Disability-Based Hostile Work Environment Claim Survives Summary Judgment Against NYC Dept. of Education

In Felix v. New York City Department of Education, 21 Civ. 6109 (LGS), 2023 WL 4706097 (S.D.N.Y. July 24, 2023), the court, inter alia, denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Plaintiff alleged that the defendant subjected her to a hostile work environment based on her medical conditions, including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), congenital heart disease and cardiac arrhythmia.

After summarizing the black-letter law applicable to this claim, the court applied it to the facts:

Construing the record in the light most favorable to Plaintiff and drawing reasonable inferences in her favor, Plaintiff raises a genuine dispute of material fact as to her hostile work environment claim. This determination is made by looking to the totality of the circumstances and evaluating allegedly discriminatory incidents cumulatively, rather than by asking whether any incident of harassment standing alone is sufficient to sustain the hostile work environment claim. Courts also may analyze each key event in isolation to determine whether each one is sufficiently severe to sustain the claim on its own.

The incidents and courses of conduct Plaintiff identifies, when taken together, are sufficient to support a jury finding in her favor. First, Plaintiff asserts that she endured a hostile work environment because Roman allowed a security alert to exist as if Plaintiff “was a criminal” that barred her from Tweed. As discussed above, the alert was “very visible” to employees walking by, remained in place for almost three months and caused Plaintiff to feel mortified, humiliated and distressed. Second, Plaintiff asserts that Defendant required her to work in a “dangerous” workplace. Plaintiff identifies a number of doctors’ notes provided to the DOE in September and October 2019 that “expressed the severity of the situation.” For example, Plaintiff’s neurologist wrote on September 13, 2019, that Plaintiff “has been getting constant headache, nausea/vomiting and shortness of breath” and “had to be rushed to the hospital ER twice,” and Plaintiff’s pulmonologist wrote a letter dated September 19, 2019, that describes how Plaintiff “has suffered acute asthmatic attacks with transfer to a new office.” Defendant provided Plaintiff with air purifiers but did not move Plaintiff out of Room 411 for almost seven months. A reasonable jury could find that Plaintiff subjectively perceived the above conduct as creating a hostile or abusive environment, and that such environment was created “because of” her disability, since the security alert was posted just hours after Plaintiff requested an accommodation and her requests to move offices bear relation to her medical condition.

A reasonable jury could also find the foregoing incidents “sufficiently severe or pervasive” enough to constitute an objectively hostile work environment, viewing those incidents together and considering, among other things, “the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it was physically threatening or humiliating or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interfered with the plaintiff’s work performance.” The alleged hostility went on for almost seven months, was both physically threatening and humiliating and, in fact, worsened Plaintiff’s health.

[Cleaned up.]

Based on this, the court agreed with the plaintiff that a reasonable person could perceive “a work environment that threatens their very life to be so severe that it altered the terms and conditions of their employment” and, therefore, that summary judgment on this claim is not warranted.

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