Plaintiff Plausibly Alleges “Regarded As” Disability Discrimination Claim Against SUNY

In Gentleman v. State Univ. of N.Y.-Stony Brook, No. 16-CV-2012(ADS)(AKT), 2017 WL 2468963 (E.D.N.Y. June 6, 2017), the court held that plaintiff sufficiently alleged a claim of discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act.

In sum, the court concluded that – applying the more lenient standard for “regarded as disabled” claims – plaintiff plausibly alleged that she “was subjected to discriminatory treatment because she was regarded as having a disabling mental impairment.”

The court summarized the applicable provisions of the Rehabilitation Act:

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act provides, in relevant part, that [n]o otherwise qualified individual with a disability … shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

Thus, in order to state a prima facie claim based on discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act, the Plaintiff must plausibly allege that: (1) she is disabled within the meaning of the Rehabilitation Act; (2) she was otherwise qualified for her position; (3) she was terminated solely because of her disability; and (4) SUNY receives federal funding. …

To properly plead a disability under the Rehabilitation Act, the Plaintiff is required to set forth facts which, if proven, would establish that: (1) she suffers from a physical or mental impairment; (2) the activity claimed to be impaired is a major life activity; and (3) her impairment substantially limits the major life activity previously identified.

Plaintiff failed to plausibly allege that she was “disabled” within the meaning of the statute.

That, however, is not the end of the matter:

[A] plaintiff who is “regarded as” disabled is protected under the [Rehabilitation Act] even if she is not actually disabled. …

Until recently, a plaintiff who alleged she was “regarded as” having a disability was required to show that the perceived disability was one that substantially limited a major life activity. [] Notably, however, the ADA Amendments Act of 2008[] set forth a new, more lenient, standard for determining whether an individual is “regarded as disabled”:

An individual meets the requirement of “being regarded as having such an impairment” if the individual establishes that he or she has been subjected to an action prohibited under this chapter because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity. …

In this regard, the Plaintiff is neither required to show that the disability she was perceived to have been suffering from is one that actually limits, or is perceived to limit, a major life activity, nor does she have to show that her colleagues and supervisors at SUNY had a reasonable basis for perceiving her as suffering from a disability. [] Rather, the statute merely requires her to show that the employer did so perceive her.

Applying the law, the court held:

Plaintiff alleges that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder; that the former individual Defendants, namely, Michael Dudley, Chandrani Roy, Jason Trelewicz, and Alexander Orlov, knew of the Plaintiff’s diagnosis since the fall of 2012, when her employment commenced; that Dudley made remarks indicating his belief that the Plaintiff’s disorder rendered her unable to meet the requirements of her position; that Dudley, acting in concert with the other individual Defendants, made a false police report in which he indicated that the Plaintiff was “suffering from a mental disorder that was likely to cause self-harm and harm to others”; that SUNY decided not to renew the Plaintiff’s employment contract because of the individual Defendants’ report that the Plaintiff was dangerous “because of her … perceived disability”; that she was effectively terminated due to the “stigma associated with her disability”; and that SUNY violated the Rehabilitation Act “by terminating [her] employment because she is a person … perceived as [having] a disability.”

Accepting these allegations as true, the Court finds that they support a reasonable inference that the Plaintiff was regarded by her employer as having a disability, and that this perception—true or not—was causally related to her allegedly unlawful discharge.

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