Court Dismisses Tourette’s-Suffering College Instructor’s ADA Discrimination Claim

In Handler v. Dutchess County Community College, 2024 WL 343091 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 30, 2024), the court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s claim of disability discrimination asserted under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In sum, plaintiff, who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, taught photography courses at defendant. He retired early, following allegations of sexual harassment (inappropriate touching and comments) by students.

In analyzing plaintiff’s claim, the court applied the three-step burden-shifting framework derived from McDonnell Douglas v. Green. Ultimately, the court held that even assuming that plaintiff’s condition constituted a “disability” under the ADA and was constructively discharged, his claim would still fail because defendant articulated a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the termination.

From the decision:

[I]nappropriate behavior is indisputably a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for dismissing [an employee] from [employment], even if that behavior resulted from his disability. McElwee v. Cnty. of Orange, 700 F.3d 635, 644 (2d Cir. 2012); see also Canales-Jacobs v. New York State Off. of Ct. Admin., 640 F. Supp. 2d 482, 500 (S.D.N.Y. 2009) (“[O]n-the-job misconduct and poor work performance always constitute legitimate and nondiscriminatory reasons for terminating employment, even where the misconduct is caused by an undivulged psychiatric condition. The ADA does not excuse workplace misconduct because the misconduct is related to a disability.”); Johnson v. L’Oreal USA, No. 21-2914-CV, 2023 WL 2637456, at *4, *6 (2d Cir. Mar. 27, 2023) (plaintiff’s disrespectful conduct towards her supervisor, peers, and subordinates, including sending inappropriate text messages, “provide[d] ample support for L’Oréal’s asserted non-discriminatory reasons for Johnson’s termination.”).

Defendant has satisfied its burden to establish a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action, irrespective of the truth of the allegations against Plaintiff concerning sexual harassment. See Wade v. N. Y. City Dep’t of Educ., 667 Fed. App’x 311 (2d Cir. 2016) (the truth of the allegations against the employee resulting in termination are immaterial); McPherson v. New York City Dep’t of Educ., 457 F.3d 211, 216 (2d Cir. 2006) (“In a discrimination case, however, we are decidedly not interested in the truth of the allegations against plaintiff. We are interested in what motivated the employer …; the factual validity of the underlying imputation against the employee is not at issue.”); McElwee, 700 F.3d at 645-46 (holding that employer is not required to countenance harassing behavior); Sista v. CDC Ixis N. Am., Inc., 445 F.3d 161, 172 (2d Cir. 2006) ([T]his Court, like every other court to have taken up this issue, does not read the ADA to require that employers countenance dangerous misconduct, even if that misconduct is the result of a disability.”).

The burden thus shifts back to Plaintiff to demonstrate that Defendant’s reasons were a pretext for discrimination. Osekavage v. Sam’s East., Inc., 619 F. Supp. 3d 379, 390 (S.D.N.Y. 2022). A plaintiff may establish that an employer’s stated reasons for termination are pretextual by pointing to direct evidence of discrimination or by evidence that he was treated differently from other similarly situated employees. Johnson, 2023 WL 2637456, at *4. Here, Plaintiff’s only apparent argument regarding pretext is that “[D]efendant ignored relevant evidence that was contrary to its finding of guilt” and that “[D]efendant’s neglect of such available evidence constitutes proof of its discriminatory motive.” (Pl. Br. at 24). See Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prod., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 147-48 (2000) (“In appropriate circumstances, the trier of fact can reasonably infer from the falsity of the explanation that the employer is dissembling to cover up a discriminatory purpose.”). Specifically, Plaintiff asserts that the principal decision-maker did not understand the context out of which the students’ complaints developed, including the inconsistencies in J.L.’s and G.G.’s claims, the existence of possible ulterior motives to file complaints, and the friendship between the complainants. (Pl. Br. at 24-25). Plaintiff’s argument essentially amounts to a disagreement with the panels’ findings and is therefore not sufficient evidence of pretext. See i.e. Carter v. TD Bank, N.A., No. 20-CV-01616, 2023 WL 3818589, at *8 (D. Conn. June 5, 2023) (“Plaintiff’s protestations that he did nothing wrong, and that both the conclusion and process of Defendant’s ethics investigation were flawed, are not sufficient to withstand summary judgment.”); see also Vasquez v. New York City Dep’t of Educ., 667 F. App’x 326, 327 (2d Cir. 2016) (plaintiff “takes issue with a number of the allegations levied against him; however, the veracity of these allegations is immaterial to the question of pretext”).

The record is clear that Defendant had a good faith non-discriminatory basis to believe that Plaintiff committed sexual harassment. See Caruso v. Bon Secours Charity Health Sys. Inc., No. 14-CV-04447, 2016 WL 8711396, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 5, 2016) (“[T]he question is not whether Franco and the other managers were wrong about plaintiff hitting Edwards, but whether they had a good faith, non-discriminatory belief that plaintiff’s conduct warranted termination under Bon Secours’s policies.”), aff’d, 703 F. App’x 31 (2d Cir. 2017). Plaintiff fails to provide any evidence undermining Defendant’s reasonable belief or any other evidence of pretext revealing discriminatory intent beyond the four corners of his own mind and necessary to create a triable issue of fact. McNeil v. Vradenburgh, No. 18-CV-09353, 2021 WL 797657, at *8 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 26, 2021).

Accordingly, the court concluded that “Plaintiff’s arguments of alleged pretext are insufficient to overcome Defendant’s legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for Plaintiff’s termination.”

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