Court Dismisses Plaintiff’s Defamation and Failure-to-Accommodate Disability Discrimination Claims

A recent case, Cogle v. Bergstein (Supreme Court, New York County, decided Nov. 18, 2013) illustrates the pitfalls that exist when pleading defamation and discrimination claims in New York State courts.

Plaintiff, a nurse, worked for the New York City Health and Hospital Corporation (HHC) at Bellevue Hospital.  She alleged that she was suspended based on defamatory statements made by HHC employees, and that following her resulting transfer, defendants failed to reasonably accommodate her disability.

First, the court dismissed plaintiff’s defamation claims because she failed to comply with the requirements of CPLR 3016(a), which provides that “[i]n an action for libel or slander, the particular words complained of shall be set forth in the complaint.” Plaintiff failed to “allege the time, place and manner of the false statement and to specify to whom it was made.” The court also dismissed as time-barred plaintiff’s defamation claims that were based on statements made two years before the action was brought, since defamation claims have a one-year statute of limitations.

Secondthe court dismissed plaintiff’s claims against the City of New York, as it was not a proper party. In particular, HHC “is a separate and independent public benefit corporation and therefore, its own distinct entity.”

Third, the court held that plaintiff failed to adequately plead her failure-to-accommodate claim. In accordance with Vig v. NY Hairspray Co., 67 AD3d 140 (1st Dept. 2009), plaintiff was only required to comply with the “notice pleading” standard, and was not required to plead a prima facie case of discrimination.

The law provides:

[T]o state a prima facie case for an employer’s failure to reasonably accommodate, plaintiff must show: (1) that her disability is within the meaning of the statutes; (2) the employer has notice of the disability; and 3) that the employer refused to fulfill the obligation to provide objectively reasonable accommodations. [A]n employer is obligated to engage a disabled employee in a ‘good faith interactive process’ to identify a reasonable accommodation that will permit the employee to continue in the position (citing Romanello v. Intesa, 22 NY3d 881 (2013)).

The court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss, holding that plaintiff failed to meet her pleading burden:

While plaintiff put forth that she was disabled by a back problem, asthma, and other medical problems, she does not provide sufficient information regarding her discrimination claims. On a CPLR 3211 (a)(7) motion to dismiss, the court must construe the complaint liberally and find if the four corners of the pleadings assert sufficient facts to manifest a claim. Even with this low burden, the complaint is vague and does meet the primafacie requirements. The only facts submitted here were in the attorney’s affirmation, which merely restated the facts in the complaint. Plaintiff made a conclusory allegation that defendants knew of her disability but failed to state how they knew of plaintiffs disability. Plaintiff claimed that working in maternal unit provided her an accommodation, but she failed to provide the extent and limits of her restrictions. Plaintiff claimed that working in a rehabilitation unit required her to stand for longer periods and lift heavy objects, however it was not provided that those duties were not part of her responsibilities in the maternal unit or that her disability prevented her from doing those tasks. There was no assertion that defendants refused to fulfill the obligation to provide objectively reasonable accommodations or participate in an interactive process to identify a reasonable accommodation for the plaintiff.

Finally, the court denied the plaintiff an opportunity to amend her complaint to add a claim fro race discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection provisions of the NY State Constitution.  The court held that plaintiff’s allegations were insufficiently clear regarding the promotion she was allegedly denied:

Plaintiffs attorney stated that plaintiff was denied “a promotion in favor of less qualified Filipino candidates [sic].” This mention of the denial of a promotion was confusing as previously plaintiffs attorney only claimed that plaintiff was transferred and a Filipino employee took her position – there was no mention of a promotion or the job title plaintiff sought in the promotion. Plaintiff claimed that her Filipino supervisor sought to hire other Filipinos and discriminated against plaintiff by transferring plaintiff. Plaintiffs submissions failed to specify if the failure to accommodate was the adverse employment action suffered by plaintiff, or if it was the failure to promote, or something else entirely – plaintiff merely indicated that she was transferred and replaced
by a Filipino employee. Therefore, without that clarification the request to amend is denied.

The court also noted, in a footnote, that plaintiff did not submit an affidavit to cure the defects in the complaint. This case therefore teaches that when pleading a failure to accommodate a disability, it is crucial that the allegedly denied accommodation be identified with specificity.