Recent Court Ruling Does Not Preclude Individual Employment Discrimination Claims On Grounds of Collateral Estoppel

By Stephen Mc Quade

In a recent decision involving a civil action initiated by, inter alia, the Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association (“Union”) against the City of New York (“City”) and the New York City Department of Correction (“DOC”) alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), the New York State Human Rights Law (“SHRL”) and the New York City Human Rights Law (“CHRL”), the Court permitted the Union’s claims under these three statutes for disparate discriminatory impact to survive the City/DOC’s motion to dismiss.  Although the Court dismissed the Union’s claims under these three statutes for disparate discriminatory treatment, the most pertinent portions of the Court’s decision focuses on its rejection of the City/DOC’s asserted affirmative defenses of collateral estoppel and res judicata.

In the instant matter, the Union alleges that the City and DOC implemented a one-year cap on the amount of accrued terminal leave, compensatory time, and annual leave an employee in the civil service ranks of Deputy Warden and Deputy Warden in Command (collectively, “DW”) can be remunerated for, upon retirement.  The Union further alleges that DWs, who perform comparable duties and responsibilities to Captains and Deputy Inspectors in the New York City Police Department (“NYPD”) and Battalion Chiefs and Deputy Chiefs in the Fire Department of the City of New York (“FDNY”), are demographically comprised of individuals in protected classes based on race, nationality, and gender.  In contrast, employees in these other civil service ranks within the NYPD and FDNY are demographically comprised of individuals that are white males.  As such, according to the Union, the City refuses to apply this one-year cap on these other civil service ranks.

Procedurally, the Union initially grieved the DOC’s application of the one-year cap through the grievance/arbitration provision set forth in the collective bargaining agreement by and between the City and Union.  There, the arbitrator ruled against the Union stating that the DOC had not violated, misinterpreted, or misapplied any provision of the collective bargaining agreement, or the DOC’s rules and regulations through the unilateral imposition of the one-year cap.  The Union then appealed the arbitration award to the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of New York, through a petition pursuant to New York Civil Practice Law and Rules Article 75.  The state court, reviewing the legality of the arbitration award through the narrow lens of an Article 75 proceeding, determined that the award did not, inter alia, violate public policy.  Subsequently, the Union filed an administrative complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging discrimination based on race, nationality, and gender with respect to the one-year cap, which then resulted in the initiation of the instant matter in federal court.

In allowing the Union’s disparate impact claims to survive the City/DOC’s motion to dismiss, the Court held that the Union “satisfied the threshold pleading standard” under Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009), by sufficiently alleging that the City did not apply the one-year cap to the employees who occupy these predominantly white, male ranks within the NYPD and FDNY.  More importantly, the Court rejected the City/DOC’s argument that the Union’s claims should be dismissed because the doctrines of collateral estoppel and res judicata precluded the Union from litigating these same causes of action in different judicial forums.  In addressing this issue, the Court held that “[t]he public policy ground for vacating an arbitration award in an Article 75 proceeding is narrow.”  The Court further stated that “it is not the province of an Article 75 proceeding in considering the public policy exception to engage in extended factfinding or legal analysis.”  As such, the Court found that “the state judge would be required to do [exactly that] in analyzing [the Union’s] disparate-impact claims and determining whether [the Union has] adduced the requisite factual evidence to establish causation” under Title VII, the SHRL, and the CHRL.

Going forward, this type of decision provides some comfort to public sector unions in the City of New York seeking to protect their members’ rights through the grievance/arbitration provisions of their collective bargaining agreement, while, at the same time, not forsaking, diminishing, or inhibiting the members’ individual rights under Title VII, the SHRL, and the CHRL.

For the full text of this decision, please review Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association v. City of New York, 2016 WL 1622879 (Docket No.: 14-CV-4308) (E.D.N.Y April 22, 2016) (U.S.D.J. Block).

 

StephenMcQuade

 

Stephen Mc Quade is an Associate in the Labor Practice Group at Certilman Balin.

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