Sunday, March 26, 2017

No Title VII claim for professor who insulted his students

In this Title VII case, the plaintiff was teaching for New York Institute of Technology at its Bahrain campus. Plaintiff is a white, non-Muslim. He was let go after making comments that his students deemed anti-Islamic and offensive. The Court of Appeals says plaintiff has no case.

The case is Balk v. New York Institute of Technology, a summary order decided on March 23. One day, plaintiff met with students who were going to visit New York City. During that meeting, the students complained, plaintiff "gave examples about democracy that insults our religious beliefs and as a professor he should realize that the words he said about our Prophet Mohammed peace be upon him are very sensitive and will never be the definition of democracy." Plaintiff testified that he did admonish the students that "when they go to the west to be able to understand why people might feel uncomfortable with them." He also described a "hypothetical walk down the street where you would pass a mosque or a church, I remember thinking maybe it was Episcopalian where there was a gay congregation and you might see within that church their iconography, their words on the wall where prophets and Gods would be gay."

Plaintiff then began to fear for his safety and moved to Jordan, aware that he was under criticism in that part of the world. The college, meanwhile, decided that plaintiff could not return to Bahrain to teach. The college then declined to renew his contract or offer him a job at its other campuses.

The Court of Appeals (Chin, Lohier and McMahon [D.J.]) agrees with the district court plaintiff has no discrimination case. Plaintiff claims he was fired by deferring to the discriminatory animus of its Muslim students and its faculty members." Such a theory of discrimination exists, but it does not work here, the Court of Appeals says, because the college had good reason to end the employment relationship: he was removed from the Bahrain campus because the college thought it was unsafe for him to remain there and there was no other positions available for him at NYIT. The Court reasons:

Balk himself expressed concern about his safety. Whether there was a basis for their accusations or not, students complained that Balk had used words with them that were ╩║extremely rude, humiliating, disrespectful and full of clear racism.╩║ Balk acknowledged using words that some certainly could have found offensive. Again, whether they were accurate or not, articles were published reporting that a professor at a private university had engaged in blasphemous conduct, and Balk acknowledges that, although he was not named, he was widely believed to be the professor in question. As a reasonable jury could only find, these circumstances created an unsafe environment for Balk.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Supreme Court outlines test for judging IEP's in student disability cases

Student disability claims brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are quite common. Generally speaking, disabled students are entitled to an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that outlines personalized educational goals for the student. If the parents don't like the IEP and challenge it at a due process hearing, they can recover reimbursement from the school district for the costs of sending the child to a private school. The question is this: how do we know the IEP satisfies the IDEA? The Supreme Court clarifies that question.

The case is Endrew F. v. Douglas County School Dist., decided on March 22. As usual, the IDEA does not provide much guidance on this issue. Congress likes to leave the statutory language vague and allow the courts to deal with its meaning. In this instance, the Supreme Court in 1982 said that the IEP should be "reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade." That was the Rowley case. The Court in Rowley declined "to establish any one test for determining the adequacy of educational benefits conferred upon all children."

Post-Rowley, the federal courts have applied different standards governing the adequacy of IEP's. The Second Circuit said in 2008 that "a state need not maximize the potential of handicapped children, but the door of public education must be opened in a meaningful way, and the IEP must provide the opportunity for more than only trivial advancement." That sounds like a low bar. In the Endrew F. case, the Tenth Circuit had a similar test: the IEP must provide "some educational benefit" and the IEP is adequate if it confers an "educational benefit that is merely ... more than de minimis."

A unanimous Supreme Court rejects this "good enough" test and says the IEP must provide an "educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances." This test will not be easy to apply, as the IEP will depend on the individual student, and all students are different. As Chief Justice Roberts says, "the adequacy of a given IEP turns on the unique circumstances of the child for whom it was created. This absence of a bright-line rule, however, should not be mistaken for an invitation to the courts to substitute their own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which they review." In other words, school officials are still entitled to some deference in preparing IEP's.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Circuit rejects six-figure disability discrimination verdict

This disability discrimination plaintiff won his trial in the Northern District of New York after his employer fired him because he had a needle phobia that made it impossible for him to give customers a flu shot on demand. The Court of Appeals has vacated the verdict, and the employer wins.

The case is Stevens v. Rite Aid Corp., decided on March 21. Plaintiff was a longtime pharmacist for Rite Aid for over 30 years. In 2011, Rite Aid decided to provide flu shots for its customers. Plaintiff was unable to immunize customers because he has a needle phobia, confirmed by his doctor. He was fired because of this. At trial, a sympathetic jury awarded plaintiff $485,000 in back pay, $1.2 million in front pay and $900,000 for pain and suffering. His lawyers got close to $400,000 in attorneys' fees. It is all gone. Here is what the Court of Appeals (Newman, Lynch and Droney) did:

1. Giving these vaccination shots was an essential part of plaintiff's job duties. That means he is not qualified to work as a pharmacist at Rite Aid unless he can perform that duty with or without a reasonable accommodation. While plaintiff argued this task was not an essential job requirement, the Court of Appeals disagrees and says no reasonable jury could find otherwise, since Rite Aid personnel testified without contradiction "that the company made a business decision to start requiring pharmacists to perform immunizations in 2011." The job description was revised to reflect this, and the company in fact had fired another pharmacist who had failed to undergo the immunization training program.

2. Plaintiff could still win the case with proof that the company could have reasonably accommodated his disability. The Court of Appeals emphasizes that "the issue is whether a reasonable accommodation would have enabled him to perform that essential function, not whether, as some of Stevens' arguments appear to suggest, he could perform his other duties as a pharmacist." The Court adds that "A reasonable accommodation can never involve the elimination of an essential function of a job." The Court finds there was no reasonable accommodation, rejecting plaintiff's claim that the company could have offered him desensitization therapy. District courts in this Circuit have ruled -- and the Second Circuit now holds -- that the employer is not required to provide this treatment as a reasonable accommodation. The Court also rejects plaintiff's argument that he could have been transferred to a pharmacy technician position; the record shows that Rite Aid offered plaintiff another position (including that one) that would not require flu shots "and Stevens offered no evidence that he requested, considered, or was open to a position as a pharmacy technician." The Court further rejects plaintiff's claim that the company could have hired a nurse to give the flu shots or sent him to a dual-pharmacist location where another pharmacist could have immunized people. The Court reasons that "those steps would be exemptions that would have involved other employees performing Stevens' essential immunization duties. Rite Aid was not required to grant Stevens these exemptions."Plaintiff also failed to prove that a vacant position at a dual=pharmacist store existed at the time of his termination."

This case has a strange twist. It was Rite Aid that appealed the verdict. Plaintiff cross-appealed. That is because the district court had actually thrown out the reasonable accommodation verdict in a post-trial motion before the case even reached the Second Circuit. Plaintiff appealed from that ruling. But the trial court let stand the wrongful discharge verdict in plaintiff's favor, which is the claim that led to the large damages award. Rite Aid appealed from that particular ruling. The Second Circuit in a footnote says that the failure to prove his reasonable accommodation claim means there cannot be a wrongful discharge claim. In other words, since plaintiff could not perform an essential job function, the company had the right to fire him.

The trial court, then, sustained the wrongful discharge verdict incorrectly. It did this by splitting the baby. It said that while plaintiff could not prove his reasonable accommodation claim, he was still fired because of his disability because plaintiff proved at trial that another pharmacist with needle-phobia was fired after he refused to attend immunization training. The trial court held, "while this pharmacist did not claim to have trypanophobia or make a claim under the ADA, the jury could reasonably have concluded that Rite Aid's decision to termination both pharmacists was because of their respective needle phobias." The trial court further held that plaintiff had a legitimate retaliation claim under the ADA because "evidence was sufficient for the jury to reasonably conclude that there was a causal connection between Plaintiff's protected activity of requesting an accommodation and his discharge." The Second Circuit does not address the wrongful discharge/retaliation reasoning at all. It assumes that if plaintiff cannot perform an essential job duty, there can be no wrongful discharge/retaliation claim.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Case not mooted by generous Rule 68 offer

Rule 68 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is a tricky rule that plaintiffs' lawyers have to learn quickly when defendants' counsel serves a Rule 68 offer. Under Rule 68, the defendant offers a judgment to plaintiff for a sum of money. If the plaintiff rejects that amount and then recovers a lesser amount at trial, then plaintiff has to pay the costs that defendant incurred after the Rule 68 offer was served. That does not mean the plaintiff pays out the defendant's attorneys fees. But it does mean that if the case is brought under a fee-shifting statute, such as Title VII or Section 1983, the plaintiff does not recover her attorneys' fees post-Rule 68 offer. This case asks what happens when the defendant offers plaintiff an amount of money that would provide everything that plaintiff was asking for in filing the lawsuit. Does that offer moot out the case?

The case is Geismann v. ZocDoc, decided on March 9. Plaintiff sued ZocDoc under the law that makes it illegal to send out unsolicited faxes, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. This was brought on as a putative class action, so defendant tried to nip the class action in the bud by offering plaintiff enough money to make the case go away. The Rule 68 offer would give plaintiff $6,100, which is what the plaintiff was suing for. Defendant also deposited the full amount of the plaintiff's claim in an account payable to plaintiff.

Rule 68 offers are only good for 14 days. After that, under the rule, the offer is "withdrawn." In this case, the plaintiff rejected the Rule 68 offer, prompting defendant to argue that the case was now moot. What is the point of proceeding with the case if the defendant offered plaintiff the amount of money to which is entitled, making him whole?

The district court accepted defendant's argument, but the Second Circuit (Sack, Hall and Carney) reverses and reinstates the case, 1.5 years after the case was argued. While this appeal was pending, the Supreme Court took up the same issue, ruling that since the Rule 68 offer is withdrawn once plaintiff rejects it, the case is not moot and the plaintiff may proceed with the lawsuit. That case, Campbell-Ewald, said that because "an unaccepted settlement offer -- like unaccepted contract offer -- is a legal nullity, with no operative effect. ... With no settlement offer still operative, the parties remained adverse; both retained the same stake in the litigation they had at the outset."

In our system, the Supreme Court tells the Circuit courts what to do. The Second Circuit notes that the district court's ruling in this case was understandable. But that was before the Supreme Court handed down Campbell-Ewald. On the basis of that case, Geismann's case is reinstated, and he and his class-action plaintiffs can sue ZocDoc over the annoying faxes that come in that nobody asked for.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Bus drivers behaving badly

One way to win your employment discrimination case is to prove that you were fired for doing what everyone else was doing, and that the only distinction between you and everyone else is your gender, race, religion, age or disability. That's how this pro se litigant won his appeal in the Second Circuit.

The case is Carris v. First Student, Inc., a summary order decided on March 8. Plaintiff was a school bus driver. She visited a student's home after the student hit and spit on other students on the bus, causing chaos when Plaintiff was trying to drive kids to and/or from school. The decision is not clear how Plaintiff had violated company policy, but she was fired over this.

Under normal circumstances, Plaintiff would have no legal recourse over her termination, even if her termination was unjust. As every human resources professional knows, New York is an "at-will" employment state, which means that most terminations are unreviewable in court. But Plaintiff alleges that other bus drivers did bad things also. The complaint alleges that three white bus drivers who also violated policies concerning student safety were only placed on administrative leave and not fired. The Court of Appeals (Katzmann, Lynch and Chin) says we need some discovery to see if the other drivers' violations were comparably serious to that of Plaintiff, particularly since two of the white bus drivers left sleeping children on buses and one did not report it in hopes that no one would find out about it. The other bus driver, the complaint alleges, "deposited a kindergarten student at an unauthorized stop in the dark, leaving the child at least six minutes away by foot from his home."

In dismissing this case, the district court reasoned as follows:

this is not a case in which Plaintiff points to a white co-worker who was not fired after engaging in conduct that, while unknown, reasonably appears to have been comparable to the conduct in which Plaintiff engaged. Rather, this is a case in which Plaintiff points to three white co-workers who were not fired after engaging in specifically identified conduct that clearly was of less seriousness than that of Plaintiff. Simply stated, the Court cannot find that a bus driver who accidentally dropped a child off at an unauthorized stop (a mere six-minute walk from the child's authorized stop) while on-duty or accidentally fails to sufficiently check a school bus for sleeping children while on-duty (offenses of omission) is comparable to a bus driver who deliberately goes to a student's home while off-duty (an offense of commission), or at least sufficiently comparable to indicate discriminatory intent by Defendant as a result of disparate treatment.

The district court had adopted the employer's argument that Plaintiff's case is different from the other cases because Plaintiff acted intentionally and the others were only negligent. This would seem a decent argument, based on what I know about Second Circuit case law. But the Court of Appeals says "further factual development is needed to aid in the determination of whether Carris was similarly situated to white comparators who received more lenient punishment than she did." For now, she satisfies the lenient pleading standards under Title VII, as set forth in Littlejohn v. City of New York, 795 F.3d 297 (2d Cir. 2015).

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Racist comments during jury deliberations denied defendant a fair trial

The Supreme Court has ruled that criminal defendants are denied a fair trial if jurors articulate racial stereotypes or discrimination during deliberations. This is one of the few cases where the Court will allow jurors to impeach their own verdict.

The case is Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, decided on March 6. The rule that jurors generally cannot impeach their own verdict is as old as the hills. It goes back to the pre-American revolution days. The theory is that jurors should be able to freely discuss the case among themselves without disgruntled litigants harassing them post-trial looking for a reason to argue that the jurors did not know what they were doing or did not deliberate properly. In this case, the Supreme Court traces the history of the no-impeachment rule, noting that Congress codified it in enacting the Federal Rules of Evidence in the mid-1970s. But apart from the values promoted by the no-impeachment rule, we also have to apply the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits racial discrimination in the criminal justice system (and in all other government programs). Writing for the 5-3 majority (Roberts, Thomas and Alito dissent), Justice Kennedy notes that "This case lies at the intersection of the Court’s decisions endorsing the no-impeachment rule and its decisions seeking to eliminate racial bias in the jury system."

In this case, the defendant was charged with sex offenses. During deliberations, one of the jurors had expressed anti-Hispanic bias toward petitioner and petitioner’s alibi witness. In particular, he said "'I think he did it because he’s Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want.’ According to the jurors, H. C. further explained that, in his experience,'nine times out of ten Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls.' Finally, the jurors recounted that Juror H. C. said that he did not find petitioner’s alibi witness credible because, among other things, the witness was ‘an illegal.’” The defendant's lawyers found out about these comments and brought it to the judge's attention.

The Supreme Court has shied away from reopening cases based on juror craziness, but it will not tolerate racism in the jury room. Here is the rule laid down by the Justices:

The Court now holds that where a juror makes a clear statement that indicate she or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires that the no-impeachment rule give way in order to permit the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee.Not every offhand comment indicating racial bias or hostility will justify setting aside the no-impeachment bar to allow further judicial inquiry. For the inquiry to proceed, there must be a showing that one or more jurors made statements exhibiting overt racial bias that cast serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the jury’s deliberations and resulting verdict. To qualify, the statement must tend to show that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in the juror’s vote to convict. Whether that threshold showing has been satisfied is a matter committed to the substantial discretion of the trial court in light of all the circumstances, including the content and timing of the alleged statements and the reliability of the proffered evidence.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Supreme Court puts an end to futility-creep

The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act is a comprehensive federal law that regulates the rights of disabled children in public schools. In a nutshell, it allows learning-disabled and other disabled children to have a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), normally effected through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that the school district has to create with input from the parents. If the parents don't like the IEP, they can ask for an impartial hearing and then take their grievance to state educational authorities. The question raised by this Supreme Court case is when must parents exhaust that remedy in cases involving disabled children before they can sue in federal court.

The case is Fry v. Napoleon Public Schools, decided by the Supreme Court on February 22. This case acquaints us with the boring but important topic of "futility." This legal principle says that you have to exhaust, or complete, certain state procedural remedies before you can file the lawsuit in federal court. In the IDEA context, that means you have to ask the New York State Commissioner of Education to rule on the propriety of the IEP before you can bring a federal lawsuit that challenges the legality of the IEP. That lengthy process would take months and months, and then the Commissioner's findings are entitled to some deference.

Yet, over the years, this led to exhaustion creep, sort of like surburban sprawl, or schedule creep, where part-timers slowly gain more job responsibilities and have to put in more and more hours. Futility creep led to cases in New York that essentially said that any lawsuit involving a disabled schoolchild has to first run through the state educational bureaucracy, even if the case did not involve an IEP but instead involved, i.e., the use of a service dog or peer-to-peer bullying. This reason this matters is that other federal statutes also protect disabled schoolchildren, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, which deal with access to public institutions.

The Supreme Court takes up this issue, unanimously finding that the exhaustion creep has gone too far. Justice Kagan -- who is going out of her way to write as casually as possible, it seems -- says that IDEA exhaustion only applies when the dispute concerns a FAPE. Since lawyers sometimes want to file in federal court without wasting their time in the state educational bureaucracy, courts are on the lookout for artful pleading intended to show the case is not really a FAPE case but some other federal dispute. Justice Kagan says that one way to determine whether the gravamen of a complaint against a school concerns the denial of a FAPE, or instead addresses disability-based discrimination, can come from asking a pair of hypothetical questions:

First, could the plaintiff have brought essentially the same claim if the alleged conduct had occurred at a public facility that was not a school—say, a public theater or library? And second, could an adult at the school—say, an employee or visitor—have pressed essentially the same grievance? When the answer to those questions is yes, a complaint that does not expressly allege the denial of a FAPE is also unlikely to be truly about that subject; after all, in those other situations there is no FAPE obligation and yet the same basic suit complaint probably does concern a FAPE, even if it does not explicitly say so; for the FAPE requirement is all that explains why only a child in the school setting (not an adult in that setting or a child in some other) has a viable claim.

Take two contrasting examples. Suppose first that a wheelchair-bound child sues his school for discrimination under Title II (again, without mentioning the denial of a FAPE) because the building lacks access ramps. In some sense, that architectural feature has educational consequences, and a different lawsuit might have alleged that it violates the IDEA: After all, if the child cannot get insidethe school, he cannot receive instruction there; and if he must be carried inside, he may not achieve the sense of independence conducive to academic (or later to real-world) success. But is the denial of a FAPE really thegravamen of the plaintiff ’s Title II complaint? Consider that the child could file the same basic complaint if a municipal library or theater had no ramps. And similarly,an employee or visitor could bring a mostly identical complaint against the school. That the claim can stay the same in those alternative scenarios suggests that its essence is equality of access to public facilities, not adequacy of special education.
This case changes the landscape for litigation against school districts involving disabled students. Over the next few years, lawyers will ask the Second Circuit (and other federal courts) to find that this case overturns prior Second Circuit rulings that shut out these cases before the plaintiffs could exhaust state administrative remedies.