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James M. Hazen v. Hill Betts & Nash

January 5, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Catterson, J.

Hazen v Hill Betts & Nash, LLP

Decided on January 5, 2012

Appellate Division, First Department

Published by New York State Law Reporting Bureau pursuant to Judiciary Law § 431.

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the Official Reports.

Angela M. Mazzarelli, J.P. James M. Catterson Leland G. DeGrasse Sheila Abdus-Salaam, Nelson S. Roman, JJ.

Petitioner James Hazen challenges a determination of respondent State Division of Human Rights, dated October 27, 2010, which, in this employment discrimination proceeding (transferred to this Court, pursuant to Executive Law § 298 and 22 NYCRR 202.57(c)(2), by order of the Supreme Court, New York County [Lucy Billings, J.], entered March 11, 2011), after a hearing, found that respondent Hill Betts & Nash, LLP unlawfully discriminated against him, and awarded him damages. William H. Roth, New York, for petitioner/respondent. Jackson Lewis LLP, New York (Diane Windholz of counsel), for respondent/petitioner. CATTERSON, J.

In this employment discrimination action arising from the termination of the petitioner attorney by the respondent law firm, we reiterate that a petitioner's disability does not shield him from the consequences of workplace misconduct.

Respondent Hill Betts & Nash (hereinafter referred to as "HBN") terminated the petitioner, James Hazen, on March 15, 2006, upon discovering that the petitioner charged hotel rooms, limousines, alcohol, adult movies and calls to escort services to his corporate American Express card and then attempted to have these charges billed to clients. On August 30, 2006, HBN reported the petitioner's misconduct to the Departmental Disciplinary Committee for the First Judicial Department (hereinafter referred to as the "DDC"). The petitioner filed a verified complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights (hereinafter referred to as the "DHR") on November 7, 2006 charging HBN with unlawful discrimination and retaliation. The petitioner claims that his misconduct was caused by his bipolar disorder, that HBN failed to accommodate his mental illness, that his termination was discriminatory, and that HBN retaliated against him by reporting him to the DDC.

Evidence and testimony before the Administrative Law Judge (hereinafter referred to as "ALJ") at a public hearing held during four days in December 2007 and January 2008 established the following: The petitioner was one of several partners at HBN who were issued a corporate American Express card for business expenses. HBN permitted Hazen to use the credit card for personal expenses, but required that he identify these charges and reimburse HBN. HBN's policy is to send each cardholder a sub-statement to mark up with notations indicating whether the charges are personal, chargeable to the firm or a client, or related to travel, entertainment or automobile expenses. It was not HBN's practice to return the statement to the cardholder for further review. The petitioner testified that until the period at issue in this case, he had adhered to this procedure and returned marked-up sub-statements with any receipts and payment for his personal charges.

However, in December 2005, when the petitioner was provided with a sub-statement for the last quarter of 2005, he ignored requests from HBN's accounting department and did not submit his annotated sub-statement. The petitioner stopped coming to the office in mid-December, and advised HBN that he was told to "decompress." On January 11, 2006, a partner at HBN contacted the petitioner and asked him to submit his credit card sub-statement on the following day so that the accounting department could close out the 2005 books. The petitioner sent a fax in reply stating that he could not "waste two hours coming in [to] do the bills," but that he would mark up the sub-statement and fax it to accounting. When he did not send in the sub-statement on January 12, the accounting department e-mailed the sub-statement to the petitioner again and copied two partners at HBN. That evening, one of the partners reviewed the bills, and, seeing charges for more than 50 hotel stays between September 26 and December 27, 2005, initiated an internal investigation of the petitioner's credit card use.

The day after the petitioner received the e-mail from HBN's accounting department, he asked Phillip Russotti, his friend, also an attorney, to intervene on his behalf. Russotti testified that the petitioner advised him that he was having a problem at work with his credit card reports and that the firm was demanding that he complete them. Later that day, Russotti called a partner at HBN and advised him that he had met with the petitioner and found him in a "terrible state" and that the petitioner planned to begin seeing a psychiatrist. HBN presented evidence that until this point, it was unaware that the petitioner was having any mental health issues. Russotti also requested more time for the petitioner to prepare his expense reports.

The evidence reflects that the petitioner saw a doctor on January 16. On January 17 and 25, Russotti advised HBN that the petitioner was suffering from a mental ailment, but did not specify the ailment. On January 23, the petitioner faxed the accounting department his annotated credit card sub-statement. The same day, HBN requested medical documentation supporting the petitioner's claim of mental illness and inability to return to work. However, on January 26, petitioner refused to discuss his purported illness with HBN citing "privacy" reasons.

On January 27, Russotti mailed a copy of a one-page letter from the petitioner's doctor stating that the petitioner had experienced an unspecified "severe mood disorder." None of the correspondence contained any medical documentation of bipolar disorder or a description of the petitioner's workplace limitations as a result of his "disorder." The letter indicated only that the petitioner ...

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