Second Circuit Vacates Dismissal of NYC Human Rights Law Age Discrimination Claim

For employment litigators in New York City, the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) is a formidable weapon against discrimination and harassment in the workplace. The NYCHRL’s protections are broad, particularly when compared with those offered by federal and state law.

In Velazco v. Columbus Citizens Foundation et al (2nd Cir. Feb. 13, 2015), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated the lower court’s order granting summary judgment to defendants on plaintiff’s age discrimination claim under the NYCHRL, reasoning that the district court did not analyze plaintiff’s NYCHRL claims “separately and independently” as it was required to do.

The court explained:

We … reiterate that district courts who exercise pendent jurisdiction over NYCHRL claims are required by the Local Civil Rights Restoration Act of 2005 (Restoration Act), N.Y.C. Local L. No. 85, to analyze those claims under a different standard from that applicable to parallel federal and state law claims. …

[F]or many years, the NYCHRL was construed to be coextensive with its federal and state counterparts. But in 2005, the New York City Council passed the Restoration Act, which amended the NYCHRL. Specifically, the Restoration Act created two new rules of 4 construction. See id. First, it explicitly created a one-way ratchet, by which [i]nterpretations of New York state or federal statutes with similar wording may be used to aid in interpreting the NYCHRL, insofar as similarly worded provisions of federal and state civil rights laws would constitute] a floor below which the [NYCHRL] cannot fall. Second, it amended the NYCHRL to require a liberal construction of its amendments for the accomplishment of the NYCHRL’s uniquely broad and remedial purposes . . . , regardless of whether federal or New York State civil and human rights laws, including those laws with provisions comparably-worded to provisions of [the NYCHRL], have been so construed. Restoration Act § 7 (amending N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8–130).

Thus, in amending the NYCHRL, the City Council expressed … that the NYCHRL had been construed too narrowly and therefore underscored that the provisions of [the NYCHRL] are to be construed independently from similar or identical provisions of New York state or federal statutes. … We have therefore held that [p]ursuant to these revisions, courts must analyze NYCHRL claims separately and independently from any federal and state law claims. Indeed, even if the challenged conduct is not actionable under federal and state law, federal courts must consider separately whether it is actionable under the broader New York City standards.

Of course, a federal court need not undertake such a review of a NYCHRL claim if, after disposition of the parallel federal claim, it declines to exercise pendent jurisdiction. But the district court did not choose this route, instead ruling that plaintiff’s NYCHRL claim failed as a matter of law. Such a decision could only be made by undertaking the independent analysis required by the Restoration Act, which the district court failed to do here.

The court rejected defendants’ argument “that the district court effectively applied the NYCHRL standard when, in granting summary judgment, it found that the plaintiff’s age was not a motivating factor in the decision to terminate him.”

In the Second Circuit’s view, the district court did not “sp[eak] with sufficient clarity … as to whether the evidence was insufficient to support any causal link between age bias and plaintiff’s firing, as required by the NYCHRL … or whether the evidence was simply insufficient to support the but-for causation required by the ADEA.”

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