Not funny: mocking coworker’s spouse’s religion

by Zachary D. Morahan

The New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, 2nd Department, recently issued an important decision in which it held that an employer faced liability under the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) for allowing employees to mock the religious beliefs of a coworker’s spouse. This case has important ramifications for both public and private-sector employers.  Not Amused

Background

Jeffrey Chiara, a former machine equipment operator for the town of New Castle, is married to a Jewish woman. Chiara, who is not Jewish, alleged that after he was hired by the town in 1992, his coworkers routinely made anti-Semitic comments and offensive and derogatory remarks about Judaism. For example, they called him a “Jew lover” and a “Jew boy” and voiced their support for Adolf Hitler’s “right idea.” He claimed that he complained to his supervisors about the offensive conduct several times, but the harassment continued.

In January 2005, Chiara filed a lawsuit against the town for employment discrimination, disparate treatment, and a hostile work environment under the NYSHRL. In June 2006, the town filed disciplinary charges against Chiara for “misconduct and/or insubordination.”

An administrative hearing was held on the disciplinary charges, and the hearing officer recommended that Chiara be terminated from his employment. The town adopted the hearing officer’s recommendation and fired him in 2007. Chiara appealed, claiming the discipline was retaliation for his complaint under the NYSHRL. The 2nd Department affirmed the town’s decision and upheld his termination.

In 2007, the town requested dismissal of the NYSHRL claims pertaining to Chiara’s 2006 disciplinary charges. The New York Supreme Court granted the motion, and the 2nd Department affirmed, finding that Chiara was “collaterally estopped” (barred) from relitigating the discipline imposed in 2006.

In 2011, the town asked the court to dismiss the rest of Chiara’s NYSHRL claims. The town argued that he couldn’t prove his discrimination or hostile work environment claims based on religion because he isn’t a member of a protected class. The court granted the town’s motion. Chiara again appealed to the 2nd Department, which disagreed with the supreme court’s dismissal of his discrimination claim.

Religious discrimination claim

The 2nd Department found that Chiara sufficiently demonstrated his membership in a protected class by virtue of the town’s allegedly discriminatory conduct based on his marriage to a Jewish person. The court noted that discrimination against an individual based on his association with a member of a protected class also constitutes an infringement on his First Amendment right to intimate association, which is protected as a fundamental element of personal liberty.

Although the 2nd Department found that the town had established that Chiara was terminated in 2007 for legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons, which defeated an inference of discrimination, it also found that he had raised a triable question about whether alleged anti-Semitic comments by his supervisor established a discriminatory motive for his termination. The court noted that verbal comments can serve as evidence of a discriminatory motive when the employee shows a nexus between the remarks and the employment action at issue.

Hostile work environment claim

Although it found that Chiara’s religious discrimination claim shouldn’t have been dismissed, the 2nd Department found that the supreme court had properly dismissed his hostile work environment claim. The 2nd Department noted that a hostile work environment exists when the workplace is “permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.” The court held that the town met its burden by demonstrating that Chiara’s coworkers had been disciplined for their derogatory remarks.

The court also held that Chiara failed to raise a triable question about whether his supervisor’s remarks constituted discriminatory behavior that was severe or pervasive enough to interfere with his work. Chiara v. Town of New Castle, ___ AD3d ___ (2d Dep’t, 2015).

Lessons for all employers

This case provides some important lessons for employers. First, supervisors who are accused of making offensive comments to an employee facing discipline shouldn’t play a role in any subsequent decision to discipline him. Second, an employment discrimination claim may be brought under federal or state law based on the religious beliefs of an employee’s spouse. Third, you must ensure that the workplace is free from all manner of offensive speech.

Promptly counseling or disciplining an employee who engages in offensive speech and providing timely remedial training can greatly reduce your risk of facing a hostile work environment claim. Consult with qualified legal counsel about best practices to ensure that your company is in compliance with federal and state law.

Zachary D. Morahan is an attorney with Coughlin & Gerhart, LLP. He may be contacted at zmorahan@cglawoffices.com .

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