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Clear-cut policies and solid documentation have enabled a not-for-profit human services agency to win prompt summary judgment in defending a discrimination claim. Franziska Racker Centers (FRC), an entity licensed by the New York Department of Health to provide services to developmentally disabled individuals, was hit with a lawsuit alleging racial, sexual and handicap discrimination after it fired an employee. But Senior U.S. District Judge Howard G. Munson dismissed the action on a summary judgment motion, mainly because FRC policies and records established a ready-made defense. The case, Harris v. Franziska Racker Centers, 5:02-CV-0189, began when James Harris was fired after two months on the job. Harris, who is black, complained that he was subjected to racial remarks by a co-worker, sexual seductions by a supervisor and discrimination based on a work-related injury he had suffered. But FRC was well-positioned to counter all of Harris’ claims, and did so to the satisfaction of Munson. The judge found that Harris may have been subjected to a couple of racial comments and a joke by a fellow employee. However, FRC’s records show that its supervisory staff was immediately receptive to Harris’ complaints and directed the offending employee to refrain from such activity. After that, there were no more complaints. “Plaintiff’s problem was addressed immediately, it was neither disregarded or left to languish,” Judge Munson wrote. “The employer used reasonable care to promptly address and further prevent the inappropriate conduct complained of by plaintiff, and incurred no hostile work place liability as a result.” Further, Munson said “boorish and inappropriate” comments and behavior do not automatically result in a hostile or abusive work environment. “The workplace plaintiff describes cannot, as a matter of law, be said to be permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently pervasive to alter the conditions of his employment and create an abusive working environment,” Munson said. FRC avoided liability on the sexual discrimination claim in part because it was able to document that the conduct complained of did not involve a supervisor. Under Burlington Industries Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998), an employer is presumed absolutely liable for sexual harassment only if the victim’s supervisor perpetrated the abuse. Here, Munson said the employee was Harris’ supervisor only in a colloquial sense as FRC records show clearly that the plaintiff was supervised by someone else. That left Harris with only one avenue on the sexual harassment allegation — namely, that FRC provided no reasonable means for him to initiate a complaint. But records show that FRC has procedures for investigating complaints of sexual misconduct, that Harris attended a new employee orientation program that described those procedures and that he signed a form acknowledging receipt of the employer’s Policy on Sexual Harassment. DISABILITY CLAIM Munson also rejected Harris’ claim that he was discriminated against based on a work-related disability. Medical records provided by FRC show that Harris did indeed suffer an injury when he was punched by a resident. But they also show that the injuries were relatively minor and temporary and, under 2nd Circuit precedent, did not implicate the Americans with Disabilities Act. Consequently, Harris was not owed any special accommodation. FRC claimed that Harris was fired for violating its written confidentiality policy and making “highly indiscreet, sexual oriented and conjectural comments” about residents at its facility. Franziska Racker Centers produced a copy of a statement where Harris acknowledged receiving the FRC confidential policy and thus “articulated a legitimate and non-discriminatory reason for firing plaintiff,” the court said. Mark B. Wheeler of Harris Beach in Ithaca, N.Y., appeared for Franziska Racker Centers. Thomas H. Kheel of Ithaca represents Harris.

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