Hostile Work Environment Claim Stated; Allegations Include “Voodoo Priest” Accusation

In Petit v. The Department of Education of the City of New York, No. 155523/16, 9984, 2019 WL 5791619 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept., Nov. 07, 2019), the court held that plaintiff stated claims of employment discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation under the New York State and City Human Rights Laws. Specifically, the court reversed a lower court Order granting defendant’s motion to dismiss and denying plaintiff’s motion for leave to amend their complaint.

The court summarized the facts as follows:

Plaintiff, a 55–year–old black male from Haiti, who alleges that he studied voodoo, but does not practice it, asserts that he was discriminated against by the principal of the school, Marina Vinitskaya (a Caucasian woman), due to his Haitian origin and her belief that he is a voodoo priest. Since his hiring in 2010, plaintiff had no performance issues until Vinitskaya became the school’s principal in the 2008–2009 school year. He asserts that Principal Vinitskaya then began creating a hostile work environment, by targeting him due to his Haitian origin. Plaintiff asserts that Principal Vinitskaya falsely accused him of misconduct, subjecting him to an Office of Special Investigations investigation, during which Vinitskaya falsely accused plaintiff of being a voodoo priest.

Plaintiff also asserts that Principal Vinitskaya assigned him to an unsanitary basement office upon his return to Tilden Educational Campus from a temporary administrative office assignment. Plaintiff asserts that Principal Vinitskaya did this maliciously in disregard of his seniority even though there were other available offices. Reportedly, both plaintiff and his union submitted administrative complaints to no avail. Ultimately, Principal Vinitskaya demoted plaintiff to the position of temporary substitute, assigned on a weekly basis to different schools.

Applying the law to the facts- and crediting plaintiff’s allegations for the purpose of this pre-answer, pre-discovery motion to dismiss – the court held that “the complaint states a causes of action for discrimination, retaliation and hostile work environment” under state and city law, noting that plaintiff’s “allegations are sufficient to give defendant DOE ‘fair notice’ of the nature of plaintiff’s claims and their grounds” and that “”[f]air notice is all that is required to survive at the pleading stage.”

The court also held that acts by the principal that occurred more than one year prior to the commencement of the action could be considered, since it could not be said that these acts “were not part of a single continuing pattern of unlawful conduct extending into the one-year period immediately preceding the filing of the complaint.” Plaintiff was, held the court, “not precluded from using the prior acts as background evidence in support of a timely claim.”