Court Revives Retaliation Claim Arising Out of Corroboration of Sexual Harassment Against Former Governor Cuomo

In Herskowitz v State, No. 1226, 153247/22, 2023-00700, 2023 N.Y. Slip Op. 06808, 2023 WL 8939015 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept., Dec. 28, 2023), the NY Appellate Division, First Department, reinstated the plaintiff’s claim of retaliation asserted under the New York State Human Rights Law.

The court summarized the black-letter law as follows:

In order to state a claim for retaliation under the New York State Human Rights Law (Executive Law § 296), a plaintiff must show that (1) he was engaged in a protected activity, (2) his employer was aware that he participated in such activity, (3) he suffered an adverse employment action based upon his activity, and (4) there is a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action. …

The causal connection needed for proof of a retaliation claim can be established indirectly by showing that the protected activity was closely followed in time by the adverse action. Courts have not drawn a bright line to define the outer limits beyond which a temporal relationship is too attenuated to establish a causal relationship between the exercise of a federal constitutional right and an allegedly retaliatory action. This has allowed [the Second Circuit] to exercise its judgment about the permissible inferences that can be drawn from temporal proximity in the context of particular cases. …

Further, when analyzing the timing and context of retaliatory actions, courts also consider whether the employer “waited to exact its retaliation at an opportune time” in order to have an explanation for the action. Additionally, questions regarding the time gap and causal connection of an alleged retaliatory termination may entail special consideration of the size and complexity of a defendant employer, where termination of employment may involve multiple levels of decisionmakers, as well as the nature of plaintiff’s claims.

[Cleaned up; citations omitted.]

Here, the only contested element is

whether plaintiff sufficiently pleaded a causal connection between the protected activity of his April 1, 2021 interview with the New York Attorney General’s Office, during which he corroborated sexual harassment allegations against former Governor Andrew Cuomo, and his allegedly retaliatory termination from the Governor’s Office Executive Chamber in August of that same year.

Applying the law, the court explained that “the four-month period between plaintiff’s interview and termination easily falls within the acceptable temporal range to establish a causal connection”, and continued:

The additional circumstances surrounding plaintiff’s termination support an inference that it was done in retaliation for plaintiff’s corroboration of allegations of sexual harassment against former Governor Cuomo. As stated in the complaint, at all relevant times plaintiff was employed as an assistant counsel in the Governor’s Office Executive Chamber. On April 1, 2021, plaintiff corroborated an instance of sexually harassing behavior by former Governor Cuomo during an interview with the Attorney General’s office. The Attorney General’s report finding that former Governor Cuomo had committed sexual harassment was issued four months later, on August 3 (AG Report). The complained-of conversation between plaintiff and a female executive assistant (EA), during which plaintiff jokingly responded to the EA’s indignation regarding former Governor Cuomo’s failure to make sexual advances towards her, occurred the same day. Three days later, plaintiff was questioned by the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations (GOER) regarding his allegedly sexually harassing behavior towards the EA. During this interview, the GOER officer disregarded plaintiff’s attempts to contextualize the complained-of actions, his friendly working relationship with the EA, and his recollection of a previous, highly inappropriate sexual comment made by the EA.

Plaintiff received a notice of termination for violating the Executive Chamber’s sexual harassment policy on August 12, six days after the GOER interview and only nine days after the AG Report and interaction with the EA. Plaintiff was terminated on August 25; defendant provided plaintiff with a box containing his belongings, which contained a handwritten note stating that he “had it coming.” Finally, to date defendant has not responded to plaintiff’s November 2021 FOIL request for his personnel records or issued a determination regarding his August 23, 2021 complaint to GOER regarding its rushed investigation and disproportionately heavy punishment to the conduct alleged, effectively stonewalling plaintiff’s attempts to obtain defendant’s justification for his termination.

These facts, together with the temporal connection and the questionable nature of the allegations upon which defendant’s findings of sexual harassment were premised, sufficiently pleaded that, in the immediate aftermath of the AG Report’s publishing, plaintiff was terminated in retaliation for his cooperation in the Attorney General’s investigation against former Governor Cuomo (see Rasmy, 952 F.3d at 392–393 [denying defendant summary judgment on retaliation claim where the termination was premised upon unwitnessed altercation with racist, caustic coworker, five months after protected activity]; Espinal, 558 F.3d at 129 [reversing summary judgment for defendant officers and finding it plausible that officers waited until opportune moment – plaintiff’s engagement in fight with other inmate – to inflict retaliatory attack, six months after protected activity]). Accordingly, we reverse the lower court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s retaliation claim.

The court further held, however, that plaintiff failed to state a cause of action for sex discrimination, since his complaint did not contain factual allegations giving rise to an inference of discrimination.

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