Spiegel v. Schulmann, No. 06-5914 (2d Cir. May 6, 2010)

By Paul Mollica

The Second Circuit vacates and remands summary judgment on a disability discrimination/retaliation claim brought against by two plaintiffs against a karate studio under the ADA, and the New York State and City Human Rights Laws (NYSHRA and NYCHRA). The decision comes down to a single evidentiary flub by the district court judge, and a recent amendment to the NYCHRA that broadened its scope.

Spiegel v. Schulmann, No. 06-5914 (2d Cir. May 6, 2010): The employees alleged that after complaining to their employer that Speigel suffered discrimination on account of his weight, and threatening to file a charge with the state agency, one was fired and the other was sued (on an allegedly bogus, interference-with-contract claim). The ensuing civil action alleged disability discrimination and retaliation under federal, state and local law. The district court judge granted summary judgment as to most of plaintiffs claims, and also refused supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining claim.

The panel, while upholding summary judgment on the federal and state law claims, reverses and remands the New York City law claim. The panel at the outset rejects the plaintiffs’ theory that, under federal law, an individual supervisor may be held personally liable for ADA retaliation. It decides that â€œrecord [is] insufficient to demonstrate a genuine factual dispute with respect to whether Spiegel was medically incapable of losing weight such that he might have qualified as disabled under the NYSHRL. The panel also holds that the district court did not abuse its discretion in declining supplemental jurisdiction over a novel state law, which would require the district court to decide whether the filing of a meritless lawsuit was an act of retaliation.

But on the NYCHRL claim, the panel finds grounds for reversal. First, the panel holds that the district court abused its discretion by excluding a statement by the employee’s manager: “In making this determination, the district court acknowledged Spiegel’ s deposition testimony that Vincent Gravina, who was the â€˜leader’ of the Bensonhurst Center at the time of Spiegel’s termination from that center, had initially told Spiegel that the termination was based on his weight.” This admission ought to have allowed, according to the district court, under Fed. R. Evid. 801(d)(2).

Moreover, the court holds that the statement presented a genuine issue of material fact about intent. Although plaintiff’s proof of his disability was insufficient to make out a claim under the ADA and NYSHRA, the panel finds that New York City law was distinctive: “Neither the New York Court of Appeals nor any intermediate New York appellate court has addressed the question whether obesity alone constitutes a disability for the purposes of the NYCHRL. The New York courts have recently noted that, under the Local Civil Rights Restoration Act of 2005, Local Law No. 85 of the City of New York, ‘analysis [of NYCHRL provisions] must be targeted to understanding and fulfilling what the statute characterizes as the City HRL’s ‘uniquely broad and remedial’ purposes, which go beyond those of counterpart State or federal civil rights laws.'”

The case is remanded to allow the district court to decide, in the first instance, whether obesity counts as a covered form of “disability” under the NYCHRA.