Small Claims | HIPPA Rights | Hostile Work Environment

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Court Halts Small Claims Abuse

Court Halts Small Claims Abuse

Through a little-known provision of New York’s District Court Act, this firm was able to obtain an injunction against a suspended patron of the Library, who had twice brought suit against the Library in small claims court.

After suspending the patron for violating Library policy against using its computers to view sexually explicit websites, and affording him an appeals hearing before the Board of Trustees, the patron brought suit against the Library in a Suffolk County small claims court for alleged “damages” as a result of that suspension. The suit was accompanied by several direct written communications to the Library, by fax and mail, demanding that he be compensated for having been suspended, and threatening to continue suing the Library unless he is paid. The suit was clearly frivolous, and the Library did not yield to his demands.

After the first suit was dismissed, the patron followed through on his promises, and sued the Library again, this time in a different Suffolk County small claims court. On the second go-round, rather than appearing, the Library moved to dismiss the action for, inter alia, failure to serve a notice of claim, and also moved for injunctive relief pursuant Section 1810 of the Uniform District Court Act. That section provides that “[t]he court upon such application may inquire into the circumstances and, if it shall find that the claim has already been adjudicated, or that the claim is sought to be brought on solely for purposes of oppression or harassment and not under color of right, it may make an order denying the claimant the use of the small claims part to prosecute the claim.” Based upon the prior action, as well as the written threats to continue harassing the library through litigation, the Court held that the “plaintiff should be prohibited from filing any further small claims actions against the defendant without first seeking Court approval.”

This section of the law is particularly useful for two reasons. First, it only costs $15 or $20 to file an action in Small Claims Court, depending on whether the plaintiff seeks over or under $1,000 (the jurisdictional limit in small claims is $5,000). Thus, the potential for abuse is much more prevalent than in Supreme Court, where, for example, the filing fee is currently $210, and another $95 for judicial intervention. Second, the State judiciary regulations explicitly carve out “proceedings in a small claims part of any court” as those in which reasonable attorneys’ fees are not available as a form of sanctions for frivolous conduct. See 22 NY CRR 130-1.1. The only other proceedings where attorneys’ fees are not available are actions brought in Family Court under Article 3,, 7 or 8 of the Family Court Act — in every other court the Judge had discretion to award fees for frivolous conduct.

All Those Lamaze Classes For Nothin’

All Those Lamaze Classes For Nothin’

In B. T. v. E. T., a pending divorce action, a wife sought an emergency order enjoining her husband from being present in the delivery room when she gives birth to the parties’ expectant child. The husband objected to the application. The judge granted the application in what he considered to be a “case of first impression” in New York.

After addressing and rejecting the husband’s procedural issues, and turning to the merits of the wife’s application, the Court explained “it is axiomatic that the wife, as a patient, has a legal right to determine the course of her medical treatment and the right to the utmost privacy in the receipt of medical care. This right includes the sole decision to consent to non-medical spectators, if any, who might seek access to her medical information or more intrusively, to be physically present during the rendering of medical care. Indeed, under the strong privacy rules created by the Federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”), the husband would not be entitled to access his wife’s medical records without her permission, no less force his attendance at the delivery of such care. As the right to medical care, and the privacy rights granted in the pursuit of that care, are rights that belong wholly and solely to the wife, this Court finds that the husband has no legal standing to challenge those rights, or a mother’s choices in that regard.”

The Court reasoned further that “if the Court were to grant the husband access to the delivery room against the wife’s wishes, it would create a potentially unsafe and volatile situation. The husband’s unwelcomed presence could cause additional stress on the wife and potentially disrupt medical personnel attempting to provide care to both mother and baby during this serious and vulnerable time. Moreover, such a ruling would suggest that the wife’s rights to make medical decisions about her own body are interpreted in so me way to be equal to, or subordinate to, the demands of the husband, which they clearly are not.”

In conclusion, the Court stated that it took “no position on the constitutional right of the husband to visit with the subject child once the medical treatment of the wife is complete, and the parties’ child is born, as his right to access in this regard is not before this Court on this limited emergency application. At this time, however, any claimed interest this husband has before the child’s birth are subordinate to the rights of the wife to privacy in her medical treatment.” This makes practical sense — the part where the wife swears at the husband like a truck driver is supposed to be near the end of the delivery, not the beginning.

Co-Worker’s Inappropriate Language Not Enough To Prove Hostile Work Environment

Co-Worker’s Inappropriate Language Not Enough To Prove Hostile Work Environment

In Charley v. Total Office Planning Services, Inc., an African-American lesbian union member, who was a first-year apprentice carpenter, brought an action against her employer, an office furniture installation company, and the shop steward, who worked with her and who reported her hours to the union, alleging among other things, a hostile work environment in violation of Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act, the New York State Human Rights Law, and the New York City Human Rights Law. The company moved for summary judgment.

According to the decision, on July 18, 2013, the company requested a “shoppy” and an apprentice for a job at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and the Union sent a shop steward and plaintiff Charley to the job on July 20, 2013. Charley worked on this job for six days, and the shop steward worked those same dates, plus two  additional days, as the steward must be the last person on the job pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement. Charley finished the job on July 26 and the steward finished on July 30.

The steward’s allegedly harassing behavior occurred on July 23, 2016, a day on which, in addition to the steward and Charley, the foreman worked at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. On that day, the steward told Charley that he had questioned his sexuality until the age of 21 because he “had a small penis all of his life.” Charley told the steward that, as a woman and a lesbian, his comments were offensive and inappropriate, as the steward “was her union representative and supervisor.” Later that day, while on the phone with a woman of West Indian descent, the steward yelled at Charley that “the union hired these fucking monkeys.” Charley expressed her strong disapproval of this statement and told the steward that it made her uncomfortable. In response, the steward told her that she should complain to the Union if she was offended and that African-Americans “call each other niggers all the time,” and so the use of such language should not offend her.

That same day, the steward asked to speak with Charley in her car. Due to her safety concerns, Charley asked him to meet her in the Rockefeller Center lobby. There, the steward apologized for his comments and gave Charley an updated union card that showed that her late union dues had been paid. Charley did not complain to the foreman on the job that day.

On July 30, the day after Charley had finished the job at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, she received a call from someone who said he was a union representative. The caller told her there was an open position in Queens if she needed work. Charley recognized the caller as the steward and hung up the phone. She sued.

On the company’s motion for summary judgment, the Court recognized that “the moving party must first ‘make a prima facie showing that it is entitled to summary judgment.’ If the moving party puts forth such a showing, the party opposing the entry of summary judgment must then present ‘sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party.’”

As for Charley’s hostile work environment claim, the Court said that it “requires a showing [1] that the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment, and [2] that a specific basis exists for imputing the objectionable conduct to the employer.” With respect to the first prong, the Court said that “this standard has both objective and subjective components: the conduct complained of must be severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would find it hostile or abusive, and the victim must subjectively perceive the work environment to be abusive. Courts must evaluate the circumstances as a whole, including ‘the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.’ Whether racial slurs constitute a hostile work environment typically depends upon the quantity, frequency, and severity of those slurs, considered cumulatively in order to obtain a realistic view of the work environment.”

With respect to the second prong, in order to impute an employee’s harassing behavior to an employer, the harassing employee must be properly classified as a supervisor, rather than a co-worker. “If the harassing employee is a supervisor, then the employer is liable for a hostile work environment created by the supervisor unless the employer can establish ‘that (1) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and  correct any harassing behavior and (2) that the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities that the employer provided.’ However, if the harassing employee is a co-worker, ‘the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions,’ and ‘either provided no reasonable avenue for complaint or knew of the harassment but did nothing about it.’”

Based on this law, the Court concluded that Charley’s hostile work environment claim failed, because she had not set forth sufficient facts from which a reasonable jury could determine that “a reasonable person would find the working environment at the company hostile or abusive.” The three statements by the steward that offended her, made over the course of a single day, were not directed at Charley or made in a physically threatening or humiliating manner, so they“ cannot provide a basis for a reasonable jury toconclude that the steward subjected Charley to hostile or abusive treatment.” The Court held that the steward’s treatment of Charley, “while completely inappropriate,” was not so severe or pervasive harassment so as to create a “hostile or abusive” work environment.”

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