Photo Credit: Spotmatik Ltd./Shutterstock.com

Citing the proximity in time between an African-American nurse supervisor’s internal complaint about racial discrimination and his firing, a state appeals court has decided that the nurse supervisor’s claim for retaliation should go forward.

In rejecting EmblemHealth Services Co.’s summary judgment motion aimed at dismissing the retaliation claim, an Appellate Division, First Department panel also pointed out that, viewed in the light most favorable to former employee and plaintiff Michael Cook, the court record “provides additional support for an inference of retaliation” because EmblemHealth and co-defendant Benjamin Nodar “never investigated, or even acknowledged, [Cook’s] final complaint [about racial stereotyping and discrimination] and the fact that [he] was terminated for conduct comparable to his supervisee conduct, for which the supervisee only received a mild reprimand.”

Cook, a registered nurse for more than 20 years while working for EmblemHealth and a former U.S. Navy hospital corpsman, launched a lawsuit in 2013 against EmblemHealth and two of the health company’s white employees alleging racial stereotyping and discrimination, as well as retaliation, under the New York City Human Rights Law, according to court records.

The appeal before the First Department panel addressed the defendants’ motion for summary judgment dismissal of the retaliation claim against EmblemHealth and one of the employees, Benjamin Nodar, a former supervisor of Cook’s.

The unanimous panel, in its Dec. 11 opinion, affirmed Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe’s March 2018 decision denying the motion for summary judgment.

The panel, composed of Justices John Sweeny, Dianne Renwick, Angela Mazzarelli, Jeffrey Oing and Peter Moulton, wrote that “the temporal proximity between [Cook’s] complaints to his employer that he was subjected to racial stereotyping and discrimination and the termination of his employment in close succession to his last complaint is sufficient to raise an inference of a causal connection between [Cook’s] protected activity and the disadvantaging employment action taken against him,” citing Harrington v City of New York, 157 AD3d 582 and Krebaum v Capital One, N.A., 138 AD3d 528.

The justices also pointed to the fact that EmblemHealth and Nodar “never investigated, or even acknowledged, plaintiff’s final complaint and the fact that plaintiff was terminated for conduct comparable to his supervisee’s conduct, for which the supervisee only received a mild reprimand.”

According to a complaint filed by Cook, Nodar had unfairly labeled his interactions with certain white employees at EmblemHealth as “aggressive” and “authoritarian,” and that the labels amounted to a “hackneyed stereotype” of him being an “angry black man.”

Christopher Brennan, an attorney at Ziegler, Ziegler & Associates in New York, who represented Cook, said in an email that the panel’s decision “is important because it is reflective of New York City’s commitment to giving victims of race-based discrimination a voice and the opportunity to have their day in court.” He also noted that “New York City is seen as a place where people of all sexes, races and religions are provided substantial protections against employment discrimination.”

Michael Schmidt, an office managing partner at Cozen O’Connor in New York, represented EmblemHealth and Nodar. He could not be reached for comment.