New York College Can’t Dodge Italian Professor’s Discrimination Suit

New York College Can't Dodge Italian Professor's Discrimination Suit

A longtime Brooklyn College foreign language professor is pursuing claims against the City University of New York, stating that she was subjected to national origin discrimination when Italian was removed as a major purportedly because “Italians all moved out of Brooklyn,” a New York federal judge ruled Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis refused to dismiss a core claim by Claire Huffman against CUNY – the public education system that Brooklyn College belongs to. Huffman is a professor of Italian descent who is in her mid-70’s, claimed that CUNY violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act when it canceled Italian as a major and shifted her and other older Italian professors to new language departments.

The judge also stayed Huffman’s national origin and age discrimination claims against Brooklyn College Provost Anne Lopes in her individual capacity that were lodged under the New York State Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law. Huffman alleged that Lopes, a key decision-maker in eliminating the Italian major, told the professor that there was no longer a basis for the program in part because of what Lopes categorized as Brooklyn’s declining Italian population.

Judge Garaufis wrote, “Huffman has pleaded facts that suggest demand for Italian courses remained robust among students; that other less in-demand languages were not canceled; and that the Italian department was distinguishable from others because it consisted entirely of people of Italian descent (all of whom were also over the age of 62).”

“Moreover, Huffman has alleged statements made by Lopes that at least plausibly suggest that the national origin … of the instructors was on Lopes’ mind and may have been a motivating factor behind her decision,” the judge added.

Huffman started teaching with Brooklyn College in 2917 and specializes in Italian language and literature. She also sued the school a year ago, alleging it violated Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the NYSHRL and the NYCHRL.

In addition to the Brooklyn College, the initial suit named Lopes and the CUNY public education system as defendants. Judge Garaufis said Wednesday that CUNY, not Brooklyn College, is the correct defendant and ordered the latter to be removed from the case caption.

Huffman alleges that Lopes told her and others during a September 2019 meeting that the Italian professors would be teaching into their 80s if the major were maintained. Lopes also allegedly told Huffman that “Italians all moved out of Brooklyn, so you don’t have a basis for a major anymore.”

Huffman further alleged that anti-Italian bias by the school was evidenced by the fact that the Spanish and French programs were not canceled despite each not having 40 students enrolled – the number of students enrolled that Lopez said the Italian program needed to be kept alive but didn’t have.

Huffman also claimed that her disciplinary record was spotless in nearly five decades at the school, along with the fact that she was given a more onerous teaching schedule and less prestigious teaching assignments that were outside her area of expertise after the major was canceled in an effort to get her to retire, and that she was retaliated against after she filed the suit.

“These actions, by defendants, were adverse against plaintiff on the basis of her age and national origin, and clearly discriminatory as they did not allow plaintiff to compete on an equal basis with other professors,” Huffman said in her amended complaint.

In the recent order from Judge Garaufis, he concluded that Huffman cleared the bar for her Title VII claims to survive against CUNY, saying that her allegations narrowly “give rise to a plausible inference of discrimination.”

However, as part of the ruling, the judge held that sovereign immunity precludes Huffman from suing either CUNY or Lopes in her official capacity under the ADEA or New York City and state law. The judge also nixed an ADEA claim against Lopes in her individual capacity.

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