The New York Court of Appeals recently overturned the dismissal of an employee’s discrimination claim under the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”), while at the same time upholding the dismissal of the employee’s disability claims under the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”).  In doing so, the Court of Appeals emphasized the more stringent pleading requirements under the city law, as compared to the state law.

The case, Romanello v. Intesa Sanpaolo, S.p.A., et al., __N.E. 2d __, 2013 WL 5566332 (Oct. 10, 2013), was brought by a bank executive who took a leave of absence from work due to illness, including major depression, during which time the bank continued to pay him his full salary.  After he was absent from work for 5 months, the bank sent his counsel a letter asking whether he intended to return to work or abandon his position.  In response, the executive’s counsel sent a letter stating that the executive had no intention to abandon his position, that he was unable to work and that his return to work date was “indeterminate.”  After receiving the letter, the bank terminated the executive’s employment.

The bank executive subsequently brought an action under the NYCHRL and the NYSHRL, alleging that he was discriminated against on the basis of his disability.  The state Supreme Court dismissed both the NYCHRL and NYSHRL causes of action, and the Appellate Division affirmed the dismissals.  On appeal, the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, affirmed the dismissal of the NYSHRL claim, holding that the indefinite leave requested by the plaintiff is not considered a reasonable accommodation under state law.  The Court of Appeals, however, reversed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s NYCHRL claim, emphasizing that the city law affords broader protections than the state law.

The Court of Appeals explained that, under the NYCHRL, an employer must “make reasonable accommodation to enable a person with a disability to satisfy the essential requisites of a job.”  Unlike the state law, however, the city law places the burden on the employer to plead and prove that the plaintiff could not perform his essential job function with an accommodation.  The Court of Appeals explained that “[c]ontrary to the [NYSHRL], it is the employer’s burden to prove undue hardship” under the NYCHRL.  More specifically, “the employer, not the employee, has the ‘pleading obligation’ to prove that the employee ‘could not, with reasonable accommodation, satisfy the essential requisites of the job.’”  Ultimately, because the employer made no such allegation in its pleadings, the Court of Appeals held that the city claim should not have been dismissed.

The decision serves as a reminder that city and state discrimination law claims must be approached differently based on the laws’ individual requirements, and that the NYCHRL requires an employer to plead and prove that a reasonable accommodation for a disabled employee would pose an undue hardship.  It also reminds employers that while indefinite leave is not considered a reasonable accommodation under New York State law, it may be reasonable under New York City law.