Former Employee who was Fired for Falling Asleep at Work Alleges Discrimination

by Adam Kuhn

 

Singh v. Covenant Aviation Sec., L.L.C., 131 A.D.3d 1158 (N.Y. App. Div. 2015).

Abstract: A former employee alleged that he was wrongfully terminated on the basis of race or national origin. The Appellate Division affirmed defendant employer’s summary judgment on New York State Human Rights Law but struck the defendant’s summary judgment on New York City Human Rights Law.

 

Plaintiff, an Indian, was employed by the defendant as an airport security guard. He fell asleep on duty and his tour supervisor reported him to the defendant’s higher-level management. The supervisor’s report resulted in the plaintiff’s firing. The plaintiff alleged that he was wrongfully terminated from employment on the basis of his race or national origin in violation of New York State Human Rights Law and New York City Human Rights Law. The Supreme Court, Kings County granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint. Plaintiff appealed to the Appellate Division. On appeal, the issue was whether the Supreme Court correctly granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the cause of action for (1) violation of New York State Human Rights Law and (2) violation of New York City Human Rights Law.

The New York State Human Rights Law (Executive Law § 296) provides that it is an unlawful discriminatory practice “for an employer … because of an individual’s age, race … [or] national origin … to discharge from employment such individual.” A plaintiff has the burden of showing that “(1) he or she is a member of a protected class; (2) he or she was qualified to hold the position at issue, (3) he or she was terminated from employment, and (4) the termination occurred under circumstances that give rise to an influence of discrimination.” The defendant can successfully establish a motion for summary judgment if the absence of any of these elements is proved. The defendant showed the absence of the fourth element because the plaintiff admitted he was asleep while on duty, which is a violation of company rules. He showed no evidence that his race or ethnicity played a “motivating or substantial” role in the defendant’s decision to terminate his employment. Therefore the Supreme Court properly awarded summary judgment to defendant dismissing the cause of action alleging a violation of New York State Human Rights Law.

The New York City Human Rights Law (Administrative Code § 8-107) says “it shall be an unlawful discriminatory practice … for an employer or an employee or agent thereof, because of the actual or perceived … race, creed, color, [or] national origin … of any person … to discharge from employment such person” (emphasis added). Unlike the State Human Rights Law, the City Human Rights Law says an employer may be liable for the conduct of an employee or agent when the employee or agent exercised supervisory responsibility. Compared with the State Human Rights Law, the City Human Rights Law is interpreted more broadly in favor of the plaintiff. The plaintiff wanted to hold the defendant liable for the discriminatory conduct of an employee (the tour supervisor). The City Human Rights Law requires that unlawful discrimination play “no role” in an employment decision. If the supervisor’s decision to report the plaintiff was motivated by racial or ethnic hostility, even in part, the defendant may be held liable.

The evidence showed that the defendant fired the plaintiff for falling asleep, in violation of company rules. However, the plaintiff presented evidence that his supervisor reported him to management in part out of racial hostility, and did not report other, non-Indian employees who were found sleeping while on duty. Therefore, the plaintiff raised a disputable issue as to whether his supervisor’s unlawful discrimination, which was to be imputed to the defendant, played a role in the termination of the plaintiff’s employment. Therefore, the Supreme Court incorrectly granted the defendant’s summary judgment motion dismissing the cause of action alleging a violation of the City Human Rights Law.

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