Cuttino Mobley’s Disability Discrimination Claims Survive

In Mobley v. Madison Square Garden LP et al, 11-cv-8290 (SDNY March 15, 2013) (J. Batts), the Southern District of New York held that pro basketball player Cuttino Mobley plausibly stated disability discrimination claims under the New York State Human Rights Law and New York City Human Rights Law against various Madison Square Garden entities.   (This is the court’s ruling on defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiff’s amended complaint; it previously dismissed plaintiff’s initial complaint.)

Plaintiff was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a genetic mutation that causes thickening of the wall of the heart, in 1998.  After initially being declared unfit to play professional basketball by two cardiologists, plaintiff obtained opinions from two doctors that there was no change in his heart condition from 1998-2008 and presented evidence that the risks associated with the condition decrease with age.  Plaintiff proposed an accommodation in the form of a defibrillator to shock him back to life if his heart were to stop.  The Knicks nevertheless refused to let plaintiff play and forced him to retire.

The only issue was whether plaintiff plausibly alleged that he was “qualified to perform the essential functions of his job, either with or without reasonable accommodation.”  The court held that he did:

Mobley’s Amended Complaint makes new factual allegations, discussing three prominent cardiologists’ medical opinions regarding the severity of Plaintiff’s heart condition in Fall 2008, and mentioning that medically-respected reports have concluded that the risks associated with HCM decrease with age. … Defendants argue that Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint admits he failed physical examinations conducted by several expert cardiologists and therefore remains deficient. … Defendants cite to various disability discrimination cases in support of their argument that dismissal is appropriate where an employee fails an employer’s physical examination and offers insufficient evidence to show that he is qualified. … These cases are inapposite. All were decided on summary judgment against Plaintiffs who offered no evidence that they were qualified to perform the essential functions of their jobs. …

Plaintiff has pled facts that contradict the views of Dr. Estes and Dr. Maron and make it plausible that he was qualified to perform safely the essential functions of a professional basketball player. Accepting as true the factual allegations in Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint, several prominent cardiologists have determined that there was no material change in the thickness of the walls of Plaintiff’s heart (and, thus, in his heart condition) between the beginning of his professional basketball career and the present time, and that Plaintiff was as medically fit to play in Fall 2008 as he was in 1998 and 2012. … Plaintiff was medically cleared to play each season for ten consecutive years, including two months prior to his trade to the Knicks. …  Plaintiff further alleges that reports published in sources respected in the scientific cardiology community have concluded that the risks associated with HCM decrease with age. … Together, these allegations make it plausible that Plaintiff was as qualified to play professional basketball in Fall 2008 for the Knicks as he was during the period of 1999 to September 2008, when he was medically cleared to play for the Houston Rockets, the Orlando Magic, the Sacramento Kings, and the Los Angeles Clippers.

The court also rejected defendants’ attack on plaintiff’s medical opinions on the ground that they were obtained in 2011 and 2012 rather than in 2008, when the Knicks evaluated Plaintiff.  It reasoned:

Defendants fail to point to any statutory or case authority in support of their argument, and the Court is aware of none. Indeed, while the NYSHRL and the NYCHRL require plaintiffs to show they were qualified to perform their job duties at the time of their employment, neither the statute requires that such evidence be obtained while the plaintiff is employed. See [9 NYCRR] § 466.11; N.Y. City Admin. Code § 8-107(15).  … Plaintiff has shown plausibly that he was qualified to perform the essential functions of his job in Fall 2008; he need not have collected the evidence of his qualifications at that time.

Having concluded that plaintiff plausibly alleged that he was qualified without accommodation, the court declined to address the parties’ arguments concerning the use of the defibrillator as an accommodation.

The full opinion is below.


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