June 30, 2021

Finding of unlawful discrimination supported by substantial evidence results in imposition of a civil fine and the payment of compensatory damages to the employee

The New York State Division of Human Rights [DHR], adopting the findings and recommendation of an Administrative Law Judge determined following a hearing, held that the New York State Unified Court System, Office of Court Administration [OCA] had unlawfully discriminated against one of a staff member [Employee] based on a disability and directed OCA to: 

1. Cease and desist from subjecting the Employee to blanket exclusions from the court officer-trainee job title based on hearing loss or the use of hearing aids;

2. Pay a civil fine and penalty of $30,000; and

3. Pay Employee $5,000 in compensatory damages.

OCA appealed DHR's decision.

The Appellate Division unanimously confirmed DHR's decision and dismissed OCA's appeal finding that DHR's finding of unlawful discrimination was supported by substantial evidence.

Noting that the Employee had established a prima facie case that OCA discriminated against him because of his hearing and "sufficiently demonstrated that upon the provision of reasonable accommodation, the use of a hearing aid, he can perform in a reasonable manner the essential functions of a court officer-trainee."

The record indicated that Employee had passed the written test for the court officer-trainee position and was conditionally hired. However, OCA bans the use of hearing aids on the job or for the audiometric test to medically qualify for the position of court officer-trainee. Further, opined the Appellate Division, Employee was not obligated to be evaluated for and purchase a hearing aid, and to retake the audiometric test, at his expense, to further make his prima facie case as OCA had made clear it still would deem him unqualified and reject such test results.

Citing Pimentel v Citibank, N.A., 29 AD3d 141, the Appellate Division observed that permitting court officers to wear a hearing aid is a reasonable accommodation and would not, as OCA argued, impose undue hardship on OCA by posing any "direct threat," i.e. "a significant risk of substantial harm to the . . . safety of the employee or others."

Addressing OCA's argument that the physical demands of the job and the risk that a hearing aid could become dislodged in a scuffle or fail to operate in an emergency, the court held that OCA's argument is undermined by its own policy permitting court officer-trainee candidates to meet its vision standard with or without corrective lenses or glasses, which could be lost or become dislodged in a scuffle.

Noting "OCA's preference for those with a minimal amount of hearing acuity" might be a bona fide occupational qualification the Appellate Division held that OCA's "preference for hearing acuity without the use of a hearing aid is not."
As to the $30,000 civil penalty imposed on OCA, the Appellate Division, observing that Executive Law §297[4][c] provides that a civil penalty below $50,000 may be assessed if an entity is found to have committed an "unlawful discriminatory act", concluded that considering OCA blanket policy barring hearing-impaired persons from employment as court officers and its failure to accommodate Employee who had an asymmetric hearing loss, the civil penalty of $30,000 was correctly assessed.

Similarly, the court found that the record contains substantial evidence to support DHR's finding that Employee was entitled to a compensatory damages award of $5,000.

Click HERE to access the Appellate Division's decision.


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