Male Employee States Sex-Based Hostile Work Environment Claim Against Coach Under the NYC Human Rights Law

In Lenart v. Coach Inc., No. 15-CV-1922 JMF, 2015 WL 5319735 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 11, 2015), the court held that the plaintiff – a male tax lawyer – stated a claim for a sex-based hostile work environment under the NYC Human Rights Law (but not under Title VII or the New York State Human Rights Law).

This case illustrates the differences between how a hostile work environment claim is evaluated under federal and state law, on the one hand, and the more plaintiff-friendly, broader city law, on the other. The court explained:

Lenart does, however, state a plausible hostile work environment claim under the NYCHRL, which does not require either materially adverse employment actions or severe and pervasive conduct in order to state a claim. Instead, a focus on unequal treatment based on gender—regardless of whether the conduct is tangible (like hiring or firing) or not—is in fact the approach that is most faithful to the uniquely broad and remedial purposes of the local statute. Thus, although New York courts have held that the NYCHRL, like Title VII, does not operate as a general civility code, and that a defendant may avoid liability for acts that are nothing more than petty slights and trivial inconveniences, all that is generally required under the NYCHRL is that the plaintiff proffer evidence of unwanted gender-based conduct. Coach argues that Lenart’s NYCHRL claim fails because he does not allege that he himself was treated differently than a similarly situated female colleague. But he does allege that he was subjected to unwanted gender-based conduct: Specifically, he claims he had to undergo extra interviews and psychological testing, whereas his female colleagues did not, and that he had heard that Walsh had expressed a preference for working with women. Although thin, such allegations are sufficient to state a claim, particularly after [the Second Circuit’s holding in Littlejohn[ v. City of N.Y., 795 F.3d 297 (2d Cir. 2015)].

The court also held that plaintiff sufficiently alleged gender discrimination regarding his termination. Under the Second Circuit’s recent Littlejohn decision,

to survive a motion to dismiss a claim of discriminatory discharge under Title VII or the NYSHRL, a plaintiff must allege only facts plausibly suggesting that he is a member of a protected class, was qualified, suffered an adverse employment action, and has at least minimal support for the proposition that the employer was motivated by discriminatory intent.

It went on to explain that plaintiff’s complaint (barely) met that standard:

Lenart alleges that he was fired on April 5, 2013, during a meeting at which … [h]e was told … that his position had been eliminated due to a corporate restructuring. Although Lenart does not explicitly allege that he was terminated because of his gender (or even that Coach’s stated reason for firing him was false), he does allege that the majority of his responsibilities were assumed by a woman. In Littlejohn, the Second Circuit held that [t]he fact that a plaintiff was replaced by someone outside the protected class will ordinarily suffice for the required inference of discrimination at the initial prima facie stage of the Title VII analysis, including the pleading stage. … It follows that that allegation alone may be sufficient for Lenart to meet his burden at this stage.

The court also pointed to plaintiff’s allegation, for example, that the (female) Senior Vice President of the Treasury Department stated several times that she would “like to have a staff of all women” and said after plaintiff’s termination that she “created a ‘girl power’ team in New York.” In sum, plaintiff’s “allegations that a senior executive made several arguably discriminatory statements, combined with his allegations that a woman assumed most of his duties, are enough to clear the low hurdle set by the Second Circuit in Littlejohn.”

To survive defendant’s motion to dismiss, plaintiff was only required to “plead sufficient facts … to show that he is entitled to the initial presumption of discriminatory motivation.” Therefore, “[w]hether Coach will ultimately be able to rebut that presumption because it had a non-discriminatory reason for firing Lenart is irrelevant at this stage of the litigation.”

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