The defendant employer succeeded on summary judgment in Bennett v. Health Management Systems, but the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York, First Department has given defendant employers a higher hurdle in discrimination cases. A unanimous court ruled that employers seeking to defeat discrimination actions brought under New York City’s Human-Rights Law (“HRL”) through summary judgment must prove non-discriminatory motives for their actions beyond dispute.
Bennett, a 47-year old, Caucasian male brought a discrimination suit alleging that his former employer, Health Management Systems, fired him because of his age and race (both of which are protected categories under the HRL). The defendant alleged that it fired Bennett because they learned he had been sleeping and drinking on the job, and not because of any perceived discriminatory intent. The lower court granted defendant’s summary judgment motion in March 2010, finding there was no evidence in the record to support plaintiffs’ discrimination claims. Plaintiff appealed the summary judgment.
The court noted sought to engage in a long “overdue” examination of “whether, and to what extent, the three-step burden-shifting approach set forth in McDonnell Douglas v Green (411 U.S. 792 ), must be modified for City HRL claims, particularly in the context of the adjudication of summary judgment motions.”
Although the court agreed with a Supreme Court finding that a prima facie showing of discrimination was “not onerous,” (Texas Dept. of Community Affairs v Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253 ), they did say that caution must be taken when engaging in burden shifting.
First, discrimination rarely announces itself, so that generally a discrimination plaintiff must ask the fact-finder to infer the defendant’s intent from circumstantial evidence that can be difficult to obtain7. Second, the defendant, by definition, is in a materially better position to provide evidence as to its actual motivation than the plaintiff. Third, the McDonnell Douglas burden of production on a defendant that is triggered by a plaintiff’s initial presentation of a prima facie case is itself neither onerous or unfair: all a defendant is being required to do in that circumstance is to come forward with competent evidence of what it knows, that is, the reason or reasons for its actions8. Finally, the existence of discrimination — a profound evil that New York City, as a matter of fundamental public policy, seeks to eliminate9 — demands that the courts’ treatment of such claims maximize the ability to ferret out such discrimination, not create room for discriminators to avoid having to answer for their actions before a jury of their peers.10
The court provided these guidelines to employers seeking summary judgment motions in discrimination cases brought under the City HRL:
- If a court needs to consider whether a prima facie case has been made out, it should ask whether the initial fact, if not otherwise explained, gives rise to an inference of discrimination
- If a defendant puts forward evidence of one or more non-discriminatory motivations for its actions, the court should not return to the question of whether a prima facie case has been made out by the plaintiff. Rather it should ask whether the defendant, as the party moving for summary judgement, has sufficiently met it’s burden to show that on the evidence before the court no jury could find the defendant liable
- If the plaintiff then responds with some evidence that at least one reason offered by the defendant is false, misleading, or incomplete, then it is more likely than not that a jury is needed to decide these matters of fact, and the motion for summary judgment must be denied
Based on these standards the court found that Bennett had not responded with any evidence under point 3 to show that the defendant had not offered viable evidence of a non-discriminatory intent, and they upheld the summary judgment of the lower court. What this means for your legal department is that if you are seeking summary judgment in a discrimination case you need to prove non-discriminatory motives for the company’s actions that cannot be disputed by the plaintiff. Do you think this ruling will result in fewer summary judgment wins by employer defendants?