Can My Employer Use a Disciplinary Hearing to Justify Discrimination?

Employment discrimination cases may involve multiple levels of judicial and quasi-judicial proceedings. As a general rule, once a discrimination claim has been fully and fairly litigated in one court or forum, it cannot be re-litigated in the future. In legal parlance this is known as “collateral estoppel.”

Judge Rejects Board of Education's Efforts to Toss Gay Teacher's Lawsuit

Not every invocation of collateral estoppel is justified. Indeed, there are many cases in which an employer improperly attempts to thwart a valid discrimination case by falsely arguing the plaintiff's claims were previously heard and disposed of. In some instances, the purported prior hearing was itself part of the discriminatory conduct the plaintiff seeks to redress.

Consider this ongoing sexual orientation discrimination case from here in New York City. The plaintiff, a gay man, works as a public school teacher on Staten Island. His lawsuit alleges that he has been subject to “a hostile work environment” based on his sexual orientation, which violates federal, state, and city employment discrimination laws. He further alleged he was subject to retaliation at work when he complained about the harassment.

More than two years into the lawsuit and after the close of pre-trial discovery, the defendants filed a late motion asserting a collateral estoppel defense. The defendants maintained that the plaintiff's complaints were already adjudicated during a prior disciplinary hearing initiated by the New York City Board of Education.

As you may know, public teachers who have tenure cannot be terminated or disciplined except for “just cause.” Before any action is taken, a teacher is entitled to a formal proceeding known as a 3020a hearing before a neutral arbiter. In this case, the Department initiated a 3020a hearing against the plaintiff several months after he filed his sexual harassment lawsuit. The hearing addressed allegations that the plaintiff engaged in “misconduct” and neglect of his official duties. The hearing arbiter ultimately upheld some of the Department's charges and fined the plaintiff $3,000.

Before the federal court hearing his discrimination lawsuit, the plaintiff argued the 3020a hearing did not address or resolve his hostile work environment or retaliation claims. To the contrary, he maintained the hearing itself was part of the defendants' campaign of illegal retaliation. The judge presiding over the case agreed the 3020a hearing did not “expressly decide” the plaintiff's discrimination or retaliation claims. Therefore he denied the defendants' “untimely” motion to assert collateral estoppel.

Speak With a New York Employment Discrimination Lawyer Today

An unscrupulous employer or manager may attempt to manipulate an internal disciplinary process against an employee already suffering the effects of illegal workplace discrimination. One way to help defend yourself against such retaliation is to engage the services of a qualified New York employment law attorney the moment you suspect there is illegal activity affecting your ability to work. At Nisar Law Group, P.C., our attorneys can advise you of your rights under federal and state employment laws and outline your options for potential remedial action. Call us today at 646.760.6493 to schedule an initial consultation so we can learn more about your employment situation.