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Court Allows Employee’s Case Against MetroNorth for Alleged Employment Discrimination to Proceed

  Alan Fuchsberg  |  April 29, 2020  |  

Contributor(s): Angelina Adam

Plaintiff Andrea Ramos brought an action against her employer Metro-North based upon allegations of discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation. She was employed by Metro-North for over ten years before her alleged unjust termination on March 17, 2017, which was just nine days after she filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The Defendants in the action, which include her employer Metro-North, as well as the MTA and certain individually named defendants, filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking dismissal of all her claims under both the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) and New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). However, in a decision dated April 3, 2020, the Honorable Justice Sherry Heitler, of Supreme Court of New York County, denied the defendants’ motion as to retaliation under both the NYSHRL and NYCHRL, and also denied the defendants motion as to plaintiff’s disability discrimination and hostile work environment claims under the NYCHRL.

Facts of the Case

Andrea Ramos is an African American woman, whose employment with Metro-North started in 2006, as an Operations/Compliance Manager. In April 2015, she was promoted to the position of Investigator, within the Operations Safety System (OSS) department. At the time she was promoted, she had an exemplary performance record and had never been disciplined. She was the only female and only minority in this group of investigators that consisted of a Chief Investigator and two other investigators, who were all Caucasian males.

Shortly after starting in her new role as an Investigator, Andrea’s work environment became increasingly hostile. She was not assigned investigations to handle, instead, they were being given to her two male co-workers. She was left out of important group meetings, conferences, and emails, and also denied opportunities to attend training that was necessary for her to obtain a certain safety certificate. One of the other investigators was permitted to attend the training and got the safety certificate instead. In addition, her co-workers made derogatory comments about her. At one meeting, the Vice President of her department (VP) shared that they would be posting another Investigator position. One of the two male investigators said to the other, there was no need to hire another investigator because the two of them could handle all the investigations and split the salary, completely excluding her from his description of the Investigator Group. Everyone in the departmental meeting laughed at this comment and the VP claimed not to have heard it. In another instance, after a co-worker was fired, another co-worker whispered to the Plaintiff, “you’re next, they are watching you.” Andrea’s office was also changed to a location further from her home, and she was not provided with a workspace or proper equipment. Instead, she was told she would have to find space for herself at a facility where the Safety Department had not previously occupied space.

In November of 2016, eighteen months after she began her Investigator role, her supervisor assigned her a company car and told her the car had to be driven back and forth to work on a daily basis. This presented a problem for Andrea in that her painful back condition became much worse as a result of sitting in a car for more than two hours at a time. Metro-North was aware of this condition, but when she requested not to use the vehicle on a daily basis, her supervisor denied the request. On December 8, 2016, Andrea inquired with Metro-North’s Employee Relations Department about accommodation for her back condition. She then submitted to their office an ADA Request for Reasonable Accommodation (Accommodation Request), which she then supplemented with medical documentation from her physician, supporting her need for the Reasonable Accommodation.

After this, Andrea’s working conditions became even more intolerable. On December 28, 2016, her supervisor placed her on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), saying that she was not submitting her reports on time. Andrea explained that any late submissions had been due to her faraway office location and not being provided with the proper work equipment, or even office space. The PIP also stated that Andrea was not taking the company vehicle home on a daily basis. Andrea realized that she was being singled out for this; she had noticed the other two investigators leaving the company vehicle at the job site at times and also submitting late incident reports, but they were not issued PIPs. The last item on the PIP stated that Andrea had to go to the incident sites when conducting her investigations. Andrea explained that on one occasion, while en route to an incident site which she was notified of two hours after it occurred, she was informed that everyone had left the scene, and thus she obtained the information from those who were there. As to this point as well, she was aware of her co-worker having completed an investigation without having been at the accident site, but he was not issued a PIP. Oddly enough, the same supervisor who placed Andrea on the PIP had just given her a satisfactory Performance Review on September 29, 2016 (just three months earlier).

Despite Andrea complying with the terms of the PIP, on February 22, 2017, the PIP was extended another 90 days and she was placed on an Updated PIP, for an additional 90 days just “to make things clear.” There was no credit given for the 56 days that she was on the original PIP and in compliance. Further, her hours were pushed back a half an hour, despite her having already advised her supervisors of the need to start earlier so that she could make her physical therapy appointments. She was also assigned to work out of the North White Plains office, which was even further from her home.

On March 8, 2017, Andrea filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC against Metro-North. By at least March 15, 2017, Metro-North had received notice of Charge of Discrimination. On the night of March 16, 2017, at 2:15 a.m., she received an assignment to investigate an accident in the shop (with no injuries) in New Haven, Connecticut, far from her home in Long Island. This was the first time she had ever been called in the middle of the night since she started working as an investigator. She accepted the assignment, but then remembered she had taken prescription pain medication for her back before going to bed. Responsibly, she had contacted her co-worker to inform him that it would not be safe for her to drive. She then got a phone call from her supervisor advising her that she had been taken out of service until further notice and was not to operate the vehicle.

On March 24, 2017, Andrea received a call from Human Resources advising her that she was terminated, but the reason for the termination could not be disclosed. Metro-North later claimed her termination was due to her violation of its prescription drug policy for safety-sensitive employees (SSE), which required the Plaintiff to report the prescription pain medication to Metro-North’s Office of Health Services (OHS) department to have it approved. However, Andrea had made Metro-North aware of this fact. Andrea disputed that her firing was for this reason, and instead maintained that she was fired in retaliation for filing the EEOC Charge of Discrimination, which MNR had been notified of, just nine days before.

The Court’s Decision

The court ruled that the case will proceed to trial against Metro-North and that the complaint against the railroad could not be dismissed.

In making this determination, the Court took note that it is unlawful for an employer to fire or refuse to hire or otherwise discriminate against an employee because of a disability under both New York City and New York State Law. N.Y. Executive Law § 296 (1) (a); N.Y.C. Administrative Code § 8-107 (1) (a). While defendant contended that they fired the Plaintiff for a legitimate reason, citing the violation of the plaintiff’s prescription medication reporting obligation, the Plaintiff argued 1) her employer had been notified of the fact that she been prescribed medication, and 2) she was wrongfully denied a reasonable accommodation for her back condition.

Applying the mixed-motive test, to the NYCHRL claims, the court considered whether discrimination was one of the motivating factors that led to the plaintiff’s termination. The court found that there was a “question of fact as to whether they had actual or imputed knowledge based upon her disclosure that she was taking pain medication…” The Court further noted that there was no evidence of a policy that required the investigators to drive company cars and the fact that none of the investigators used a car for eighteen months after the plaintiff was hired as an investigator. The court also questioned Andrea’s supervisor’s claims that it was important that she use the vehicle so that she could bring the necessary equipment with her to the investigation, including winter clothing, a fire extinguisher, measuring devices, and safety equipment. But, Andrea’s expert witness refuted this entirely and explained that: the investigators are located in the same region as the incidents, so they would be dressed appropriately; the investigators had no training to extinguish fires; the other equipment needed could be carried in a backpack. Finally, what the court considered to be most important was Metro-North’s claim that it did not deny Andrea a reasonable accommodation, finding that there was “no evidence that Metro-North even met with the Plaintiff regarding her accommodation request, much less engaged in an interactive process with her…,” thus raising a triable issue of fact as disability discrimination.

The court also allowed Andrea’s hostile work environment claims to go forward, which requires a showing that the conduct exceeds what a reasonable person would consider to be mere “petty slights and trivial inconveniences.” The Court found that there was a question of fact on this issue “since there is evidence Plaintiff was treated differently from her colleagues in several material respects.” The court found that Andrea’s office had been moved far away from her home with no arrangements for office space or basic equipment; she was issued the PIP in part because of submitting late reports, but the other investigators had turned in late reports without consequence, and her schedule was pushed back 30 minutes despite advising her supervisors of the need to begin earlier so that she could attend physical therapy. The court also cited the fact that instead of receiving credit for the 56 days Andrea served on the original PIP, the PIP was extended a full 90 days. The court stated “[t]hese actions appear to be punitive in nature. Since a jury could find that this alleged unequal treatment was related to her disability, Plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim under NYCHRL should proceed to trial.” The court dismissed the NYSHRL discrimination and hostile work environment claims, which have a higher burden for the Plaintiff, than the NYCHRL.

Lastly, as to the Plaintiff’s retaliation cause of action, the Court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss under both the NYSHRL and the NYCHRL, finding that the close proximity between the plaintiff’s protected activity (filing an EEOC charge) and the events leading to her termination.

Conclusion

We are delighted that Andrea Ramos’ case will go forward and she will have her day in court. She was treated differently and unfairly and without regard to her serious back condition which hinders her ability to do certain things. We look forward to moving to trial expeditiously.

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