MANHATTAN (CN) – New York’s highest court ruled Tuesday that the Big Apple’s human rights law will not protect workers from discrimination if their bosses mistakenly believe they are struggling with an alcohol problem.
The divided New York Court of Appeals ruling spells trouble for a $151,000 judgment awarded to two New York City police officers for discrimination based on perceived disability.
“As the Second Circuit noted, there is no ambiguity about the plain language of the [New York City Human Rights Law], which is only open to one reasonable interpretation: the disability of alcoholism ‘shall only apply to a person who (1) is recovering or has recovered and (2) currently is free of such abuse,’” Judge Eugene Fahey wrote in a 12-page opinion.
Ex-NYPD officers Kathleen Maniken and Jamie Nardini claimed they were falsely pegged as alcoholics during contentious custody disputes with colleagues who outranked them.
Maniken said her ex-husband, a retired detective, depicted her as a child abuser to gain leverage during divorce proceedings, while Nardini’s sergeant boyfriend allegedly slimed her two days after losing unsupervised visitation of their young daughter.
Both men reported the women to the NYPD’s Counseling and Services Unit, a treatment service for officers coping with substance abuse.
In a 2011 lawsuit, Maniken and Nardini alleged that the department took the uncorroborated claims at face value, forcing them into mandatory treatment programs that were used against them to take away their children.
A federal jury ultimately awarded $46,100 to Maniken and $105,000 to Nardini, setting the stage for an appeal targeting an arcane and unprecedented issue in the city’s human rights law.
Earlier this year, the Second Circuit called for the state judiciary to decide for the first time whether the city’s law was narrower than its federal analogue.
By a 5-1 margin, the six-judge panel answered that it was.
“Indeed, by its plain language, the NYCHRL does not regulate employer actions motivated by concern with respect to the abuse of alcohol,” Fahey wrote for the majority. “Rather, the NYCHRL covers circumstances in which employers unfairly typecast alcoholics who have sought treatment and who are not presently abusing alcohol, so as to ensure that such persons are afforded a fair opportunity at recovery.”
Dissenting Judge Michael Garcia argued that his colleagues’ adherence to the letter of the law did not serve its spirit.
“Time and time again, the City Council has made its message clear: the Human Rights Law is designed to be ‘maximally protective of civil rights in all circumstances,’” he wrote in a 13-page dissent.
Maniken and Nardini’s attorney – Lisa F. Joslin, a partner at the Albany-based firm Gleason, Dunn, Walsh & O’Shea – did not immediately respond to a request for comment left after business hours Tuesday.
New York City Law Department spokesman Nick Paolucci applauded the decision.
“The Court of Appeals evaluated a novel legal issue—whether a mistaken diagnosis of active alcoholism is discrimination under the City’s Human Rights Law,” Paolucci said in a statement. “We are pleased the court agreed that such a diagnosis is not discriminatory. As we told the court, the police department’s counseling services unit is intended to help officers, and that’s what the department sought to do in this case.”