CUNY Italian Professor’s National Origin Discrimination Claims Sufficiently Alleged

In Huffman v. Brooklyn College, The City University of New York and Anne Lopes, No. 20-CV-06156, 2022 WL 43766 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 5, 2022), the court, inter alia, denied defendants’ motions to dismiss plaintiff’s national origin- and age-based discrimination claims.

As to plaintiff’s national origin discrimination claims, the court explained:

The court has little difficulty concluding that Huffman has plausibly alleged she was subject to an adverse employment action. Huffman, an expert in the poetry of Eugenio Montale and a decorated scholar of Italian language and literature, was reassigned by CUNY to teach general English courses. See de la Cruz v. New York City Hum. Res. Admin. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 82 F.3d 16, 21 (2d Cir. 1996) (transfer “to a less prestigious unit with little opportunity for professional growth” constitutes an adverse employment action). Although the scheduling changes Huffman has had to endure may constitute “mere inconvenience,” Nicholls v. Brookdale Univ. Hosp. & Med. Ctr., 205 F. App’x 858, 861 (2d Cir. 2006), the transfer of her teaching responsibilities to an entirely different field works a “radical change in the nature of [Plaintiff’s] work” that “interferes with a condition or privilege of employment,” Rodriguez v. Board of Educ., 620 F.2d 362, 366 (2d Cir. 1980) (transfer of an art teacher from a middle school to an elementary school “render[ed] utterly useless her twenty years of experience and study in developing art programs for middle school children”). Indeed there may be no better exemplar of unique expertise than a university academic; in this case, Huffman’s job responsibilities were not merely altered – she was forced into what was an entirely different job.

Whether the circumstances Huffman has alleged give rise to a plausible inference of discrimination is a closer call. The Second Circuit has directed lower courts to consider three factors in assessing whether a plaintiff has “plausibly” alleged facts that give rise to an inference of discrimination. See Vega, 801 F.3d at 86-87. First, the plaintiff must plead “factual content” (which the court assumes to be true) and not formulaically recite the legal elements of an allegation. Id. at 86. Second, the court must “draw on its judicial experience and common sense,” mindful that in discrimination cases evidence is elusive and easily concealed, and that at the motion to dismiss stage the plaintiff’s burden is minimal. Id. at 86 (quoting Littlejohn v. City of New York, 795 F.3d 297, 310 (2d Cir. 2015) (requiring only “minimal support for the proposition that the employer was motivated by discriminatory intent”). Third, the court must be careful not to require that a plaintiff convince it that it is “likely to prevail.” Id. at 87 (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 547 (2007) (requiring that plaintiffs merely “nudge[ ] their claims across the line from conceivable to plausible”)).

Mindful of these instructions, the court again agrees with Judge Cogan’s reasoning in Bonaffini and concludes that Plaintiff has met her burden. Huffman has pleaded facts that suggest demand for Italian courses remained robust among students; that other less in-demand languages were not canceled; and that the Italian department was distinguishable from others because it consisted entirely of people of Italian descent (all of whom were also over the age of 62, see Part B, infra). Moreover, Huffman has alleged statements made by Lopes that at least plausibly suggest that the national origin (and age, see infra) of the instructors was on Lopes’s mind, and may have been a motivating factor behind her decision. Even as indirect, inferential evidence, such allegations are indeed “weak.” Bonaffini II, 2021 WL 2895688 at *4. But they sufficiently “nudge” Huffman’s claim “from conceivable to plausible.” Vega, 801 F.3d at 87.

Accordingly, the court denied defendants’ FRCP 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss plaintiff’s claim of national origin discrimination against CUNY under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and against defendant Lopes in her individual capacity under the New York State and City Human Rights Laws.

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