Greater Civil Fine in “Serious and Deliberate” Disability Discrimination Was Warranted

In Matter of JPK Imports/Oneonta, Inc. v. New York State Div. of Human Rights, 2021 NY Slip Op 02336 (App. Div. 3d Dept. April 15, 2021) – a disability discrimination case – the court upheld the New York State Division of Human Rights’ (SDHR) imposition of a civil fine of $20,000 (and held that the lower court erred in reducing the fine to $5,000).

From the decision:

Judicial review of an administrative penalty is limited to whether the measure or mode of penalty or discipline imposed constitutes an abuse of discretion as a matter of law” (Matter of Kelly v Safir, 96 NY2d 32, 38 [2001] [citations omitted]; accord Matter of Rochester Inst. of Tech. v New York State Div. of Human Rights, 169 AD3d 1421, 1422 [2019]). On this record, we conclude that Supreme Court erred in reducing the fine. Notably, JPK has not challenged the finding of discrimination made by SDHR, but only the amount of the fine imposed. SDHR has a statutory role “to take appropriate action to fulfill the extremely strong statutory policy eliminating discrimination” (Matter of Gifford v McCarthy, 137 AD3d 30, 43 [2016] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]), and may impose a civil fine of up to $50,000 against a party who has engaged in unlawful discriminatory conduct (see Executive Law § 297 [4] [c] [vi]). The record shows [*2]that the day that Fink informed JPK that he might need surgery, he was terminated ostensibly for “lack of work.” Within a week, JPK advertised to fill the same position. In objecting to Fink’s complaint, JPK asserted that Fink was terminated for poor performance and yet he had never been disciplined for such. At the same time, JPK represented that it was “willing to discuss” rehiring Fink, but the record does not indicate that such discussions were ever pursued. In short, SDHR determined that JPK’s discriminatory conduct was serious and deliberate. In our view, the penalty was not “so disproportionate to the offense as to be shocking to one’s sense of fairness,” and, therefore, it did not “constitut[e] an abuse of discretion as a matter of law” (Matter of Kelly v Safir, 96 NY2d at 38 [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]).

The court concluded that “[s]ince SDHR acted within its broad discretionary authority by imposing the $20,000 fine, Supreme Court erred in reducing the amount.”

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