By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Katelynn Gray and Elizabeth M. Lacombe
Duane Morris Takeaways – In Local 3621 Of The EMS Officers Union, et al. v. City Of New York, Case No. 18 Civ. 4476, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 212218 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 22, 2022), the City successfully defeated a Rule 23 motion for class certification brought by a group of EMS officers and Unions who alleged that the promotional process to leadership positions resulted in disparate and discriminatory promotional practices in violation of federal, state, and local law. The ruling is a primer for employers on how to dismantle employment discrimination class claims.
Background Of The Case
Plaintiffs Renae Mascol, Luis Rodriguez, Local 3621, EMS Officers Union, DC-37, AFSCME and AFL-CIO (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) brought a class action on behalf of its members and all other similarly-situated individuals against Defendants, the City of New York, the New York City Fire Department, and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (collectively, the “City”), alleging Defendants’ subjective promotional policies and practices led to the denial of promotions to qualified applicants based on their race, sex, gender and/or disability and/or circumstances that led to the applicant taking a leave of absence.
Plaintiffs sought class certification pursuant to Rule 23(a) and (b)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure on behalf of three classes, including: (1) EMS officers who are non-white, female, have received a reasonable accommodation, or have taken a leave of absence due to a disability or pursuant to FDNY time and leave policies; (2) non-white and/or female EMS officers; and (3) EMS officers who have received a reasonable accommodation or taken a leave of absence because of a disability and/or have taken a leave of absence pursuant to FDNY time and leave policies.
In support of their motion, Plaintiffs submitted an expert report from a forensic labor economist who concluded there was “statistically significant evidence of discriminatory promotional disparities” and that the statistical evidence showed that the common promotional policy “resulted in disparities that commonly disadvantaged the class.” Id. at *7. Plaintiffs also submitted anecdotal evidence in the form of declarations from EMS officers testifying to their experiences with the City’s promotional processes.
Defendants opposed these theories and submitted rebuttal evidence with their own expert report. They argued that Plaintiffs’ expert’s analysis was flawed, largely because it was based in part on data that was irrelevant to the analysis and in other instances because it failed to consider other, relevant data. Moreover, Defendants’ expert concluded that the relevant data led to a determination that, when evaluating promotions over the same time period, white men were actually less likely to be promoted than similarly-situated non-white officers; men were less likely to be promoted than women; and whites were less likely to be promoted than non-whites.
The Court’s Ruling Denying Class Certification
In denying Plaintiffs’ motion for class certification, Judge Lewis J. Liman of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York conducted an extensive review of the promotional process at issue, as well as the expert reports and anecdotal evidence offered by the parties. Ultimately, the Court concluded that Plaintiffs had failed to sufficiently demonstrate the element of commonality under Rule 23(a)(2).
With respect to Plaintiffs’ disparate impact claims, the Court explained that Plaintiffs cannot simply point to the promotional process generally as the basis for the disparate impact, but must identify the “specific” employment practices allegedly responsible for the at-issue disparities. In this case, there were several distinct steps in the promotional process, which combined subjective criteria with standardized eligibility criteria. Significantly, an applicant could fail to be promoted at any one of these steps. As such, the Court opined that in order to state a disparate impact claim based on a failure to promote, Plaintiffs were required to identify which specific employment practice was responsible for the statistical disparities.
The Court reasoned that Plaintiffs’ expert’s analysis did not help them win the day, where it merely showed a racial and gender disparity with respect to the individuals holding leadership positions but failed to identify what aspect of the promotional process, if any, resulted in those disparities. Moreover, the Court found that Plaintiffs’ anecdotal evidence did more harm than good, underscoring the individualized nature of each alleged incident of discrimination where each declaration identified a different form of discrimination and a different course of conduct. The Court ultimately determined that Plaintiffs had failed to show that Defendants had used any of the cited employment practices to discriminate against the proposed class or that such practices had a discriminatory impact, holding that “the question of which of these specific employment practices has a discriminatory impact on the applicant is largely an individualized inquiry.” Id. at *25.
Plaintiffs’ disparate treatment claim fared no better for similar reasons, as the Court again noted that the statistical evidence from Plaintiffs’ expert did not offer “significant proof of a pattern or practice of unlawful discrimination” and failed to account for non-discriminatory explanations for any disparities. Plaintiffs’ primary evidence, that of anecdotal evidence from declarants, was similarly insufficient to salvage their claims because it raised “individual rather than common questions.” Id. at *26.
Implications For Employers
The ruling in Local 3621 Of The EMS Officers Union emphasizes the value of crafting and implementing detailed and thoughtful employment policies and procedures that utilize both objective and subjective measures in an effort to reduce or eliminate the influence of potential bias (implicit or otherwise) when evaluating employees for promotional opportunities. Moreover, ensuring that those policies and procedures are reduced to writing, provided to those employees who might have occasion to evaluate others for promotional opportunities, and implemented appropriately will provide a strong defense to discrimination claims and may, as it did here, serve to dismantle a potential class claim based on generalized allegations of process-based discriminatory conduct.