaint filed one year later offer any indication as to when plaintiff planned to return to work. Instead, plaintiff informed his employer that he had not expressed any intention to “abandon” his job and that his return to work date was “indeterminate”; the complaint merely alleges that plaintiff sought “a continued leave of absence to allow him to recover and return to work.” … The only conclusion to be reached by plaintiff’s own description of the circumstances is that he hoped to keep his job by requesting an indefinite leave of absence. Thus, even construing the complaint liberally and according plaintiff “the benefit of every possible inference” … plaintiff fails to state a claim under the State HRL and the first cause of action was properly dismissed.

The Court reached the opposite conclusion, however, with respect to plaintiff’s NYCHRL claim, and outlined a defendant’s burden in this regard:

Unlike the [NYSHRL], the [NYCHRL] ‘s definition of “disability” does not include “reasonable accommodation” or the ability to perform a job in a reasonable manner. Rather, the [NYCHRL] defines “disability” solely in terms of impairments. … The [NYCHRL] requires that an employer “make reasonable accommodation to enable a person with a disability to satisfy the essential requisites of a job … provided that the disability is known or should have been known by the [employer]”. … Contrary to the [NYSHRL], it is the employer’s burden to prove undue hardship. … And, the [NYCHRL] provides employers an affirmative defense if the employee cannot, with reasonable accommodation, “satisfy the essential requisites of the job”. … Thus, the employer, not the employee, has the “pleading obligation” to prove that the employee “could not, with reasonable accommodation, satisfy the essential requisites of the job”.

The Court held that defendant failed to meet its burden. It noted that plaintiff, through his attorney’s letter, made his disability known to defendant. Defendant, however, failed to “meet its obligation under the [NYCHRL] to plead and prove that plaintiff could not perform his essential job functions with an accommodation.” It was therefore not entitled to dismissal of plaintiff’s NYCHRL claim under CPLR 3211.

Judge Abdus-Salaam dissented in part, arguing that the NYSHRL claim should not have been dismissed.