FIT Professor’s Race Discrimination Claims Proceed in Part

In Rogers v. Fashion Inst. of Tech. et al, No. 14-CV-6420 (AJN), 2017 WL 1078572 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 21, 2017), the court granted in part and denied in part defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiff’s (an African American part-time adjunct professor in FIT’s production management department) claims of race discrimination. (This decision follows a prior dismissal and plaintiff’s filing an amended complaint.)

As to one set of Title VII allegations (relating to class assignments), the court explained:

[Plaintiff] provides an explanation for why he believes he was as or more qualified than a Caucasian professor to whom Plaintiff’s 2012 and 2013 class hours were assigned, alleging that Plaintiff’s extensive experience in the educational opportunities program made him the most qualified candidate, and that the Caucasian candidate who received the position, although a full-time professor, routinely received low student evaluations. … Plaintiff also alleges that, as to the 2014 class assignment, he was passed up in favor of an adjunct faculty member who lacked his qualifications.

The court was careful to note that while “FIT[] may well be able to provide race–and retaliation-neutral explanations for each employment decision[] … it cannot be said that the Amended Complaint, as to the purported denial of classes in 2012, 2013, and 2014, fails to give plausible support to a minimal inference of discriminatory motivation.”

It thus concluded that plaintiff “has sufficiently alleged that the Defendant, FIT, denied Plaintiff certain class assignments in 2012, 2013, and 2014, on the basis of discriminatory and retaliatory animus.”

Turning to plaintiff’s state and city law claims, the court noted that defendants “make no particularized arguments why either Plaintiff’s NYSHRL or NYCHRL claims should be dismissed.” This was “irrelevant as to Plaintiff’s NYSHRL claims, as the legal standards governing those claims are the same as those governing Title VII”.

It reached a different conclusion, however, as to plaintiff’s NYCHRL claims:

Although the Defendants’ silence is irrelevant as to the NYSHRL claims, it is problematic as to the NYCHRL claims. That is because, while the standards governing a NYSHRL claim are largely contiguous with those governing a Title VII claim, the same is not true for the NYCHRL. “[I]nterpretations of state and federal civil rights statutes can serve only as a floor below which the [NYCHRL] cannot fall.” Ya-Chen Chen v. City Univ. of N.Y., 805 F.3d 59, 75 (2d Cir. 2015) (quoting Mihalik v. Credit Agricole Cheuvreux N. Am., Inc., 715 F.3d 102, 109 (2d Cir. 2013)). Unlike federal and state law, “[t]he NYCHRL should ‘be construed liberally for the accomplishment of the uniquely broad and remedial purposes thereof.’ ” Id. (quoting Mihalik, 715 F.3d at 109); see also Romanello v. Intesa Sanpaolo, S.p.A., 22 N.Y.3d 881, 884-85 (2013). In light of these distinctions, “courts must analyze NYCHRL claims separately and independently from any federal and state law claims, construing [the law’s] provisions broadly in favor of discrimination plaintiffs to the extent that such a construction is reasonably possible.” Id. (quoting Mihalik, 715 F.3d at 109).

The Defendants make no attempt to address this more liberal standard, or to explain why any of the alleged acts of discrimination, retaliation, or hostile work environment in the Amended Complaint fail to plausibly state claims under NYCHRL. Although the Court addresses these claims briefly, it declines to sua sponte dismiss claims that are not obviously insufficient in the absence of specific arguments from the Defendants that such dismissal is warranted.

The court then held that plaintiff’s claims were timely under the NYCHRL. The law provides:

Although, as [the Supreme Court in Nat’l R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101 (2002)] holds, the continuing violations doctrine is not available under Title VII or NYSHRL to save Plaintiff’s untimely claims for discrimination and retaliation, New York courts have held that the doctrine applies to discrete acts of discrimination and retaliation under the NYCHRL. … Under the NYCHRL, [t]ime-barred discrete acts can be considered timely ‘where specific and related instances of discrimination are permitted by the employer to continue unremedied for so long as to amount to a discriminatory policy or practice.

Applying the law, the court held that “he has plausibly alleged an “unremedied … discriminatory policy or practice dating back to 2003.” Therefore, “at this stage of the proceedings, all of the various discrete acts of discrimination and retaliation the Plaintiff alleges he experienced as a result of Federici’s decisions and practices are timely.”

As to plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim, the court held:

[T]he Plaintiff also states a hostile work environment claim under the NYCHRL. Under that legal framework, [h]ostile work environment claims are analyzed under the same provision … as discrimination claims. Unlike in a hostile work environment claim under Title VII, [u]nder the NYCHRL, defendants’ discriminatory conduct need not be severe or pervasive. Instead, questions of severity or pervasiveness go not to the viability of a claim, but to the amount of damages. When assessing whether a hostile work environment claim has been sufficiently alleged, [t]he relevant consideration is whether … the plaintiff has been treated less well than other employees because of [inter alia, his] race. Because the Plaintiff has plausibly alleged that [defendants Mario] Federici and FIT discriminated against him under the NYCHRL by refusing to consider him for a full-time position, limiting his class assignments, and otherwise treating him differently based on his race, the Plaintiff has also alleged a claim for hostile work environment as to conduct he experienced in the production management department. That is so notwithstanding that the Plaintiff has not plausibly alleged a hostile work environment claim under federal or state law.

As such, this case yet again illustrates the key differences between the NYCHRL and its federal and state counterparts with respect to, e.g., hostile work environment claims.

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