by Barry Asen

New York management-side attorneys and their clients were surprised and chagrined when they read Bennett v. Health Management Systems, Inc., a case decided in December 2011 by the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department (“the First Department”), which sits in Manhattan.  Writing for the unanimous five-judge court, Justice Rolando Acosta directed that because the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”) explicitly provides that it should be liberally construed, summary judgment motions should only be granted in the employer’s favor in “rare and unusual” circumstances.

Justice Acosta stated that even if a terminated employee is unable to produce any evidence of discrimination, summary judgment should be denied and a jury trial ordered if the employee can show that the employer’s reason for the termination is “false, misleading or incomplete.”  For example, if an employee with a poor performance record is terminated because of his performance, but his supervisor – to spare his feelings – tells him only that his job was eliminated, a jury trial would be required to determine whether discrimination occurred under the NYCHRL.  Under federal and New York State law (e.g., Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the New York State Human Rights Law), summary judgment for the employer would likely be granted in such circumstances based on the absence of evidence pointing to discrimination as the reason for the termination.

Recently, however, in Melman v. Montefiore Medical Center, (1st Dep’t May 29, 2012), a different First Department panel disagreed with the Bennett decision.  In a 4-1 majority opinion, with Justice Acosta as the lone dissenter, the First Department returned to the traditional guiding rule in employment discrimination cases that to defeat an employer’s summary judgment motion, the employee must not only produce some evidence showing that the employer’s reason for its decision was “false, misleading or incomplete,” but also evidence demonstrating that “discrimination was the real reason” for the employer’s decision.

The First Department in Melman explained that when there is no evidence of discrimination, a court “should not sit as a super-personnel department that reexamines an entity’s business decision.”  Referring to one of Justice Acosta’s contrary arguments, the Court stated that his “approach appears quite radical to us.”  And the Court concluded, using language that all employers can appreciate, “we see no justification for allowing a meritless lawsuit to continue to divert Montefiore’s limited resources, and the time attention of its staff, from the hospital’s true mission of advancing medicine, protecting public health, and healing the sick.”

The First Department’s decision in Melman is consistent with the decisions of other courts construing federal and New York State anti-discrimination laws.  While the NYCHRL will continue to be interpreted liberally by all courts, an employee is still required to come forward with some evidence of discrimination or else summary judgment should be granted.