New York’s highest court recently reinstated a former bank executive’s disability discrimination claim under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) and affirmed the dismissal of his claim under the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL). Romanello v. Intesa Sanpaolo, S.p.A., (N.Y. Oct. 10, 2013). In reaching this decision, the New York Court of Appeals reasoned that the NYCHRL affords broader protection to litigants and places the burden on employers to prove that an employee cannot, without reasonable accommodation, satisfy the essential requisites of the job. This decision serves as yet another reminder to New York City employers of the broad scope of the city’s anti-discrimination laws.
Giuseppe Romanello was an executive employed at the New York branch of Intesa Sanpaolo S.p.A. Romanello, who had been on paid leave for more than four months due to major depression and other illnesses, informed his inquiring employer through counsel that his return to work date was “indeterminate” but that he had no intention of abandoning his position. When the company responded by terminating his employment, Romanello filed a lawsuit under the state and city laws alleging disability discrimination. The lower court dismissed both causes of action, and the intermediate court affirmed on both counts.
On appeal, New York’s highest court, the New York Court of Appeals, affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of Romanello’s claims under the NYSHRL, ruling that indefinite leave is never considered a reasonable accommodation under that law. Under the state statute, “disability” is defined as one which “upon the provision of reasonable accommodations, do[es] not prevent the complainant from performing in a reasonable manner the activities involved in the job or occupation sought or held.” Because Romanello had never offered any indication as to when he would return to work, but rather seemed to hope he could keep his job by requesting an indefinite leave of absence, the court concluded that his state law claim was properly dismissed.
The Court of Appeals held that Romanello’s claim under the NYCHRL was plausible, however, because it affords broader protection than the NYSHRL. In particular, the court noted that the NYCHRL defines disability broadly in terms of “impairments” and places the burden on the employer to prove either: (1) that the employee could not, with reasonable accommodation, satisfy the essential requisites of the job or (2) that the accommodation would place an undue hardship on the company. Because the employer had not met its obligation to plead and prove that Romanello could not perform his essential job functions with an accommodation, the court reinstated the NYCHRL claim.