Age Discrimination Claim Dismissed; Section 1983 Action Moves Forward
This column reports on several significant, representative decisions handed down recently in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Judge Brian M. Cogan held that, by requiring certain employer-plaintiffs affiliated with the Catholic Church to file exemption forms regarding insurance for contraceptive services and to submit the forms to their insurers or third-party administrators, the Affordable Care Act violated plaintiffs' religious rights. Judge Arthur D. Spatt rejected age discrimination claims by a long-time company employee terminated at age 64. Judge Jack B. Weinstein held that the City of New York and three police offers could be liable under section 1983 for damages resulting from a federal prosecution based on the officers' allegedly false testimony. And Judge Spatt, awarding attorney fees to defendants as sanctions where two plaintiffs in a class action case failed to appear for their depositions, reduced the amount requested by 40 percent.
In The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York v. Sebelius, 12 CV 2542 (EDNY, Dec. 13, 2013), Judge Cogan held that The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) violated the rights of certain organizations affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church by requiring them to engage in administrative steps that amounted to cooperation in the provision of contraceptive services to their employees, in violation of their religious principles.
The ACA regulations require an employer who asserts religious objections to the provision of contraceptive services to complete a self-certification form stating that it is eligible for an exemption from the mandatory provision of such services, and to provide a copy of that form to its insurer or, in the case of a self-insuring entity, to its third-party administrator. The insurer or administrator is then "required to provide or arrange for payment of contraceptive services." Slip op. 10.
Plaintiffs alleged that mandatory participation in this process violated their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which provides that the government "may substantially burden a person's exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest." Slip op. 16, citing 42 U.S.C. §2000bb-1(b).
Cogan rejected the government's argument that the mere act of providing a self-certification is too attenuated to be substantial under RFRA. "[W]here a law places substantial pressure on a plaintiff to perform affirmative acts contrary to his religion, the Supreme Court has found a substantial burden without analyzing whether those acts are de minimis. …There is no way that a court can, or should, determine that a coerced violation of conscience is of insufficient quantum to merit constitutional protection." Slip op. 24-25.
The government failed to show that there was no less restrictive means of advancing its stated interest in improving public health and equalizing women's access to health care. It could, for example, provide "contraceptive services or insurance coverage directly to plaintiffs' employees, or work with third parties—be it insurers, health care provides, drug manufacturers, or non-profits—to do so without requiring plaintiffs' active participation." Slip op. 34.
The court therefore granted summary judgment to the four plaintiffs who were subject to the self-certification requirements of the ACA regulations. Cogan granted summary judgment to the government dismissing the claims of two plaintiffs (the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Rockville Center) that qualified as "religious employers" under the ACA and were therefore exempt from the self-certification requirements. Slip op. 28-29, 41.
In Robles v. Cox and Company, 11 CV 1975 (EDNY, Nov. 23, 2013), Judge Spatt found defendant entitled to summary judgment on plaintiff's age discrimination claim.
Plaintiff Carmen Robles was terminated by defendant, a manufacturer for the aerospace industry, when she was 64 years old. She had worked there in various positions for more than 40 years. At the time of her termination, in April 2009, she had been working for some seven years in the stockroom. At issue here were her claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. §621 et seq.; and the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y.C. Admin. Code §8-107(1)(a) et seq.
Though the New York State Department of Human Rights had found probable cause to support the alleged age discrimination, Spatt held that plaintiff had failed to make out a prima facie case; and that, in any event, defendant had met its burden of showing non-discriminatory reasons for the discharge. The court emphasized the following factors:
• Plaintiff's termination was part of a reduction in force in several steps, whereby defendant, facing financial difficulties, laid off 52 workers—nearly a third of its employees.
• While plaintiff was the oldest of five full-time employees in the stockroom (one other, in her 50s, was also terminated), a company-wide review of the layoffs shows that (1) defendant retained a number of employees in the protected class—that is, over the age of 40; and (2) employees under 40 also lost their jobs.