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Appellate Court Clarifies Employment Laws

On September 2, 2015, New York’s highest Federal Court, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, issued an important decision which clarified several points of employment discrimination law, particularly for public employees. The Court’s decision in Vega v. Hempstead Union Free School District addresses (1) the timeliness of claims, (2) whether retaliation claims are actionable under the 14th Amendment, and (3) the standard to plead discrimination claims. Each of these points is discussed below.

Timeliness of Claims

In New York, discrimination claims under Title VII, the Federal anti-discrimination statute, must be filed with the EEOC within 300 days after the unlawful practice occurred. Public employees, such as employees of school districts, towns, cities, or other municipalities or special districts, may also file discrimination claims under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Those claims must be filed within three years of the occurrence of the unlawful act. These time periods are known as the statute of limitations. Although these principles are well-settled, there is sometimes confusion about when the statute of limitations cuts off claims.

In employment discrimination law, there are “discrete acts” of discrimination such as a termination or a refusal to hire. But, there are also ongoing acts such as being assigned a disproportionate amount of work, as happened in Vega. The Court of Appeals held that “claims tied to discrete acts in an ongoing adverse employment action that occurred within the statute of limitations period are not time-barred.” In other words, although the plaintiff in Vega may have had some extra work assigned outside the limitations period, some work was assigned within the limitations period. So, those claims are actionable and are not barred.

Retaliation Under the Fourteenth Amendment

As noted, Title VII is the Federal anti-discrimination statute which prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on race, religion, national origin, and sex. The statute also provides a retaliation provision which protects employees who complain about or oppose discrimination, or participate in discrimination investigations. While private employees must use Title VII to bring discrimination claims, the law has been well settled that public employees are protected by the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment and can assert their discrimination claims under Title VII and/or the Fourteenth Amendment. The law was less clear, however, about whether public employees could bring retaliation claims under the Fourteenth Amendment. Indeed, most New York courts and most litigants believed such claims could not be brought. As the Vega Court noted, “We acknowledge that there has been considerable confusion surrounding the viability of retaliation claims under [the Constitution]” and further noted it had sent mixed signals about the claims in the past.

The Court laid the confusion to rest in Vega, holding that retaliation claims are viable for a public employee’s participation in a discrimination investigation or opposition to discrimination. The holding relied on the three principles: (1) retaliation is an impermissible reason to treat an employee differently for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause; (2) a Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim parallels a Title VII claim; and (3) retaliation is a form of discrimination. Accordingly, Federal law now affords New York public employees an additional avenue of redress for retaliation.

Pleading Standards

For the third time recent history, the Court of Appeals set forth the standard by which Courts should use to review whether discrimination complaints are pled properly. As noted previously, Vega confirmed that plaintiff do not need to plead a prima facie case of discrimination. Rather, the Court held plaintiffs must plausibly allege two things: (1) that the employer discriminated against him (2) because of membership in a protected class.

Conclusion

Vega is another important employee friendly decision issued by New York Federal Appellate Court this year. The case clarified different areas of employment law such as retaliation under the Constitution, statutes of limitations, and pleading standards. If you have questions about the Vega case or any other questions about employment law, call the employment lawyers at Famighetti & Weinick, PLLC at 631-352-0050 or visit our website at fwlawpllc.com.

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