Title VII Sexual Orientation Discrimination Claim Survives Summary Judgment

In a recent case, Gamble v. Fieldston Lodge Nursing and Rehabilitation Center et al, No. 20-CV-10388-LTS, 2023 WL 6393739 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2023), the court, inter alia, denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s claim of sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In sum, plaintiff alleged that her colleagues treated her differently she was treated differently after her colleagues learned that she was gay (upon the circulation of her engagement video).

From the decision:

Fieldston only challenges the fourth and final element of Plaintiff’s prima facie case—arguing that she has not shown that her termination “occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discriminatory intent” because Administrator Knoll lacked knowledge of her sexual orientation. (Docket entry no. 45 (“Def Mem.”) at 13-14); see also Brown, 673 F.3d at 150. Plaintiff’s burden at the prima facie stage is, however, “de minimis.” Abdu-Brisson, 239 F.3d at 467. Indeed, temporal proximity alone can be sufficient to show an inference of discrimination at the prima facie stage. Washington v. NYC Madison Ave. Med. P.C., No. 20-CV-03446-LTS-SN, 2023 WL 4980215, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 3, 2023) (collecting cases). Here, approximately three months transpired between the disclosure of Plaintiff’s engagement video in late May and her termination in mid-to-late August, which the Court finds is adequate to support the causal inference at the first step of the burden-shifting framework.

While Fieldston is correct to note that an employer’s knowledge of the employee’s protected status is part and parcel of establishing a status-based discrimination claim, its reliance on Woodman v. WWOR-TV, Inc., 411 F.3d 69 (2d Cir. 2005), is misplaced. (Def. Mem. at 14.) There, the Second Circuit acknowledged that “courts require the plaintiff to adduce some evidence of knowledge to support an inference of intentional discrimination at the prima facie stage,” Woodman, 411 F.3d at 80 n.11, but the panel also recognized that “the law does not equate ‘knowledge’ with certitude, nor does it demand direct proof of knowledge. A jury may reasonably infer a defendant’s knowledge from the totality of circumstantial evidence, and conscious avoidance of a highly probable fact can, in some cases, satisfy the knowledge requirement.” Id. at 77 n.8.

Fieldston does not dispute or otherwise challenge Ms. Gamble’s testimony that numerous employees, including Ms. Tirado, whose office is next to Administrator Knoll’s and with whom he spoke frequently, knew that Plaintiff is gay. Nor does Fieldston contest Plaintiff’s testimony that her engagement video circulated widely at the facility and was the subject of conversation among many Fieldston employees. Indeed, because “a party’s knowledge of a disputed fact may also be proved though evidence that he consciously avoided knowledge of what would otherwise have been obvious him,” a jury could determine that Administrator Knoll acted knowingly when he avoided direct knowledge of the “high probability” that Ms. Gamble is gay. Id. at 84 n.14. Therefore, Plaintiff has easily met her burden under the prima facie stage “to adduce some evidence of knowledge to support an inference of intentional discrimination.” Id. at 80 n.11.

Moving on to the second step of the burden-shifting framework, Fieldston claims that it terminated Ms. Gamble’s employment because of the lack of available work. A business consideration that causes an employer to eliminate one or more positions within a company is sufficient to establish a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the plaintiff’s termination. See, e.g., Smith v. F.W. Morse & Co., 901 F. Supp. 40 (D.N.H. 1995), aff’d, 76 F.3d 413 (1st Cir. 1996).

The burden now shifts to Plaintiff to show that Fieldston’s allegedly legitimate reason was, in fact, a pretext for discrimination. To defeat summary judgment at this stage, “a plaintiff need only show that the defendant was in fact motivated at least in part by the prohibited discriminatory animus.” Henry v. Wyeth Pharm., Inc., 616 F.3d 134, 156 (2d Cir. 2010). Fieldston reiterates its argument that Plaintiff cannot defeat summary judgment because she has failed to show that Administrator Knoll knew of her sexual orientation. That argument is unavailing for the same reasons described above. See, e.g., Mumma v. Pathway Vet All., LLC, No. 20-CV-00926-TOF, 2023 WL 34666, at *10 (D. Conn. Jan. 4, 2023) (“Pretext may be demonstrated either by the presentation of additional evidence showing that ‘the employer’s proffered explanation is unworthy of credence’ … or by reliance on the evidence comprising the prima facie case, without more[.]”) (quoting Chambers v. TRM Copy Ctrs. Corp., 43 F.3d 29, 38 (2d Cir. 1994)).

Based on Plaintiff’s testimony regarding the circulation of the engagement video at Fieldston, and the close physical proximity of Ms. Tirado’s and Administrator Knoll’s offices, as well as their allegedly frequent conversations during work hours, the Court concludes that there are genuine disputes of material fact as to Administrator Knoll’s knowledge of Ms. Gamble’s sexual orientation, and therefore, on the issue of pretext, those disputes preclude summary judgment. Moreover, Plaintiff’s testimony that Administrator Knoll, after regularly speaking with her on Fridays, largely ignored her following the video’s revelation, and that she had previously witnessed him and other Fieldston employees making fun of an employee believed to be homosexual, likewise introduces issues of material fact as to the substance and basis of Fieldston’s work-related explanation for termination. To be sure, the trier of fact would be free to credit Administrator Knoll’s sworn denials, but that is not a matter for the Court to decide on summary judgment.

Based on this, the court denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the Title VII sexual orientation discrimination claim.

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