Thursday, January 5, 2012
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.
The court concluded:
The record reflects that until the petitioner began receiving requests from HBN in December 2005 to account for his credit card expenses, there was no indication that the petitioner was suffering from a mental illness. By his own account, the petitioner was able to produce "quality professional legal work" during the time he was allegedly disabled, and argued his portion of a complex summary judgment motion on December 9, 2005. [petitioner's friend] Russotti testified that when he saw the petitioner in December, shortly before their January meeting, the petitioner's behavior did not seem unusual. The petitioner's doctor's records also indicate that neither the internist who had been treating him for more than a year for diabetes, nor the therapist who had been treating him for post-9/11 stress, diagnosed the petitioner with bipolar disorder or even mentioned the possibility that he was bipolar.
Furthermore, once the petitioner began alluding to an "emotional illness," HBN specifically requested the details of the petitioner's condition in order to evaluate the medical benefits available to the petitioner, and the petitioner flatly refused to provide any information. The communications from Russotti, the petitioner, and the petitioner's doctor, contained only vague references to emotional illness or "mood disorder," and thus did not fall into the category of an "impairment [...] which [...] is demonstrable by medically accepted clinical [...] techniques." Executive Law § 292(21)(a).
Thus, all that was before HBN when it terminated the petitioner on February 3 was that he had charged more than $21,000 in hotels and other personal expenses to the corporate credit card and tried to bill HBN's clients for personal expenses. Then, when confronted and asked for an explanation, he did not reimburse HBN and instead blamed his conduct on a "mood" illness, which he still did not identify.
Despite this total lack of evidence as to the petitioner's termination due to his bipolar disorder, the ALJ incomprehensibly found that HBN's legitimate reason for terminating the plaintiff was a pretext. The ALJ relied on evidence that another HBN attorney had charged $25,000 to his corporate credit card and was not terminated. However, this demonstrates only that the ALJ misapprehended the nature of the professional misconduct. The other HBN attorney did not attempt to charge clients for his personal expenses and paid the money back over time; therefore, his conduct is clearly distinguishable from the petitioner's, which essentially amounted to attempted theft from HBN and its clients.