Why it matters

Does nepotism constitute national origin discrimination? Not according to a New York federal court considering a claim that a nursing home manager hired his relatives of Albanian or Montenegrin descent in violation of Title VII. A maintenance employee of Guyanese Indian descent, Bhairo Hiralall was transferred to housekeeping, where he worked with his manager's nephew, with whom he did not get along. After he was terminated, Hiralall sued under Title VII, arguing that he was discriminated against because of his national origin. The court was not persuaded by one comment that "You people are only here to make trouble" because it was unclear who "you people" referred to. Further, the allegations of nepotism were not actionable under Title VII. "[S]howing a preference for one's family members, to the detriment of several other races or nationalities, does not amount to disparate treatment against a protected class," the court wrote, even if the nepotism is pernicious.

Detailed discussion

A Guyanese male of Indian descent, Bhairo Hiralall was employed at Throgs Neck Extended Care Facility, a 205-bed nursing home and rehabilitation facility in the Bronx, for more than 17 years. He began as a housekeeper in 1996 and was promoted to the maintenance department as a painter in 2001. The facility also employed his wife, sister-in-law, and two brothers-in-law.

Hiralall's employment was uneventful until late 2008 when his manager, the Director of Environmental Services, transferred him from maintenance back to housekeeping, albeit without a reduction in pay or benefits. The manager, a man of Montenegrin descent, also hired his nephew around the same time. In 2009, the nephew replaced him as Director of Environmental Services.

The nephew and Hiralall did not get along. Hiralall was asked to resume some of his painting duties while still in the housekeeping department and he filed multiple complaints. He refused to accept a position as a "floater" between the departments. In 2011, the nephew accused him of changing a posted work schedule and watching television during his shift. Hiralall denied the charges and the nephew responded, "You people [are] only here to make trouble."

Hiralall filed a formal grievance with the union about his general mistreatment. Neither in the formal grievance nor in the many informal complaints he filed did he complain of discrimination based on his nationality. In 2013, his contentious relationship with the nephew came to a head and he was terminated for insubordination. Until he was fired, Hiralall was the highest-paid nonsupervisory employee in the housekeeping department.

He filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and a lawsuit alleging discrimination in violation of Title VII based on his national origin in New York federal court. The facility moved for summary judgment and U.S. District Court Judge George B. Daniels granted the motion.

Many of the incidents relied upon by the plaintiff that allegedly contributed to a hostile work environment were time-barred, the court found, and none of the circumstances that survived constituted an adverse employment action.

In addition, Hiralall "has not shown any admissible evidence that [his manager] or [the nephew] had a pattern of activities specifically motivated by animus towards Guyanese of Indian descent," the court said. "Plaintiff's sole 'smoking gun' incident, in which [the nephew] accused him of tampering with the posted work schedule and yelled 'You people [are] only here to make trouble,' is far from the 'steady barrage of opprobrious racial comments' or extremely serious isolated incidents that are actionable under Title VII."

The hiring of relatives of Albanian or Montenegrin descent does not demonstrate discrimination against Guyanese of Indian descent or other nationalities, the court added. "Nepotism, in this case, is not evidence of actionable discrimination because showing a preference for one's family members, to the detriment of several other races or nationalities, does not amount to disparate treatment against a protected class," Judge Daniels wrote.

For similar reasons, the plaintiff's retaliation claims were dismissed by the court, as "much of the conduct Plaintiff contends are retaliatory adverse employment actions are objectively too trivial to dissuade a reasonable employee from making or supporting a charge of discrimination," the court said.

The employer's stated reason for termination—insubordination—was based on undisputed evidence of the plaintiff's behavior at a meeting where he refused to follow a workplace directive from the nephew despite multiple chances, leaving Hiralall unable to establish pretext, the court concluded, granting summary judgment in favor of the employer.

To read the opinion in Hiralall v. Sentoascare, LLC, click here.