Race, National Origin Discrimination Claims Against Chanel Survive Summary Judgment; Evidence Included Derogatory Comments About Speaking Spanish

In Bautista v. Chanel, Inc., 20 Civ. 4676, 2022 WL 374496 (SDNY Feb. 8, 2022), the court, inter alia, denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s claims of race and national origin discrimination asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New York City Human Rights Law.

The court proceeded to apply the three-step burden shifting analysis – known as the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting analysis, in light of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973) – applicable to employment discrimination claims.

Under this framework (grossly simplifying here): (1) plaintiff must first present a prima facie case, (2) defendant must then articulate a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” rationale for the alleged adverse action (here, termination), after which (3) plaintiff must demonstrate that defendant’s justification was “pretext” for discrimination.

As to plaintiff’s prima facie case, the court explained:

Plaintiff has met this burden by identifying evidence from which a reasonable jury could reach a verdict in his favor. Plaintiff testified that in September 2017, Defendant Papaioannou, his direct supervisor, gave him work-related instructions and confirmed his understanding by asking “Comprende?” in a condescending tone. Over the next six months, Defendant Papaioannou opened three investigations into Plaintiff’s sales conduct, none of which had merit. Around the same time as the third investigation, Defendant Papaioannou approached Plaintiff and two other Spanish-speaking employees and told the group that they were not to speak in Spanish at the counter, despite Defendant Chanel not having a corporate “English-only” policy. Plaintiff further testified that Defendant Papaioannou insinuated that speaking Spanish was not “professional” and that other employees who spoke languages other than English, including French and Chinese, were not similarly admonished.

Defendants focus on the “comprende” comment as a “stray remark” that cannot sustain Plaintiff’s discrimination claim. This argument is unavailing. Even the case law that Defendants cite recognizes that such comments, without more, cannot get a discrimination suit to a jury. When, however, other indicia of discrimination are properly presented, the remarks can no longer be deemed “stray,” and the jury has a right to conclude that they bear a more ominous significance. Here, a reasonable jury could infer discriminatory intent from the evidence as a whole.

Defendants’ other arguments similarly are unpersuasive. Defendants argue that the comments and the adverse employment action were too far apart to suggest discriminatory intent. This argument fails to consider other evidence in the record — including three investigations of Plaintiff in the intervening period and the institution of a “No Spanish” policy — which narrows the gap between Defendant Papaioannou’s comments and Plaintiff’s ultimate firing. This evidence provides a sufficient basis to infer discriminatory intent.

[Cleaned up.]

It was undisputed that defendant satisfied its burden at the second step, “by producing evidence that Plaintiff was fired for a non-discriminatory reason, namely that Defendants determine that he allegedly lied about his prior contact with the Jane Doe customer.”

Turning to step three, the court explained:

The record evidence is sufficient for a reasonable jury to conclude that discrimination was a motivating factor in Plaintiff’s termination. First, there is a question of fact whether Defendants had a reasonable basis for their proffered reason for terminating Plaintiff. Defendants assert that Plaintiff was terminated because he “lied” during an internal investigation into the November 2018 sales incident where he entered a sale under his employee number after a freelance makeup artist applied the customer’s make-up. Plaintiff told Defendants that he had previous contact with the customer and asserts that Defendant Papaioannou’s screen shots did not reflect this contact because of alternate spellings of the customer’s name. Regarding the incident leading to the termination, Plaintiff testified that, although the freelancer applied the customer’s make up, Plaintiff assisted by pulling products and samples for the client and recommending a specific product such that the commission was appropriate. When asked to review security footage at her deposition, Defendant Papaioannou also stated that it appeared Plaintiff helped the client in-question at least five times.

In addition, according to Koenig’s contemporaneous notes, the overall decision to terminate Plaintiff was made by Defendant Papaioannou. The notes also state that, on January 11, 2019, Defendant Papaioannou told Koenig that she “felt relieved” that Plaintiff was being terminated, that she wanted to express “from the beginning but didn’t know if she could,” that she was in complete “agreeance based on the history & this current situation that he should be terminated,” and that she felt “from the beginning this was what she wanted to do.” A jury could reasonably infer from all of the evidence that the internal investigation and resulting termination were motivated at least in part by discriminatory animus.

Based on this, the court held that defendants were not entitled to summary judgment on plaintiff’s Title VII discrimination claim.

Furthermore, defendants were not entitled to summary judgment on plaintiff’s claim under the New York City Human Rights Law, which “is less demanding of a claimant than Title VII” such that a plaintiff “may prove an adverse employment action simply by showing that she was treated ‘less well.’” Under the circumstances of this case, the court held that “viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, a reasonable jury could find that Defendants treated Plaintiff less well because of discriminatory animus based on Plaintiff’s race or national origin.”

In addition, defendant Papaioannou was also subject to direct/individual liability under the NYC Human Rights Law, noting that since the evidence indicated that she was an “actual participant in the conduct at issue.”

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