In a relatively surprising recent decision set down by New York’s Highest Court in Romanello v. Intesa Sanpaolo, S.p.A., (N.Y. Oct. 10, 2013), the New York Court of Appeals held that the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”) continues to afford broad protection to aggrieved employees, but now places the burden on employers to prove that an employee cannot, without reasonable accommodation, satisfy the essential requisites of the job, and quite possibly that a request for indefinite leave, in and of itself, may not be a bar to a disability discrimination suit. This monumental decision should continue to remind employers that they must be careful when attempting to be brazenly dismissive of an employee’s accommodation request.

The underlying facts of the Romanello case are as follows: Giuseppe Romanello was an executive employed at the New York branch of Intesa Sanpaolo S.p.A. Romanello, who had been on paid leave for more than four months due to serious depressive related illnesses, and informed his inquiring employer through counsel that his return to work was “indeterminate,” but that he had no intention of leaving his position. The company then responded by terminating Mr. Rpmanello’s employment. He then filed a lawsuit under the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”) and the NYCHRL alleging disability discrimination. The lower court dismissed both causes of action, and the intermediate court affirmed on both counts.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals held that Mr. Romanello’s claim was possibly viable under the NYCHRL because it affords broader protection than the NYSHRL. The dissent happened to disagree with this contention, stating that the test for disability under both is very similar in substance. In particular, the Court noted that the NYCHRL defines disability broadly in terms of “impairments” and places the burden on the employer to prove either: (1) that the employee could not, with reasonable accommodation, satisfy the essential requisites of the job or (2) that the accommodation would place an undue hardship on the company. Because the employer had failed to meet its requirement to plead and prove that Mr. Romanello could not perform his essential job functions with an accommodation, the court reinstated the NYCHRL claim, essentially also holding, that it’s possible that indefinite leave could qualify as a reasonable accommodation. It will be interesting to see how the lower Courts interpret this decision and whether its effects will further expand the protections afforded to aggrieved employees.

As always, if you believe you or your family member was and/or has been discriminated against in the workplace, please do not hesitate to contact the employment discrimination attorneys at the Law Office of Risman & Risman, P.C. at(212) 233-6400 or contact us online.

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