Monday, October 31, 2016

Certified Question on Punitive Damages in Cases under New York City Human Rights Law

What is the standard for assessing punitive damages in a pregnancy discrimination under the New York City Human Rights Law?.  The law itself doesn't set a standard, so the district judge in Chauca v. Abraham, borrowed the standard  from the standard under the federal Title VII and based on that standard declined to give a punitive damages instruction to the jury.  On appeal, the plaintiff contended that this was error because the Human Rights Law should be construed liberally and independently of federal law.  Because there is no controlling New York precedent setting the standard and because that standard is an important issue of state law, the Second Circuit certified a question to the New York State Court of Appeals, asking it to decide as follows:

What is the standard for finding a defendant liable for punitive damages under the New York City Human Rights Law, N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8‐502?

The decision in Chauca can be found here.

Clear and Unmistakable.

The Second Circuit has reiterated its holding that if a contract agreement provides for arbitration for discrimination claims does not include statutory claims unless the contract's language is clear and unmistakable that such statutory claims are included.  The contract at issue in Winston Lawrence v. Sol G Atlas Realty Co. did not meet this standard.  While the contract stated that discrimination was prohibited and that any violation of the anti-discrimination provision were subject to arbitration.  Because nothing was stated as to claims  under anti-discriminatory statutes, the Court held that the contract did not clearly and unmistakably require such statutory claims be resolved in arbitration.  Accordingly, the District Court's decision sending the case to arbitration and dismissing the action was vacated and the case was remanded for further proceedings.  The Court noted that its decision was in concert with decisions of other circuits that have addressed the issue.

The decision in this case can be found here.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Post - Release Supervision

The New York State Legislature amended the sentencing scheme for violent felons to require that every sentence for a violent felony must be followed by a post-release supervision ("PRS") term.  Some judges.however did not pronounce PRS terms during sentencing proceedings  As a result, certain inmates entered the custody of the Department of Correctional Services ("DOCS") with sentence and commitment orders that did not include PRS terms required by the statute.  Instead of bringing the failure to the attention of the sentencing court, DOCS simply added the PRS term administratively.

This policy was challenged in Earley v. Murray, in which the Second Circuit held that policy was unconstitutional and that the administratively added-on PRS terms were a nullity because that term had not be imposed by a judge.  The Office of Court Administration of New York took the position that the Second Circuit's decision in Earley was not binding on state court and issued a memorandum to judges expressing this view, but urged courts to pronounce PRS terms going forward until the New York State Court of Appeals had the opportunity to rule on this issue.

The New York courts were inconsistent in adhering to to Earley.  The New York State Court of Appeals ruled on the issue in People v. Sparber and Garner v. New York State Department of Correctional Services, holding that New York state law required teh judge to pronounce teh term of PRS orally at sentencing if it was to be included in an inmate's sentence, but did not address whether this rule was also required by the Constitution.

The plaintiffs in Betances v. Fischer were offenders who were subject to mandatory PRS terms and who alleged the DOCS,rather than the sentencing judges, had imposed the PRS terms.  They sought compensatory damages for this violation of their constitutional rights.  The defendants, state officials of DOCS and the Department of Parole, moved to dismiss, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  The district court denied the motion, and the Second Circuit affirmed, remanding the case to the district court for further proceedings.  In its remand, the Second Circuit directed the district court to develop the record as to objective reasonableness of defendants' efforts to relieve the plaintiffs of the burdens of those unlawfully imposed PRS  terms after the defendants know it had been ruled that the imposition violated federal law.

On remand, the district court granted plaintiffs' motion to certify the case as a class action, and after the parties had cross-moved for summary judgment, denied the defendants' motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity and granted plaintiffs' cross-motion for summary judgment holding the defendants' personally liable.

After  the defendants had filed a notice of appeal, but before their brief was filed, the district court granted plaintiffs' motion to deem the appeal frivolous, which would have enabled the district court to retain jurisdiction and proceed with a trial on damages notwithstanding the trial.  The defendants' moved for a stay, and the Second Circuit stayed the proceedings in the district court pending the appeal.

The Second Circuit held that the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity because they were aware of the holding of Earley and had not taking objectively reasonable steps to comply with the case.  Indeed, the Court was not sure that the defendants would ever have complied had it not been for the actions of the New York State Court of Appeals.

The decision of the Second Circuit in Betances v. Fischer can be found here.

A disability is not a disability is not a disability

The question presented in this case is whether being disabled for purposes of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") categorically qualifies and individual as having a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act ("Section 504").

The plaintiffs in B.C. v. Mount Vernon School Dist. are high school students with disabilities under IDEA (actually the plaintiffs were the students' parents, but it amounts to the same thing).  Their schools had placed them in AIS remedial classes for which academic credit was not given.  As a result at the end of the school year, they did not have enough credits to graduate to the next grade.  Both students ultimately graduated from high school.

The plaintiffs brought suit in federal court under the ADA and Section 504, claiming that the Mount Vernon School District's policy of scheduling the AIS classes during school hours disparately impacted students with disabilities.  The school district moved for summary judgment, asserting that the plaintiffs should have exhausted their claims through the administrative process under the IDEA before raising these claims in federal court.  The plaintiffs claimed that they were excused from the exhaustion requirement of IDEA because their claims challenged a district-wide policy of discrimination and exhausting administrative remedies with respect to the district's framework and procedures would have been futile.

The District Court accepted the plaintiffs argument that they fall within the "futility" exception to the IDEA exhaustion requirement because they were challenging a district-wide policy.

The District Court granted the district's motion for summary judgment, stating that the plaintiffs' disparate impact evidence only showed the the district's policy only had a disparate impact on students with a disability under IDEA, not under ADA and Section 504, which defines "disability" differently.

The Second Circuit affirmed.  The plaintiffs statistical evidence only showed that district's policy only had a disparate impact on individuals with a disability under IDEA.  It is only if , as a matter of law, a child with a disability under the IDEA necessarily qualifies as an individual with a disability under ADA or Section 504.

ADA and Section 504 define  "disability" as a "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities."  By contrast, under IDEA, a "child with a disability" has one or more of an enumerated list of impairments requiring "special education or related service."  Hence, a student could have a disability that requires special education or related services without it substantially limiting one or more major life activities.  The Court held that the plaintiffs' position, in effect, read the ADA's substantial limitation requirement out of the statute.  The Court, while acknowledging that many students who qualify for special education or related services under IDEA might also qualify under ADA and Section 504, that is not always the case.  Other circuits have similarly held.

The Second Circuit's decision can be found here.