August 4, 2020

Providing a negative employment reference to a prospective employer in retaliation for engaging in a protected activity held to be in violation of New York State's Human Rights Law

In this action the Appellate Division observed that New York State Human Rights Law provides that it is unlawful to retaliate against an employee opposing discriminatory practices.* To establish an unlawful retaliation claim, said the court, an employee [Complainant] must show that "(1) Complainant had engaged in protected activity, (2) Complainant's employer was aware that Complainant participated in such activity, (3) Complainant suffered an adverse employment action because of Complainant's protected activity, and (4) there is a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action." Once this initial burden has been met, "the burden then shifts to [the employer] to present legitimate, independent and nondiscriminatory reasons to support [its] actions."

The New York State Division of Human Rights [NYSDHR] found that the employer had unlawfully discriminated against the Complainant by providing a negative employment reference to a prospective employer in retaliation for Complainant's engagement in a protected activity in violation of Executive Law §296, awarding the Complainant "compensatory damages in the principal sum of $5,000 for mental anguish, plus interest at the rate of nine percent per year from June 29, 2017, and assessing a civil fine and penalty against the [Employer] in the principal sum of $10,000, plus interest at the rate of nine percent per year from June 29, 2017." Employer appealed the NYSDHR's decision.

The Appellate Division confirmed NYSDHR's ruling and denied Employer's petition and dismissed the appeal on the merits. The court explained that "The scope of judicial review under the Human Rights Law is extremely narrow and is confined to the consideration of whether the determination of the SDHR is supported by substantial evidence** in the record," citing Matter of New York State Div. of Human Rights v Roadtec, Inc., 167 AD3d 898. Further, opined the court, "Under a substantial evidence review, courts may not weigh the evidence or reject [the Commissioner's] choice where the evidence is conflicting and room for a choice exists" citing Matter of CUNY-Hostos Community Coll. v State Human Rights Appeal Bd., 59 NY2d 69.*** 

Finding that Complainant had made a prima faciecase of unlawful discrimination within the meaning of the State's Human Rights Law, the Appellate Division ruled that "the burden [of going forward] shifted to the Employer to present evidence of a legitimate, independent, and nondiscriminatory reason to support [its agent's] action, and the [employer] failed to do so."

Accordingly, the Appellate Division confirm NYSDHR's determination, finding that the award of compensatory damages for mental anguish was reasonably related to the wrongdoing, supported by substantial evidence, and comparable to other awards for similar injuries. Noting that "A court may set aside an administrative penalty only if it is so disproportionate to the offense as to be shocking to one's sense of fairness," the Appellate Division said it "perceive no basis for disturbing the civil fine and penalty assessed against the [Employer]." 

* Executive Law §296[1][e]; [7]. 

** "Substantial evidence means such relevant proof as a reasonable mind may accept as adequate to support a conclusion or ultimate fact" [See 300 Gramatan Ave. Assoc. v State Div. of Human Rights, 45 NY2d 176]. 

*** This case was decided with another case involving the same parties and is posted at http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2020/2020_04302.htm.

The decision in this appeal is posted on the Internet at: 
http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2020/2020_04303.htm 

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