Taryn Phaneuf Apr. 13, 2016, 10:25am


NEW YORK (Legal Newsline) - A federal judge offered heavy criticism of a New York City law, saying the liberal standard of it allows even “baseless claims” to survive in court.

Judge Katherine B. Forrest of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York granted summary judgment, dismissing claims of racial discrimination and violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act in a lawsuit between a legal secretary and her former employer. However, she declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over related claims of violations of the New York City Human Rights Law.

In Rivera v. Crowell & Moring LLP, Nydia Rivera sued her former employer, a law firm, and her former supervisor, claiming she was fired in December 2012 for discriminatory reasons and denied FMLA benefits. Her employer countered she was terminated after missing too much work, despite warnings that she was encroaching on the maximum time-off allowed and could be fired.

Forrest ruled that the plaintiff failed to provide sufficient evidence of her claims.

“This Court believes this action is totally baseless and that no reasonable juror could conclude otherwise,” the judge wrote.

But dismissing federal claims still left those rooted in the city human rights law.

Federal judges can rule on a state law claim when it is related to federal claims, as it was in this case. It’s considered more efficient to have only one trial.

Forrest declined to analyze the human rights law claims, which other courts in the district have done as well, she said.

“That standard has evolved to the point that even claims of discrimination supported by only the flimsiest evidence, as is the case here, are difficult -- although not impossible -- for a federal court to resolve on summary judgment,” she wrote.

Michael Arnold, an attorney at Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo, told Legal Newsline the judge may feel frustrated over the time and resources it wastes to hear these kinds of cases.

“I can’t speak specifically to Judge Forrest or her feelings about the law other than what she wrote in her opinion, but I can say that the creation of a standard that makes it quite difficult to end cases at or before the summary judgment stage -- even when they should so obviously be ended -- drives up costs unnecessarily and creates additional settlement leverage for plaintiffs that they shouldn’t otherwise have,” Arnold said.

“She is taking the position that she will no longer do that where the federal or state claims fail.”

Forrest went on to say that the New York City Council should review the law.

Arnold doesn’t expect they will, though.

“The judge’s opinion is unlikely to change the law,” he said. “In fact, the city council has moved and continues to move in the exact opposite direction. It just passed a law… not only reaffirming the city human rights law’s requirement that judges utilize a liberal broad standard when interpreting its provisions, but the new law arguably made that standard even broader.”

But the decision could still have impact, Arnold said.

“If other federal judges cite to it as precedent in refusing to entertain city law claims, then plaintiff-employees may think twice before pursuing relief in a federal forum,” he said.

That may only affect the attorneys or plaintiffs who prefer litigating in federal court because of potentially faster proceedings and more favorable settlements. That still leaves the option to take the matter to state court, he noted.

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