United States District Court, N.D. New York
MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER
KAHN U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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
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.
he received the email, Wusik confronted Plaintiff at the
firehouse and stated, “you have no respect for yourself
or your father.” Id. ¶¶
45-47. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).