Religion-Based Discrimination Claim Against Michael Cetta Survives Summary Judgment; Court Cites Comments That Were Hostile to Islam and Muslim People

In Hoxhaj et al v. Michael Cetta, Inc. et al, 21-cv-6486 (LJL), 2023 WL 3455444 (S.D.N.Y. May 15, 2023), the court, inter alia, denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiffs’ claims of religion-based discrimination under the New York City Human Rights Law.

From the decision:

A reasonable jury could conclude that Plaintiff Hoxhaj was treated less well due to his religion. Defendants argue first that remarks such as “Islam is bad” constitute “stray remarks that did not change the terms and conditions of Plaintiffs’ employments,” including that there is no connection between such comments and Plaintiffs’ furlough from Sparks, and second that the alleged instances of religious discrimination are no more than mere petty slights or trivial inconveniences such that “any determination by a jury” that “religious bias was responsible for the furlough decision would be conjectural at best.” Both arguments fail. To begin with, Defendants misunderstand the standard for religious discrimination under the NYCHRL. In order to survive summary judgment, Plaintiffs simply have to point to evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that they were treated less well in any way because of their religion, and Defendants must fail to show that religion played no part in their treatment of Plaintiffs or that the conduct does not rise above the level of petty slights or trivial inconveniences. Thus, under the NYCHRL, Plaintiffs do not have to show that any of the instances of religious discrimination that they allege led to their furlough.

Summary judgment is also not warranted on the grounds that the alleged comments were obviously petty slights or trivial inconveniences. Defendants cite, among other cases, Sosa v. Loc. Staff, LLC, 618 F. App’x 19 (2d Cir. 2015), as an example of a comment that was affirmed as a mere petty slight or trivial inconvenience. But in Sosa, the alleged conduct was limited to a comment from the defendant to the plaintiff, a Latino employee, that he was “so street.” Here, Hoxhaj’s allegations consist of a series of statements that are hostile to Islam and Muslim people generally. A reasonable jury could thus find there to be a wide gulf between the animus in, on the one hand, telling an employee that he is “so street” and, on the other hand, an employer frequently telling employees that their religious faith “is bad,” that he “hate[s] Muslims,” that practitioners of Islam are “crazy” (citing such reasons as Muslims abstaining from alcohol and not engaging in “oral sex”), and that there is trouble anywhere Muslim people live, among other comments. Perhaps “a reasonable victim of discrimination would consider” being told that they are “so street” does not rise above the level of “petty slights and trivial inconveniences,” but a reasonable jury could consider the above-mentioned, repeated statements by Steven Cetta and apparently endorsed by Michael Cetta as rising above the level of petty slights and trivial inconveniences into the realm of actionable religious discrimination under the NYCHRL.

A reasonable jury could also conclude that several of Hoxhaj’s experiences with Steven Cetta evince a discriminatory animus. Specifically, claims that Steven Cetta stated to Hoxhaj that as a general rule people of his religious faith are “crazy” but that Hoxhaj happens to be “okay,” that Steven Cetta’s explanation that people of Hoxhaj’s faith are “crazy” (which implies a presumption that Muslim people are crazy) because of his belief that they do not drink alcohol or engage in “oral sex,” and that “there is trouble” anywhere Islam is practiced could be viewed by a reasonable juror as reflecting a discriminatory animus.

[Cleaned up.]

The court concluded that “[t]hese comments and the attitude behind them, which were explained to Hoxhaj in clear terms, make it possible that a jury could reasonably find that Defendants’ behavior was motivated by religious discrimination and that Hoxhaj was subjected to a different work environment than non-Muslim employees.”

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