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November 23, 2016

Tests applied by courts in determining if claims of unlawful discrimination and, or, retaliation can survive a motion for summary judgment


Tests applied by courts in determining if claims of unlawful discrimination and, or, retaliation can survive a motion for summary judgment
Langton v Warwick Val. Cent. Sch. Dist., 2016 NY Slip Op 07626, Appellate Division, Second Department

Patricia Langton sued the Warwick Valley Central School District to recover damages for alleged unlawful retaliation and employment discrimination on the basis of sex in violation of Executive Law §296.

Supreme Court granted the School District’s motion for summary judgment based on its finding that  the School District and its employees were not amenable to suit under Executive Law §296(3). Langon appealed the Supreme Court’s ruling.

On appeal the School District conceded that the basis for the Supreme Court's determination granting summary judgment was incorrect but, in the alternative, contended that the order granting summary judgment should nevertheless be affirmed, although on different grounds.

The Appellate Division agreed and dismissed Langon’s appeal, explaining it rulings as follows:

Regarding retaliation

The court explained that a plaintiff alleging unlawful retaliation under state or federal law must show that (1) he or she has engaged in protected activity, (2) the employer was aware that the plaintiff participated in such activity, (3) the plaintiff suffered an adverse employment action based upon his or her activity, and (4) there is a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action.

In order to establish its entitlement to summary judgment in a retaliation case, a defendant must [1] demonstrate that the plaintiff cannot make out a prima facie claim of retaliation or, [2] having offered legitimate, nonretaliatory reasons in rebuttal to its  challenged actions, that there exists no triable issue of fact as to whether the defendant's explanations were pretextual.

The Appellate Division ruled that in this instance the School District met its initial burden of demonstrating that the Langon could not make out a prima facie case of retaliation by showing that the School District’s actions Langon challenged were not causally connected to any protected activity in which Langon had participated. Further, said the court, Langon “failed to submit sufficient evidence from which a causal connection could be found between any protected activity in which she engaged and any adverse employment action.”

Regarding allegation of unlawful employment discrimination

Addressing Langon’s allegation that the School District had engaged in unlawful  employment discrimination, the Appellate Division explained that "[a] plaintiff alleging discrimination in employment has the initial burden to establish . . . (1) he or she is a member of a protected class; (2) he or she was qualified to hold the position; (3) he or she was terminated from employment or suffered another adverse employment action; and (4) the discharge or other adverse action occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination."

If the plaintiff meets this “initial burden”, the employer must rebut the presumption of unlawful discrimination by clearly setting forth, through the introduction of admissible evidence, legitimate, independent, and nondiscriminatory reasons to support its employment decision.

Addressing the situation underlying Langon's appeal, the Appellate Division said that to prevail on a motion for summary judgment in a discriminatory employment action, the School District must [1] demonstrate either Langon had failed to establish every element of intentional unlawful discrimination, or, the School District, having offered legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for the challenged actions, [2] the absence of a triable issue of fact as to whether the explanations were pretextual.

Here, said the court, the School District met its prima facie burden by offering legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for its actions challenged by Langon and also by demonstrating the absence of material issues of fact as to whether its explanations were pretextual.

Accordingly, the Appellate Division held that Supreme Court properly granted the School District’s motion for summary judgment notwithstanding its being founded on a misperception of the relevant law.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

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