Race Discrimination Case Dismissed; Loss of License Rendered Plaintiff “Unqualified” For Position

In Page v. Half Hollow Hills Central School District, 16-cv-4710, 2019 WL 764748, (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 20, 2019), the court, inter alia, granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s race discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. 1981, and the New York State Human Rights Law.

The court summarized the (well-established) legal framework for evaluating such claims:

Claims alleging race discrimination brought under Title VII, NYSHRL, and § 1981 are all analyzed under the burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S. Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed. 2d 668 (1973). See Ruiz v. Cnty. of Rockland, 609 F.3d 486, 491 (2d Cir. 2010) (Title VII, §§ 1981 and 1983 analyzed under burden-shifting framework); Bowen-Hooks v. City of N.Y., 13 F. Supp. 3d 179, 210 n.19 (E.D.N.Y. 2014) (noting that the “burden of proof and production for employment discrimination claims under Title VII, § 1981, § 1983 and the NYSHRL are identical”).

To establish a prima facie case of discrimination, plaintiff must show “(1) that he belonged to a protected class; (2) that he was qualified for the position he held; (3) that he suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) that the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discriminatory intent.” Holcomb, 521 F.3d at 138. Plaintiff’s burden of establishing a prima facie case sufficient to withstand a summary judgment motion is “minimal.” See, e.g., St. Mary’s Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 506, 113 S. Ct. 2742, 125 L.Ed. 2d 407 (1993). Once a plaintiff makes a prima facie showing, the burden shifts to the employer to provide a “legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its action. Abrams v. Dep’t of Pub. Safety, 764 F.3d 244, 251 (2d Cir. 2014). Upon such a showing, “the final and ultimate burden is on the plaintiff to establish that the defendant’s reason is in fact pretext for unlawful discrimination.” [Emphasis added.]

Defendants did not dispute that plaintiff, a black man, was a member of a protected class, or that he suffered an adverse employment action, but rather argued that plaintiff “was no longer qualified for the bus driver position after his DWI conviction and resulting loss of his driver’s license.”

The court elaborated on the “qualification” element of the prima facie case, noting that “the qualification necessary to shift the burden to defendant for an explanation of the adverse job action is minimal” and that “plaintiff must show only that he possesses the basic skills necessary for performance of [the] job.” That said, “[a] plaintiff is unqualified for a position if he fails to obtain or maintain requirements set forth by the state for that position.”

Applying the law, the court held that plaintiff failed to meet this requirement:

The Suffolk County Civil Service criteria for the school bus driver position requires a Minimum Qualification, of “[p]ossession of an appropriate license issued by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles.” McQuade Decl., Ex. 21. An additional “special requirement” states that the license “must be maintained throughout employment in this position.” Id.

There is no dispute that effective June 29, 2015, Plaintiff’s license was revoked as a consequence of his guilty plea, and that the DMV Bus Unit provided the District with a Notice of Disqualification confirming that Page was disqualified from acting as a school bus driver. Thus, while Page was qualified for the bus driver position at the time he was hired, his status changed and he was unqualified at the time of his termination. See generally White v. City of Middletown, 45 F. Supp. 3d 195, 222 (D. Conn. 2014) (plaintiff’s failure to obtain state operator’s license rendered him unqualified for position, leading to his demotion); Christy v. Ken’s Beverage, Inc., 660 F. Supp. 2d 267, 273 (D. Conn. 2009) (where position required driver’s license, plaintiff’s DWI “arrest and subsequent driving limitations made her no longer qualified for her job”). As he was clearly unqualified to operate a bus with a revoked license, he was unqualified as a matter of law for the position from which he was terminated. …

Page points to the fact that Jones was, during the period of his suspension, given a non-driving job and then permitted to return to his bus driving duties. Page does not claim or provide evidence, however, the he was himself “qualified” to perform some other non-driving job in the District, that he requested such a position, and/or that the District denied any such request. Indeed, the undisputed evidence is that the District offered him another position and he turned it down.

Page was no longer qualified to perform the duties required as a bus driver and therefore the District terminated him based on a valid, non-discriminatory reason.