In this action, which the court characterized as a “case of first impression for this Court,” one of the issues concerned whether a plaintiff alleging discrimination in employment on the basis of religion in violation of New York State’s Executive Law §296 can establish a prima facie case by alleging that he was discriminated against because of the religion of his spouse.
The Second Department’s answer in a word, yes.
The court noted that although there is no authority addressing this issue under the State’s Human Rights Law, several federal courts have construed Title VII to protect individuals "who are the victims of discriminatory animus towards third persons with whom the individuals associate," citing Tetro v Elliott Popham Pontiac, Oldmobile, Buick, and GMC Trucks, Inc., 173 F3d 988, [6th Cir].
The individual had alleged that he was the victim of unlawful discrimination in employment and a hostile work environment in violation of §296. Supreme Court, however, granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment, thereby dismissing the individual’s cause of action for unlawful discrimination and his cause of action for hostile work environment.”
The Appellate Division explained that “To establish liability under the State Human Rights Law arising from the termination of employment, a plaintiff has the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination by a preponderance of the evidence.” In addition, said the court, “To establish a prima facie case of discrimination under the State Human Rights Law, a plaintiff who has been terminated from employment must demonstrate (1) that he or she is a member of the class protected by the statute, (2) that he or she was actively or constructively discharged, (3) that he or she was qualified to hold the position from which he or she was terminated, and (4) that the discharge occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination.”\
In order to prevail in its motion for summary judgement the employer must make "a prima facie showing of entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, tendering sufficient evidence to demonstrate the absence of any material issues of fact."
The individual said the Appellate Division, had demonstrated his membership in a protected class by virtue of the employer’s alleged discriminatory conduct stemming from his wife’s religion, noting that discrimination against an individual based on his or her association with a member of a protected class also constitutes an infringement upon that individual's First Amendment right to intimate association, which receives protection as a fundamental element of personal liberty.
Nevertheless, the court held that the employer “established, prima facie, that the [individual] was not terminated from his employment under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination” by demonstrating that he was terminated for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons—specifically, the issues litigated and decided during the disciplinary hearing.
However, in opposition to the defendants' prima facie showing of entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, the individual raised a triable issue of fact as “Verbal comments can serve as evidence of discriminatory motivation when a plaintiff shows a nexus between the discriminatory remarks and the employment action at issue.” The decision notes that “Even stray remarks in the workplace by persons who are not involved in the pertinent decision-making process may suffice to present a prima facie case [of unlawful discrimination], provided those remarks evidence invidious discrimination.
In consideration of this, the Appellate Division modified Supreme Court’s order, on the law, by deleting the Supreme Court's provision granting that branch of the employer’s motion “which was for summary judgment dismissing the cause of action alleging discrimination on the basis of religion in violation of the State Human Rights Law, and substituting therefor a provision denying that branch of the [employer’s] motion;" and as so modified, affirmed the order.
The decision is posted on the Internet at: