Second Circuit Reaffirms Broad Application of New York City Human Rights Law

As we have mentioned in the past, the New York City Human Rights Law provides employees that work in New York City with some of the broadest anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation protection of any employment laws, far more than what is covered by federal and state laws.  Recently, the Second Circuit reaffirmed this point when it reversed a lower federal court decision dismissing an individual’s claims against her former employer.  The case is Mihalik v. Credit Agricole Cheuvreux North America, Inc. and the decision can be found here.

Facts of Mihalik’s Case

In this case, Mihalik alleged that, from the beginning of her employment, her manager (who was also the CEO) paid “special attention” to her, including: (i) asking her about her relationship status and whether she preferred older men or was a “cougar,” (ii) often commenting on her appearance by telling her she looked “sexy” or “promiscuous” and that she should “dress like that every day,” (iii) telling her that they should coordinate business travel arrangements so that they could “enjoy traveling together,” (iv) engaging in explicit sexual conversations in the workplace, and (v) propositioning her on at least two occasions.  Overall, Mihalik alleged that her manager’s conduct was typical of the boy’s club atmosphere which existed in the office.  For her part, Mihalek rejected her manager’s propositions and complained to a number of the company’s other employees.  Shortly thereafter, Mihalek was fired for “failing to complete an assignment.”

After she was fired, Mihalik filed a complaint in federal court asserting claims under the NYCHRL.  After the parties completed discovery, the court dismissed Mihalik’s complaint after analyzing her claims under the stricter federal standards as well as the more lenient NYCHRL standards.

2005 Amendments to the NYCHRL

In 2005, the New York City Council passed the Local Civil Rights Restoration Act which explicitly provided that courts had been construing the NYCHRL “too narrowly to ensure protection of the civil rights of all persons covered by the law” and “underscore[d] that the provisions of New York City’s Human Rights Law are to be construed independently from similar or identical provisions of New York state or federal statutes.”  Despite the plain language of the amendment, courts continued to erroneously apply the stricter state and federal standards to claims under the NYCHRL until a state appellate court explicitly rejected such an analysis of claims under the NYCHRL.

Second Circuit’s Decision

In reversing the district court’s dismissal of Mihalik’s complaint, the Second Circuit reiterated a few key points:

  • The NYCHRL is not a “general civility code” and will not provide a claim where an individual has an obnoxious or overbearing boss, instead, a plaintiff in a gender discrimination case must show that he or she was treated less well at least in part because of their gender;
  • In order for an employer to avoid a claim of discrimination, it must present evidence which establishes, as a matter of law, that discrimination played “no role” in the employer’s action;
  • Even a single comment that objectifies women made in circumstances where that comment would, for example, signal views about the role of women in the workplace may be actionable;
  • An employee is not required to show that the discrimination or harassment was “so severe or pervasive so as to alter the terms and conditions of employment” (as federal and state law require), instead the Second Circuit reiterated that “a focus on unequal treatment based on gender . . . is in fact the approach that is most faithful to the uniquely broad and remedial purposes of the local statute;”
  • “Even a poorly-performing employee is entitled to an environment free from sexual harassment” and “analysis of the NYCHRL must be guided by the need to make sure that discrimination plays no role in the workplace.”

While the Second Circuit’s decision doesn’t break any new legal ground, the decision reaffirms the broad application of the NYCHRL and to address the “uniquely broad and remedial purposes” of the NYCHRL.  The NYCHRL remains a powerful tool for employees in New York City to use to fight all types of discrimination in the workplace.

About Publius

"Publius” a former labor and employment litigation attorney in New York City with experience representing both management and employees in a broad range of labor and employment matters. As a "reformed" attorney, Publius is looking to provide the people of New York City with information that will educate them as to their legal rights and, if appropriate, connect individuals with attorneys that can assist them.
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