Sexual Orientation Discrimination Claims Rendered Timely Under the “Relation Back” Doctrine, CPLR 203(f)

In O’Halloran v. Metropolitan Transp. Auth., 2017 NY Slip Op 06237 (Aug. 22, 2017), the court addressed the following narrow issue on appeal:

[W]hether the motion court providently permitted plaintiff to amend her complaint to include belated claims of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation on the ground that those claims related back to the original pleading, which timely alleged, inter alia, discrimination on the basis of gender.

The court answered this question in the affirmative, reasoning that “the original pleading gave defendants notice of the occurrences plaintiff seeks to prove pursuant to her amended complaint (see CPLR 203[f]), and defendants will not suffer undue prejudice as a result of the delay (see CPLR 3025[b]).”

In sum, plaintiff (a lesbian) filed the original complaint asserting causes of action for, among other things, sex discrimination, disability discrimination, and retaliation in violation of the New York State and City Human Rights Laws. After her deposition, she moved under CPLR 3025 for leave to amend her complaint to add claims of discrimination based on sexual orientation. Although the statute of limitations had run on her sexual orientation discrimination claims, plaintiff argued that the “relation-back” doctrine, codified in CPLR 203(f), rendered them timely. Defendants opposed plaintiff’s motion, arguing that the original complaint did not give them “notice of the facts underlying” plaintiff’s sexual orientation discrimination claims. The motion court granted plaintiff’s motion, and the Appellate Division affirmed.

The court noted that “a more relaxed standard applies where a plaintiff seeks to use the relation-back doctrine by adding a new claim against a defendant who is already a party to litigation as opposed to adding a new defendant.” It then laid out the factors to be considered when a proposed amended complaint has an untimely claim against a defendant who is already a party to the litigation, namely, “(1) whether the original complaint gave the defendant notice of the transactions or occurrences at issue and (2) whether there would be undue prejudice to the defendant if the amendment and relation back are permitted.”

Applying the law to the facts, the court explained:

In accordance with these principles, we hold that the motion court providently exercised its discretion when it permitted plaintiff to amend her complaint to add her otherwise untimely claims of sexual orientation discrimination. All of plaintiff’s claims are based on the same occurrences — namely the underlying employment actions taken against her – and the original complaint put defendants on notice of those occurrences. To be sure, plaintiff’s original [*3]complaint did not allege the specific facts that she is a lesbian, that defendants were aware of her sexual orientation, that defendants discriminated against her on that basis, or that another lesbian colleague was demoted for supporting her internal dispute with Menduina. Nevertheless, the motion court correctly determined that the new claims are based on “the same subject matter alleged in the original complaint.” Defendants need not have been put on notice of every factual allegation on which the subsequent claims depend, because the original complaint put them on notice of the occurrences that underlie those claims (see Schneidman v Tollman, 279 AD2d 276, 276 [1st Dept 2001] [motion court “properly found that plaintiffs’ amended pleadings were not time-barred, since they relate back to the original complaint, merely adding additional factual detail”] [internal quotation marks omitted]).

Viewing “transactions [or] occurrences” through this broad lens for the purposes of relation back under CPLR 203(f) is especially important in the context of anti-discrimination actions – particularly those actions brought under the City HRL – in which it is frequently difficult for plaintiffs to articulate their employers’ motivations for treating them less well than other employees.

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