Employers cannot fire their employees because of their race and national origin. But they may take adverse employment actions if these employment disputes do not involve discrimination. On Feb. 3, a federal appeals court for New York dismissed a discrimination lawsuit filed by a City University of New York professor because she was fired for a legitimate and nondiscriminatory reason.
Employers cannot consider characteristics such as race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in their employment decisions. However, they have a strong legal defense in bias or discrimination employment cases if they can show a nondiscriminatory reason for a firing or another adverse employment action.
CUNY dismissed a professor because it claimed she mismanaged graduate student funds. She sued CUNY after her dismissal and alleged that it discriminated against her because of her race and national origin. Because of this discrimination, according to the professor, CUNY delayed professorship opportunities, directed her to hold evening hours for graduate students while white professors did not have this requirement and organized a meeting that criticized certain actions by China.
A federal district court dismissed her discrimination and hostile work environment claims. The court found that her allegations did not raise a believable inference that there was discrimination or constitute sufficiently widespread and severe conduct that altered her employment terms and conditions.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed this decision. It ruled that her discrimination claim failed because she did not sufficiently allege that CUNY’s decision to remove her from the graduate and fellowship coordinator positions was motivated by her race or national origin. Additionally, there was no racial overtone to many of these alleged incidents which were too few and infrequent to create an abusive working environment.
The court also stated that CUNY investigated certain claims made by the professor. Employers can face legal consequences if they do not investigate complaints, especially if their internal policy requires an investigation.
Employers should quickly investigate discrimination complaints according to its procedures. Investigations undertaken in good faith and having a well-reasoned conclusion helps avoid liability for harassment claims.
Even if their conclusions are incorrect, employers may escape liability if they acted in good faith. It must assure that all employees have information on their policies and rules, including anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies which should be reviewed annually.
Investigations are not necessary for every complaint but ones that may end up in court should be carefully reviewed. Remedial action must be imposed for misconduct.
Attorneys can help employers deal with the challenges presented by compliance with the immense body of federal and New York state and local laws. Lawyers can also represent employers in lawsuits.