First Department Holds That Plaintiffs Adequately Pleaded Disability Discrimination Claim Under the NYC City Human Rights Law

In Brathwaite v. Frankel (decided August 21, 2012), the Appellate Division, First Department unanimously reversed a lower court’s dismissal of plaintiffs’ disability discrimination claims under the New York City Human Rights Law.

First, the court held that the trial court improperly treated defendants’ motion, brought under CPLR 3211(a)(7) and (10), as one for summary judgment because it failed to provide the parties with the requisite notice, per CPLR 3211(c). That statute provides:

(c) Evidence permitted; immediate trial; motion treated as one for summary judgment. Upon the hearing of a motion made under subdivision (a) or (b), either party may submit any evidence that could properly be considered on a motion for summary judgment. Whether or not issue has been joined, the court, after adequate notice to the parties, may treat the motion as a motion for summary judgment.  The court may, when appropriate for the expeditious disposition of the controversy, order immediate trial of the issues raised on the motion. (Emphasis added.)

Here, “plaintiffs never indicated that they joined defendants in ‘deliberately charting a summary judgment course’ … nor does the case involve a purely legal question without any disputed issues of fact.”  Thus the decision reaffirms that, before a motion to dismiss under CPLR 3211 can be treated as a motion for summary judgment (which is ordinarily addressed to a fully-developed factual record), the parties must be given proper notice.

Second, the court, citing the Court of Appeals’ 2004 decision in Forrest v Jewish Guild for the Blindheld that plaintiffs adequately stated a claim for disability discrimination:

Plaintiffs have alleged that they are members of a protected class (the disabled), that they were qualified for their positions, that they suffered an adverse employment action (being laid off), and that the adverse action occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination. The inference of discrimination arises from the complaint’s allegations that plaintiffs, who performed clerical work, were laid off as a result of the elimination of their job title, under which all the employees were disabled, while other job titles involving clerical work were not eliminated.  After issue has been joined and discovery has been completed, defendants will have an opportunity to attempt to rebut the presumption of discrimination arising from plaintiffs’ prima facie case by setting forth, through the introduction of admissible evidence, legitimate, independent, and nondiscriminatory reasons to support [their] employment decision, to which plaintiffs will be entitled to respond in turn. On defendants’ motion addressed to the sufficiency of the pleading, however, the only question properly before the court was whether plaintiffs have alleged a prima facie case.

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