Â New York City's Human Rights Law makes it unlawful to discriminate against an employee based on her being a victim of domestic violence. The first case brought under this 2001 amendment to local law, involving a former Department of Correction probationary officer, has just been decided.
When Gina Reynolds, 39, a victim of repeated spousal abuse, left her violent, drug-addicted husband, she and her two children stayed with relatives, friends, at shelters and hotels; they even slept in a car. In March 2002, the Department of Correction granted Reynolds sick leave in order to have time to look for an apartment (and later for a surgical procedure), but informed her that she could not remain employed while homeless. Rather than lose her job, Reynolds supplied her husband's address. An investigation by the Department of Correction, under its sick leave policy, which required that an employee on sick leave remain at home, revealed that Reynolds was not "at home." In fact, she had made two attempts to return to the marital home but was assaulted by her husband and called police both times.
Reynolds and her children moved into Safe Horizon, a domestic violence shelter,in May 2002. In order to protect residents from the abusers who forced them into the shelter, it is standard practice to require that the shelter's address not be revealed. Therefore, Reynolds supplied the department with the address of Safe Horizon's headquarters rather than the shelter itself. While an agent of the Department of Corrections contacted Safe Horizon, the department did not sign an agreement to keep the address confidential at that point, and therefore Reynolds's location could not be provided. Her employment was then terminated for being away from her residence while on sick leave. Her shield and ID were taken; she had already surrendered her department-issued revolver.
Reynolds, with the support of her union, sued, claiming, among other things, that although the Department of Corrections eventually signed Safe Horizon's confidentiality agreement, the failure to do so promptly was what kept her exact location from the department. Moreover, her attorney, Mercedes Maldanado, argued that Reynolds was unreachable because she was a victim of domestic violence and that the firing was in violation of the amended Human Rights Law (Local Law 1 of 2001 sec. 1) which makes it unlawful "to discharge from employment . . . because of the actual or perceived status of an individual as a victim of domestic violence."
The department's position was that since she was a probationary employee, no reason was needed to terminate her, and that there were other unrelated reasons for firing her. The department also relied on its sick leave policy requiring a specific address and requiring that the employee must be at that address.
Justice Lewis B. York of New York State Supreme Court in deciding Reynolds v. Fraser wrote that if there were other reasons Reynolds was an undesirable probationary employee, the Department of Corrections should have acted on those reasons earlier, but never did. He ruled that Reynolds be reinstated to her Riker's Island job with back pay.
The decision, which is expected to have considerable future impact, distinguishes between "no reason" being required for termination of a probationary and an illegal, discriminatory reason. Justice York wrote, "The Council enacted an amendment to the City's Human Rights Law to prevent employers from discriminating against victims of domestic violence [Admin Code Â§8-107.1]. The stated purpose of this amendment was 'to protect the economic viability of victims of domestic violence and to support their efforts to gain independence from their abusers' by 'enabl[ing] victims of domestic violence to speak with their employers without fear of reprisal, about a domestic violence incident or about possible steps that will enhance their ability to perform their job without causing undue hardship to the employer [Local Law 1 of 2001, Â§."
"Respondents may not have intentionally acted in bad faith, as petitioner contends, but they did act in contravention of Local Law 1 in that they failed to make reasonable accommodations for petitioner's status as a homeless victim of domestic violence. The end result here, petitioner's loss of a job at the point when she was finally getting her living situation under control, is exactly the kind of fallout that Local Law 1 was enacted to prevent." In a lengthy discussion of violence in the home, Justice York underscored the necessity for the victim to escape the abuser, and for Reynolds and her children to leave the home. (The decision does not discuss why the violent spouse was not removed from home instead of the wife and children having to leave.) "The ability to hold on to a job," Judge York wrote, "is one of a victim's most valuable weapons in the war for survival, since gainful employment is the key to independence from the batterer."
The petitioner was represented by Koehler & Isaacs, LLP. The Department of Correction was represented by Corporation Counsel. There will be no appeal.
Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice