Pregnancy Discrimination Case Survives Summary Judgment; Termination, Rehire With Diminished Responsibilities Followed Maternity Leave Return

In Lefort v. Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center, No. 2019-08796, 505520/14, 2022 N.Y. Slip Op. 01294, 2022 WL 610080 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept., Mar. 02, 2022), the New York Appellate Division, Second Department reversed a lower court’s Order granting summary judgment to defendant on plaintiff’s claims of pregnancy discrimination (a form of sex/gender discrimination) under the New York State and City Human Rights Laws.

In sum, the plaintiff, who worked for defendant hospital as a community access coordinator (CAC), requested maternity leave, which was approved. Her new supervisor allegedly made disparaging comments about her pregnancy and planned maternity leave. Plaintiff began maternity leave; her first day back, she was informed that her employment was terminated due to the elimination of her position. In support of its motion for summary judgment, defendant proffered an affidavit stating that it decided to replace plaintiff’s CAC position with a new title, and that plaintiff – who “had no business education or sales or marketing experience” – was not qualified for the new position.

As to the black-letter law, the court explained:

A plaintiff alleging discrimination in violation of NYSHRL must establish that (1) he or she is a member of a protected class, (2) he or she was qualified to hold the position, (3) he or she suffered an adverse employment action, and (4) the adverse action occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination. To prevail on a summary judgment motion in an action alleging discrimination in violation of NYSHRL, a defendant must demonstrate either the plaintiff’s failure to establish every element of intentional discrimination, or, having offered legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for the challenged actions, the absence of triable issue[s] of fact as to whether the explanations were pretextual. [Cleaned up.]

Applying the law to the facts, the court explained:

Contrary to the defendant’s contention, it failed to establish, prima facie, that the plaintiff did not suffer an adverse employment action. An adverse employment action requires a materially adverse change in the terms and conditions of employment. Such change must be ‘more disruptive than a mere inconvenience or an alteration of job responsibilities,’ such as ‘a termination of employment, a demotion evidenced by a decrease in wage or salary, a less distinguished title, a material loss of benefits, or significantly diminished material responsibilities. Here, the defendant presented evidence that several days after the termination of the plaintiff’s employment, the defendant offered her a temporary social worker position for the same salary. However, the defendant failed to eliminate triable issues of fact as to whether the position offered to the plaintiff involved a materially adverse change in the terms of her employment, since the social worker position did not involve any of the management responsibilities that the plaintiff had performed as a CAC.

To the extent the defendant argues that the adverse action did not occur under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination, the record revealed the existence of triable issues of fact as to that issue. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, we find that there were triable issues of fact as to whether the plaintiff’s supervisor, Segree, made remarks indicative of a discriminatory motive to terminate the plaintiff’s employment. While the defendant argued that Segree had no involvement in the decision to terminate the plaintiff’s employment, the record contained evidence that on June 20, 2013, McDonald requested to meet with Segree to discuss the plaintiff’s return from maternity leave, and that Segree was present during the meeting when the plaintiff’s employment was terminated. Further, the defendant’s contention that McDonald was unaware of the plaintiff’s maternity leave is without merit, as McDonald acknowledged in his affidavit in support of the defendant’s motion that he was informed that the plaintiff was on leave prior to the termination of her employment.

Contrary to the defendant’s contention, it also failed to eliminate triable issues of fact as to whether the proffered explanation for terminating the plaintiff’s employment was a pretext for discrimination. Although McDonald averred that the plaintiff’s employment was terminated because she had no business education and no sales or marketing experience, he acknowledged that a business education was not required. Further, the plaintiff’s 2012 employee evaluation, submitted by the defendant in support of its motion, indicated that the plaintiff had satisfactorily performed, inter alia, various responsibilities of the CAC position pertaining directly to marketing.

Moreover, the defendant’s submissions raised triable issues of fact as to whether the responsibilities of the CAC and CRM positions were essentially identical. Those submissions included a letter showing that the defendant ultimately offered the plaintiff the position of CRM in October 2014 after the commencement of this action. Significantly, that letter stated that the CRM position was “virtually identical” to the plaintiff’s prior position as a CAC. To the extent the defendant argues that the October 2014 letter was an offer to settle the plaintiff’s claims against the defendant, and thus, was inadmissible as proof of liability pursuant to CPLR 4547, the defendant’s contention is without merit, since John McKeon, the defendant’s former vice president of human resources, averred, in his affidavit in support of the defendant’s motion, that the October 2014 job offer was not conditioned on the dismissal of the plaintiff’s pending claims against the defendant.

[Cleaned up.]

Based on this, the court thus concluded that the Supreme Court should have denied those branches of the defendant’s motion which were for summary judgment dismissing the causes of action alleging employment discrimination insofar as asserted against it.

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