Chiara v. Town of New Castle, (N.Y. App. Div., 2d Dep’t Jan. 14, 2015): A recent decision by the New York Appellate Division, Second Department, held that a plaintiff claiming religious discrimination under the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) can establish a prima facie case by alleging that he was discriminated against because of the religion of his spouse. In Chiara, the Second Department reversed the lower court’s award of summary judgment to the Town of New Castle. The plaintiff claimed that the Town terminated his employment because he was married to a Jewish person, even though he was not Jewish himself. In so doing, the Appellate Division rejected the Town’s argument that the plaintiff could not establish a prima facie case because he was not a member of the Jewish faith, and that there was no state court precedent for permitting a discrimination claim under the NYSHRL based upon the religion of a plaintiff’s spouse.
While acknowledging that this was a case of first impression and that the plaintiff was not Jewish, the Second Department permitted his discrimination claim to proceed based on his marital relationship with a member of a protected class. The Second Department cited federal case law, reasoning that claims under the NYSHRL are analytically identical to claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and noting that several U.S. Courts of Appeal, including the Second Circuit, have interpreted Title VII to permit suits by employees based on their association with other individuals. In light of that jurisprudence, the Second Department saw “no reason to construe the [NYSHRL] more restrictively than [Title VII],” and permitted the plaintiff to proceed with his claim. The holding is illustrative of the broad interpretation that New York courts continue to afford the NYSHRL. Employers covered by the NYSHRL should be mindful that the statute’s protections will be interpreted to extend to discrimination based upon an employee’s association with someone in a protected class, even when that employee is not a member of a protected class.