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Brooks v. City of Utica

United States District Court, N.D. New York

July 28, 2017

JOHN BROOKS, Plaintiff,
CITY OF UTICA, Defendant.




         Plaintiff John Brooks commenced this action against Defendant City of Utica alleging religious discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYS HRL”), N.Y. Exec. Law § 296. Dkt. No. 1 (“Complaint”). Presently before the Court is Defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings. Dkt. No. 11 (“Motion”); see also Dkt. No. 11-4 (“Memorandum”). Plaintiff opposes the motion, Dkt. No. 14 (“Response”), and Defendant filed a reply, Dkt. No. 18 (“Reply”). For the following reasons, Defendant's Motion is granted in part and denied in part.


         A. Factual Background

         Plaintiff has worked for Defendant as a firefighter-paramedic since around August 16, 2006, and he has been a practicing Nazirite since 2014. Compl. ¶¶ 15-16. An integral part of Plaintiff's religious observance is not cutting his hair. Id. ¶ 18, Ex. D. Around January 17, 2015, Plaintiff informed Deputy Chief Michael Wusik that he was a practicing Nazirite and requested a reasonable accommodation for his religious beliefs. Id. ¶ 20, Ex. C.

         On or about January 21, 2015, Lieutenant Fasolo inspected Plaintiff's uniform, and Deputy Chief John Kelly ordered him to cut his hair by January 25, 2015, “or face the possibility of being relieved of duty.” Id. ¶¶ 21-22, Ex. D.[1] Plaintiff immediately submitted a “special report” to Kelly explaining his religious beliefs and requesting a reasonable accommodation. Id. ¶ 24, Ex. D. Plaintiff followed up with an email to Kelly citing the City of Utica Employee Handbook, which indicated the availability of accommodations for sincerely held religious beliefs. Id. ¶ 25, Ex. E. Plaintiff also requested permission to contact the department head about obtaining an accommodation. Id. Ex. E. The next day, Plaintiff met with his designated harassment officer, Lori Wrobel Rockwell. Id. ¶ 26. Rockwell told Plaintiff that, according to Defendant's Assistant Corporation Counsel, the reasonable accommodation policy did not apply to the Utica Fire Department. Id. ¶ 27. For this reason, Rockwell would not allow Plaintiff to file a discrimination complaint. Id.

         Around January 25, 2015, Kelly delivered a letter to Plaintiff from Assistant Chief George Clark ordering Plaintiff to cut his hair. Id. ¶ 28, Ex. F. The letter cited safety concerns and Defendant's grooming standards. Id. Ex. F. It also instructed Plaintiff to return to Clark's office on January 29, 2015, and noted that if Plaintiff did not comply, he may face disciplinary action. Id. Plaintiff then met with Clark, who “interrogated Plaintiff about his religious beliefs, questioned that Nazirites are prohibited from cutting their head hair [and] accused Plaintiff of being ‘anti-establishment.'” Id. ¶ 30. Clark also “ordered Plaintiff to wear an ill-fitting baseball cap” until Defendant's Corporation Counsel researched the need to accommodate Plaintiff's religious beliefs. Id. Clark further said the order to wear the baseball cap was not an accommodation. Id. ¶ 31.

         Following this meeting, Plaintiff “was subjected to daily uniform inspections and threats of disciplinary action despite his repeated requests for an accommodation.” Id. ¶ 32. On or about May 1, 2015, Plaintiff reported to Clark's office, where he was ordered to wear a hairnet at all times and reminded that the daily inspections would continue. Id. ¶¶ 33-35. Plaintiff also received written orders requiring him to “wear[] a hair restraint/net” or hair “bands.” Id. Ex. G. These written orders noted “numerous complaints regarding [Plaintiff's] appearance” and stated that the complaints “involve[d] the perceived lack of professional appearance while on duty.” Id. Clark told Plaintiff that “failure to [restrain your hair] may result in disciplinary action, ” and that “if it is determined [Plaintiff is] not a Nazarite or [has] in fact never been a Nazarite, disciplinary action may also occur.” Id.

         On or about May 5, 2015, Plaintiff sent a letter to Rockwell about the ongoing harassment. Id. ¶ 38. Plaintiff asked Rockwell to accept his complaint of discrimination and open an investigation into his claims. Id. After several phone calls and personal visits to Rockwell's office, Plaintiff was given a complaint form. Id. ¶ 39. Around June 1, 2015, “Plaintiff filed a written complaint with Rockwell.” Id. ¶ 40. Defendant never formally responded to the complaint, and did not investigate his claims. Id. ¶¶ 41-42. Over two weeks later, Plaintiff sent an email to “all members of the Corporation Counsel and . . . Rockwell” asking about his complaint and requests for accommodation. Id. ¶ 44.

         After he received the email, Wusik confronted Plaintiff at the firehouse and stated, “you have no respect for yourself or your father.” Id. ¶¶ 45-47.[2] He then tapped Plaintiff on the head with an envelope and said, “I don't understand guys like you.” Id. ¶ 47. Wusik “smirked and scoffed when Plaintiff . . . attempted to explain that his religious beliefs prevented him from cutting his . . . hair.” Id. ¶ 48.

         On or about June 19, 2015, Plaintiff sent a letter to the Mayor of Utica outlining his struggle to obtain an accommodation for his religious beliefs. Id. ¶ 49. In the letter, Plaintiff mentioned that “[a]fter a few work days of wearing a hairnet to work, I found that it was unsafe for me to operate my air tank while wearing it. I have refused to wear it since.” Id. Ex. H. Plaintiff also notes in the Complaint that since 2014, Defendant has employed three to four female firefighters who all have the same or similar duties as Plaintiff. Id. ¶¶ 50-51. These female firefighters' hair is as long as or longer than his, and they are not punished for that or required to wear hairnets or baseball caps. Id. ¶¶ 52-55. Nor are they subjected to constant threats of discipline or singled out for daily inspections and monitoring. Id. ¶¶ 56-57. Under Defendant's grooming policy, female firefighters with long hair must wear a ponytail while on duty, but can wear their hair down while not on calls. Id. ¶¶ 58, 60. Plaintiff, on the other hand, wears his hair in a ponytail at all times. Id. ¶ 59. In addition to these gender differences in grooming policy enforcement, Plaintiff indicates that “[o]ther religious accommodations for other faiths are commonly made by [Defendant].” Id. Ex. D. Plaintiff stresses that Defendant's policy is to reasonably accommodate an employee's sincerely held religious beliefs if they conflict with grooming standards. Id. ¶ 62. Further, while Defendant initially raised safety concerns regarding Plaintiff's hair, it never determined whether the length of Plaintiff's hair interfered with safety equipment. Id. ¶ 66.

         Around June 20, 2015, after Plaintiff filed a verified complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights (“NYS DHR”), he attended a meeting with his union representative and Defendant's outside legal counsel. Id. ¶ 67. At the meeting, Defendant's counsel told Plaintiff there would be no investigation into his complaints and compared his request for an accommodation to “a paraplegic asking for an accommodation to become a firefighter.” Id. ¶ 68.

         About one month later, Plaintiff served a notice of claim on Defendant, alleging religious discrimination and retaliation. Id. ¶ 69. On or about May 24, 2016, at a hearing conducted pursuant to New York General Municipal Law section 50-h, Defendant questioned Plaintiff under oath about the allegations in the notice of claim. Id. ¶ 70. Plaintiff's requests for a reasonable accommodation are still outstanding. Id. ¶ 71.

         B. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed his Complaint on December 2, 2016. Compl. Defendant answered on January 31, 2017, and later filed an amended answer. Dkt. No. 7 (“Answer”); Dkt. No. 9 (“Amended Answer”). Defendant then moved for judgment on the pleadings on February 24, 2017. Mot. Defendant argues that Plaintiff's discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment claims must be dismissed because he has not alleged an adverse employment action. Mem. at 6, 11, 20. Defendant also argues that it provided Plaintiff with a reasonable accommodation, and that the state claims under the NYS HRL should be dismissed in the event that their corresponding federal claims are dismissed. Id. at 24.


         In considering a motion for judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), courts “employ[] the same standard applicable to dismissals” under Rule 12(b)(6). In re Thelen LLP, 736 F.3d 213, 218 (2d Cir. 2013) (alteration in original) (quoting Johnson v. Rowley, 569 F.3d 40, 43 (2d Cir. 2009)). Thus, a court must “accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in [the plaintiff's] favor.” Johnson, 569 F.3d at 43. “[A] complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 663 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A complaint may be dismissed only where it appears that there are not “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. Plausibility requires “enough fact[s] to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of [the alleged misconduct].” Id. at 556. The plausibility standard “asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

         IV. ...

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