Second Circuit Confirms "But-For" Standard in Disability Discrimination Cases

It is against the law for an employer to discriminate against an employee based on a disability. This includes not just hiring decisions but also situations involving the promotion or demotion of an existing employee. When it comes to disability discrimination, the question is whether or not a person was the victim of an “adverse employment action” because of his or her impairment.

Judges Reject Lawsuit Over Demotion of Ex-Department of Investigations Manager

But does a discrimination claim require proof that the disability was the “sole” cause of the adverse employment action? The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals here in New York City recently addressed this question. It ultimately determined the answer was no, the disability need not be the only reason for an adverse decision. However, it must be a “but-for cause.”

So, what does that mean? A brief explanation of the case before the Second Circuit will provide some important context. The plaintiff worked for the New York City Department of Investigation. As an infant, the plaintiff suffered nerve damage that left him with a “severe hearing impairment,” according to court records. This also affects the plaintiff's ability to speak, which was described as “imperfect” and “slow” relative to the “average person.”

The DOI initially hired the plaintiff as its director of human resources and budget. His immediate supervisor was the deputy commissioner for administration. After the election of Mayor Bill De Blasio in 2013, the leadership of the DOI changed and the plaintiff was demoted to a position that paid roughly half as much. The plaintiff alleged this decision was due to his hearing disability, and more specifically the new deputy commissioner's response to his disability. According to the plaintiff's lawsuit, when he informed the deputy commissioner of his condition she “shook her head and rolled her eyes at him.” Thereafter, the deputy commissioner was “noticeably impatient when speaking to him and told him that he needed to speak more clearly and quickly.”

Although officials ultimately restored some of the plaintiff's lost pay, he ended up leaving the DOI for a job with another city agency that was more akin to the position he previously held. He also sued the city for discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act, which is a federal law that protects disabled employees who work for any agency receiving federal funds. The Rehabilitation Act largely mirrors the protections contained in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

A trial judge dismissed the lawsuit because the plaintiff failed to show that “impermissible bias” was the “sole reason” for his demotion. On appeal, the Second Circuit held that was the incorrect legal standard. Joining the views of several other federal appeals courts, the Second Circuit said a Rehabilitation Act claim must show that “discrimination was the but-for cause of any adverse employment action.”

Unfortunately, the plaintiff's claim still failed under this standard. The main problem, the Second Circuit noted, was that the decision to demote the plaintiff came from the commissioner, not the deputy commissioner who allegedly demonstrated bias. There was no evidence that the commissioner himself had any such bias. And the DOI cited other reasons for demoting the plaintiff, including his job performance and the overall restructuring taking place at DOI during the mayoral transition.

Speak with a New York City Disability Discrimination Lawyer Today

Despite the outcome of this particular case, the Second Circuit's ruling establishes an important legal principle going forward: Employees do not need to show that an impermissible bias was the “sole” cause of their firing or demotion. If you have faced discrimination in the workplace due to your disability and need advice from a qualified New York City employment attorney on what steps to take next, contact the Nisar Law Group, P.C., today.

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