The Second Circuit recently invoked a 17th century fable in reviving an employee’s retaliation claim against her employer even where the employer had no retaliatory intent. In Vasquez v. Empress Ambulance Service, SDNY, 15-CV-3239, the Plaintiff, Andrea Vasquez, an Emergency Medical Technician, alleged that she was subjected to sexual advances by her dispatcher in part by sexually explicit text messages. Vasquez complained to her employer, who immediately launched an investigation. Unbeknownst to Vasquez or her employer, the dispatcher manufactured false text messages which showed that Vasquez was the aggressor. Indeed, one of the messages displayed a “racy photo” that Vasquez allegedly sent the dispatcher, though the photo did not contain Vasquez’s face. The employer credited the dispatcher’s story, and Vasquez was fired. She subsequently commenced a lawsuit.
Southern District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald dismissed Vasquez’s retaliation claims, finding that the employer could not have retaliatory intent because the employer was unaware that the text messages were manufactured. On August 29, 2016, the Second Circuit reversed, citing a 1679 fable authored by Jean de La Fontaine, entitled the “Monkey and the Cat”. According to the fable, a mischievous monkey lured an unsuspecting cat to fetch chestnuts from a burning hearth under the auspices that they will share the chestnuts. The monkey, however, stole the chestnuts, leaving the cat with nothing but burnt paws. In citing the fable, the Second Circuit held, “The employer plays the credulous cat to the malevolent monkey and, in doing so, allows itself to get burned – i.e., successfully sued”. The Second Circuit held that an employer exposes itself to liability where it automatically credits one employee’s accusations over another, and refuses to consider contrary evidence easily ascertained. This case serves as a lesson to employers in New York to conduct careful investigations of any claims of employee misconduct, lest they be left with burnt paws.