2nd Circ. Revives Bias Suit from White Law Enforcement Staff

The Second Circuit on Tuesday gave a pair white New York State Department of Environmental Conservation workers another chance to sue department leaders for passing them over for promotion in favor of a Black candidate, finding their discrimination claims were strong enough to survive dismissal.

The unanimous, three-judge panel found in a summary order that a New York federal court erred when it granted the group of state conservation department commissioners' motion to dismiss the entirety of Dennis Scott Florence and Michael St. Jeanos' federal race discrimination lawsuit over a promotion to the department's director of law enforcement.

The Second Circuit judges found the employees sufficiently state Title VII claims, but that the lower court was right to toss additional claims under Sections 1981 and 1983.

According to Tuesday's filing, Florence and St. Jeanos had argued in their February 2020 amended suit that while they were both qualified for the role of director of law enforcement in the conservation department, a Black department captain was named acting director of law enforcement in the interim period following the director of law enforcement's departure.

Although Florence and St. Jeanos were both majors and had both passed an eligibility test for the role that the captain had failed, the department explained that it gave the acting director of law enforcement position to the captain because he wasn't qualified for the role, the panel said. That way, the application process would be fair for prospective directors of law enforcement, since no qualified applicants had worked in the role and obtained an advantage in the hiring process, the department claimed.

But, as Tuesday's order said, the department sought to eliminate the test requirement for the director of law enforcement position in order to ensure that barriers to entry didn't reduce diversity of applicants for the role. The state's civil service commission agreed to get rid of the test, and the department appointed the Black captain to the role without interviewing other candidates, according to the order.

While the lower court had ruled in March 2021 that the white employees' Title VII claims weren't strong enough to pass the pleading stage, the panel disagreed.

"Plaintiffs allege that the department openly acknowledged that its request to reclassify the [director of law enforcement] position was designed to bypass the all-white list of test-passing candidates that existed when the DLE position became vacant," the panel noted.

This, alongside the plaintiffs' claims that they were more qualified than the captain who was ultimately promoted, cleared the low threshold for a claim at the motion to dismiss stage, the judges ruled.

And while the department had ruled that the captain's stint of time as the acting director of law enforcement meant he was not similarly situated to the white majors, the panel ruled that this was an issue best left for a jury, and it was improper to rule on it now.

But the rest of the claims under Sections 1981 and 1983 fell short of alleging specific wrongdoing against the particular named defendants in the suit, which include the commissioners as well as unidentified staff members of former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

"To state a claim under sections 1981 and 1983 — the vehicles for plaintiffs' equal protection and due process claims — the complaint must plausibly allege defendants' 'personal involvement' in the wrongful acts at issue," the panel said.

The plaintiffs' proposed second amended complaint didn't fit this standard, they ruled, since its allegations were fatally vague.

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