Crane Operator’s Race and National Origin Discrimination Claims Allowed to Continue

In Singh v. Bay Crane Services, 11-cv-720 (EDNY Oct. 11, 2013), the Eastern District of New York recently denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment and allowed plaintiff, a Guyanese man of Indian descent, to proceed with his claim that he was not hired for discriminatory reasons – namely, his race and national origin.

Since the court denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment, this case provides guidance on what evidence will suffice to get past the summary judgment hurdel and warrant a trial on a discrimination claim.

Mr. Singh worked as a crane operator for a company called Southern Service Group on a Transit Authority contract.  After defendant Bay Crane won that contract, it hired many of Southern’s personnel – but not plaintiff.  Plaintiff believed that defendant refused to hire him because of his race or national origin, pointing to the fact that defendant hired six other crane operators who had been employed by Southern on the TA contract, all but one of whom were white, and that forty-three out of the forty-nine other crane operators hired by defendant hired by defendant were white.

Plaintiff sued under a federal statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, that (in pertinent part) guarantees to all persons “the same right … to make and enforce contracts … enjoyed by white citizens.”

Defendant argued that it did not discriminate against plaintiff, and offered a non-discriminatory rationale for not hiring him.  Specifically:

Bay Crane counters by explaining that it did not actually hire every crane operator previously employed by Southern Service. Rather, according to Joseph Bernardo, Bay Crane’s principal owner and hiring manager, Bay Crane hired all six of the Southern Service crane operators who were principally assigned to a specific location (the “yard operators”), while not hiring the operators who worked in different locations from day-to-day (the “field operators”). Bernardo stated that he decided not to hire Southern Service’s field operators because Bay Crane already had a pool of field operators with whom it had worked for years. In contrast, Bernardo hired the six Southern Service yard workers to ensure continuity, because the yard workers were already familiar with operations on their respective sites. Bernardo further explained that he did not undertake any individualized assessments of the crane operators: the six yard workers were in, and the field workers, including Singh, were out. Accordingly, says Bay Crane, Singh cannot make out a prima facie case of discrimination because he was treated like everyone else. Moreover, Bay Crane argues that, even if Singh could make out a prima facie case, he has not rebutted Bay Crane’s non-discriminatory hiring distinction between the field operators and the yard operators.

Plaintiff, however, successfully attacked this alleged rationale:

Singh has identified two problems with Bay Crane’s explanation. First, Singh presents evidence that Bay Crane hired at least one field operator after all: Michael Caridi. Second, Singh presents evidence that the other field operator Bay Crane claims not to have hired, William Bell, was no longer working for Southern Service when Bay Crane won back the Transit Authority contract, having retired almost a year before. Therefore, according to Singh, Bay Crane in fact hired every available Southern Service crane operator but him, including at least one other field operator. Hence Singh argues that he has made out a prima facie case, and that Bay Crane’s asserted non-discriminatory distinction between field operators and yard operators is contrived.

This evidence, held the court, was sufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact.

Plaintiff also cited evidence “suggesting that Bell was no longer working on the Transit Contract as of August 2009, as well as payroll records and testimony indicating that Caridi was a field operator for Southern Service and yet was hired by Bay Crane after it resumed service under the Transit Contract.”

While defendant challenged the accuracy of this evidence, the status of Bell and Cardi were in dispute, which in turn put defendant’s non-discriminatory rationale in dispute.  That dispute, held the court, must be resolved in plaintiff’s favor for purposes of defendant’s motion.

The court explained the so-called McDonnell-Douglas burden-shifting framework (named after the Supreme Court’s 1973 McDonnell Douglas v. Green decision) routinely applied in employment discrimination cases:

[A] plaintiff can avoid dismissal by presenting the “minimal” prima facie case defined by the Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas. This requires no evidence of discrimination. It is satisfied by a showing of membership in a protected class, qualification for the position, an adverse employment action, and preference for a person not of the protected class. By making out this “minimal” prima facie case, even without evidence of discrimination, the plaintiff creates a presumption that the employer unlawfully discriminated, and thus places the burden of production on the employer to proffer a nondiscriminatory reason for its action.

Here, plaintiff met this “minimal standard”; there was no dispute that he was a member of a protected class and qualified for the position, nor that defendant’s refusal to hire plaintiff was an adverse employment action.  Furthermore, “by demonstrating an evidentiary basis for finding that he was the only crane operator not hired, Singh has in turn established the minimal basis required to support the finding that Bay Crane preferred persons outside his protected class.”

The court was careful to point out that it is not enough for a plaintiff to cast doubt on an employer’s non-discriminatory rationale:

The requirements of the McDonnell Douglas prima facie case are so minimal that they do not necessarily support any inference of discrimination; and there are so many reasons why employers give false reasons for an adverse employment action that evidence contradicting the employer’s given reason-without more-does not necessarily give logical support to an inference of discrimination.

On the other hand, “[p]roof that the defendant’s explanation is unworthy of credence is simply one form of circumstantial evidence that is probative of intentional discrimination, and it may be quite persuasive.”

In this case, plaintiff did more than simply poke holes in the employer’s explanation.  Specifically:

Bay Crane’s asserted distinction between yard operators and field operators is inconsistent with the facts (assumed true solely for purposes of this motion) that Bell was not actually available to be hired, and that Caridi was hired. Moreover, Singh has pointed to additional circumstantial evidence in the record that would permit a fact-finder to infer that Bay Crane discriminated him on the basis of race or national origin. Specifically, if a fact-finder agreed that Singh was the only available crane operator (field or yard) not hired by Bay Crane, that fact, coupled with the evidence that forty-three out of the forty-nine other Bay Crane operators on the Transit Authority contract were white, would permit an inference of discrimination. In these circumstances, we cannot say that Bay Crane has rebutted Singh’s prima facie case so thoroughly that the Court may grant summary judgment to Bay Crane on Singh’s federal claim.

Finally, even if plaintiff were not entitled to proceed on his federal section 1981 claim, he would be entitled to proceed on his New York City Human Rights Law claim.  This is so because that statute must be construed more broadly than its federal counterparts.  The City Human Rights Law “requires only that a plaintiff show that at least one of the reasons proffered by [the] defendant is false, misleading, or incomplete”, which plaintiff has done.

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