A district court improperly granted summary judgment to an employer defending against a claim of disability discrimination where the district court relied too heavily on the state agency’s finding that an employee failed to establish his prima facie case of discrimination, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held. Cortes v. MTA New York City Transit, 2nd Cir., No. 17-7123-cv (Sep. 4, 2015)

The New York City transit authority (MTA) employed Juan Cortes as a train operator. The employee suffered a back injury and, pursuant to his collective bargaining agreement, was required to undergo a full physical examination by the City’s medical staff prior to returning to work. This examination revealed a cardiac abnormality, which had the potential to be extremely dangerous. Because of the safety-related issues involved with Cortes’s job, he could not be returned to his train operator position until he was medically cleared. Additional tests were then recommended.

The MTA provided Cortes with two months to report the results of his additional medical testing so that MTA’s medical staff could make a final determination as to Cortes’ ability to meet the physical requirements of his job. Cortes, however, was not able to meet this two-month deadline. The MTA then reclassified his work restrictions from temporary to permanent, which allowed the MTA to place the employee in a different position.

For several reasons, Cortes did not obtain the results of his tests until months after the deadline. He then failed to immediately report that the results found no cardiac abnormality. Instead, he waited an additional three months before informing MTA of his results. After reviewing the results of his additional medical testing, MTA’s doctors lifted the work restrictions and the employee was again placed in a train operator position—albeit only non-passenger trains.

During the year it took for the employee to be cleared to return to work as a train operator, the employee filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights (NYSDHR) alleging that MTA discriminated against him on the basis of his disability by failing to accommodate his disability. The NYSDHR dismissed the complaint finding that the employee failed to comply with the requirements to be released to work. The Division also found that the employee failed to request an accommodation. As a result, there was no basis for his claim.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York granted summary judgment to MTA on the basis that the NYSDHR’s findings of fact should be accorded “substantial weight” because it conducted what the court viewed as an independent and unbiased hearing on the issue and dismissed the employee’s claim. It therefore held that to prevail on his claims, an employee must show that the NYSDHR’s decision was incorrect as a matter of fact, or that its impartiality was tainted. Because, in its view, Cortes merely “rehashed” the same facts and arguments he presented to the NYSDHR, he fell far short of meeting his burden.

The Second Circuit vacated the district court’s decision on the employee’s discrimination claim on the basis that the district court improperly relied on the NYSDHR’s decision. The Second Circuit noted that such great deference is normally only reserved for arbitration decisions that are binding where an employer has contractually ceded final decision-making authority to the arbitrator. The court also noted that although state agency findings are admissible as evidence, courts do not “give preclusive effect to state agency decisions unless they have been reviewed in a state court proceeding.” Thus, the district court improperly afforded a higher level of deference to the NYSDHR’s decision than was warranted. For that reason, the decision was remanded to the district court on the issue of disability discrimination.

Insights for Employers

While this decision may not be groundbreaking, it does offer a cautionary tale for employers who misunderstand the burdens of proof, or who seek to rely too much on previous favorable findings from administrative agencies. Indeed, it is widely known that the dismissal of an employee’s discrimination claim by a state agency neither prevents the employee from filing a claim in federal court, nor requires that the court reach the same decision as the agency. Therefore, employers later litigating these same discrimination claims must offer credible evidence separate and apart from agency findings that their actions were non-discriminatory.