Disability Discrimination Claim Survives Summary Judgment Under the NYC Human Rights Law

In Watson v. Emblem Health Servs., 2018 NY Slip Op 00123 (App. Div. 1st Dept. Jan. 9, 2018), the court reversed a lower court’s decision granting defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s disability discrimination claim under the New York City Human Rights Law.

In sum, plaintiff’s claims arose from defendant’s refusal to reinstate plaintiff and terminating her for failing to file a disability claim.

In ruling in plaintiff’s favor, the court explained:

There is no question that defendant was apprised of plaintiff’s medical condition and her need for medical leave. The record establishes that in June 2011, plaintiff told her supervisor that she would be out sick until July 10 due to the recurrence of her cerebral tumors. On July 8, 2011, she advised the supervisor, and an H.R. officer shortly afterwards, that she was still ill, and requested additional time to convalesce as a reasonable accommodation of her medical condition.

Defendant’s response was to have an H.R. officer advise plaintiff that she needed to file a disability claim to be paid. However, the H.R. officer did not tell plaintiff that her employment would be terminated if she did not file the claim within 10 days. While defendant’s Leaves of Absence Guide summarizes leave policies that an employee must follow, and warns of the possibility of discharge, it does not specify a time frame within which a claim must be filed with the Hartford.

Moreover, the record, including telephone records and the statements of plaintiff and her friend, supports plaintiff’s claim that she did attempt to file a claim with the Hartford, defendant’s agent, upon being advised by defendant to do so. While defendant claims that it did not know about this, its H.R. officer admitted during her deposition that, in response to her inquiry, the Hartford acknowledged that it would tell an employee that he or she could call at a later date when they needed to obtain the necessary information in order to file a claim.[FN1]

Furthermore, one may reasonably question how advising plaintiff to file for private disability benefits to get paid would fulfill defendant’s legal obligation to “hold a constructive dialogue about the possibility of a reasonable accommodation” (Jacobsen, 22 NY3d at 838 n2) and whether giving an employee suffering from a brain tumor a mere 10 days to file a disability claim before firing her was reasonable.

Significantly, no effort was made by anyone at defendant to contact plaintiff during this short period of time to apprise her of the sudden precariousness of her position, even though such efforts could have been made. While the discharge letter stated that plaintiff was on unapproved leave since July 1, plaintiff was not told to contact the Hartford until July 8, and received no written notification or warning that her leave was unapproved.

Defendant’s actions after terminating plaintiff also cast doubt on its stated reason for plaintiff’s discharge. Plaintiff was by all accounts a good employee who had an unblemished record and reached her performance goals. Nevertheless, defendant refused to reinstate plaintiff after she informed it that its statement in the termination letter that she never contacted the Hartford was incorrect, and after she filed an application and was ultimately approved for FMLA leave for the period June 20, 2011 to July 20, 2011. Defendant also altered her termination date so that it would fall outside the legally protected FMLA period. Moreover, the record contains numerous emails in which derogatory comments were made about plaintiff and her medical condition and her need for time off to recover. This includes comments such as “[a]pparently, the West Indies is nice this time of year,” and accusations that plaintiff was not being treated for her condition in June and July 11 despite the fact that defendant had received medical documentation concerning such treatment.

Given this evidence of a possible pretextual motive, defendants’ motion for summary judgment should have been denied[.]

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