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Friday, August 14, 2015

A court’s review of a decision of the Commissioner of Human Rights is not whether the court would have reached the same result but was the Commissioner's determination rational in light of the evidence presented


A court’s review of a decision of the Commissioner of Human Rights is not whether the court would have reached the same result but was the Commissioner's determination rational in light of the evidence presented
Rensselaer County Sheriff's Dept. v New York State Div. of Human Rights, 2015 NY Slip Op 06551, Appellate Division, Third Department

In this appeal to review a determination of the Commissioner of Human Rights [Commissioner] which, among other things, found Rensselaer County Sheriff’s Department [RCSD] guilty of an unlawful discriminatory practice based on gender, the Appellate Division said that when a court is reviewing a determination made by the Commissioner in a matter such as this one, the court’s purview is "extremely narrow" and must focus not on whether the court would have reached the same result as did the Commissioner, but instead on whether the Commissioner's determination was rational in light of the evidence presented.

An Administrative Law Judge, after holding a hearing, found that a woman employed [Employee] at the RCSD had shown that she was sexually harassed by male coworkers and recommended that the Department be ordered to pay the woman nearly $450,000 in economic damages and $300,000 in noneconomic damages. The Commissioner of Human Rights adjusted the amount of economic damages to approximately $315,000, but otherwise adopted the ALJ's recommendations in all pertinent respects.

RCSD appealed in an effort to have the court annul the Commissioner's final determination. 

The Appellate Division noted that "Where, as here, there is a finding of a hostile work environment as a result of sexual harassment, the evidence in the record must establish the pertinent elements, including proof that the discriminatory conduct occurred due to the complainant's gender."

Considering the evidence presented at the hearing, said the court, there is a rational basis for the determination that, but for Employee’s gender, she would not have suffered the harassment that she described and that such harassment altered the conditions of her employment so as to create an abusive work environment. Notably, said the court, the ALJ credited Employee’s testimony and the Appellate Division said that it would defer to that determination.

Relying on that credited testimony, the proof established that the persons harassing Employee were all male members of a group of friends and coworkers who were identified, as a group, by their gender.

The Appellate Division declined to reduce Employee's $300,000 award for noneconomic injuries, explaining that “[a]n award for noneconomic damages will be upheld where it is reasonably related to the wrongdoing, supported by substantial evidence and comparable to other awards for similar injuries.” Employee had testified that the male coworkers' harassment led to extensive psychological trauma that included "suicidal ideations" and required medication. Employee's psychiatrist confirmed such testimony and he testified that he had diagnosed Employee with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder. The psychiatrist opined that the causes of such conditions were Employee’s frequent and recurring thoughts regarding the harassment that she suffered at the correctional facility.

Considering Employee's testimony and the medical proof elaborating on the severe effects that the discrimination had on her, the Appellate Division ruled that the award “is reasonably related to the wrongdoing, supported by substantial evidence and comparable to awards for similar injuries.”

Addressing another element in this appeal, the Appellate Division said that by its unambiguous terms, Workers' Compensation Law §29(1) grants a lien without any exception for when an award of damages has already been reduced in recognition of a workers' compensation award. However, said the court, it rejected “the notion that an award that would be subject to such a lien may be reduced at the outset, because such a scheme is inconsistent with Workers' Compensation Law §29(1). 

Accordingly, the Appellate Division found that the Commissioner erred as a matter of law by reducing Employee’s award for past lost wages by $88,200 and her award for future lost wages by $176,400 on the basis of workers' compensation benefits. 

Further, the court said it agreed with Employee that the damages should have properly reflected consideration of “the pension that she would have received absent the harassment,” given that any remedy should "make the victim whole for injuries suffered as a result of discriminatory employment practices," citing Beame v DeLeon, 87 NY2d 289. In Lamot v Gondek, 163 AD2d 678, the court said it had “unambiguously established” that such a remedy includes the consideration of "pension rights [that are] established with reasonable certainty" and ruled that the Commissioner's order that Employee take steps to involve the Office of the State Comptroller and the New York State and Local Retirement System — presumably to have them provide an actual pension — was an abuse of discretion.” 

The court then remitted the matter for “the limited purpose of resolving the amount of damages that will make [Employee] whole to the extent that her pension has been diminished, in whole or in part."*

Finally, RCSD contended that Employee failed to mitigate damages relating to her pension to the extent that she failed to obtain a collateral offset in the form of disability retirement benefits. The court said that to the extent it is relevant here, RCSD and not Employee bore the burden of establishing its entitlement to a collateral offset* by clear and convincing evidence” that Employee was obligated to mitigate damages by obtaining a collateral offset and RCSD failed to meet its burden in that regard.

The Appellate Division then modified the Commissioner’s determination by (1) increasing the award for past lost wages from $107,558.51 to $195,758.51, (2) increasing the award for future lost wages from $208,837.02 to $385,237.02, and (3) remitting the matter to the New York State Division of Human Rights for a determination of damages related to Employee’s pension.

* The Appellate Division noted that in Weiss v New York State Human Rights Appeal Bd., 102 AD2d 471, the Weiss court had found that the “Commissioner erred in ordering [the] state employer to provide the promotion to a victim that the victim would have received absent age discrimination instead of providing a proper award of monetary damages.”

** A collateral source payment that particularly corresponds to a category of loss for which damages are awarded .

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

Handbooks focusing on State and Municipal Public Personnel Law continue to be available for purchase via the links provided below:

The Discipline Book at http://thedisciplinebook.blogspot.com/

A Reasonable Penalty Under The Circumstances at http://nypplarchives.blogspot.com

The Disability Benefits E-book: at http://section207.blogspot.com/

Layoff, Preferred Lists at http://nylayoff.blogspot.com/

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