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Jan 04

New York Court of Appeals Rejects Discrimination Claims for Mistaken Perception of Alcoholism

By: Samantha Guido

In a recent opinion, Makinen v. City of New York,[i] the New York Court of Appeals held that a “mistaken perception of alcoholism” is not a disability under the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”).[ii]  In this case, the plaintiffs, both police officers employed by the New York Police Department (“NYPD”), were falsely accused of abusing alcohol by their former partners and were referred to NYPD’s Counseling Services Unit.[iii]  Plaintiff Nardini was diagnosed as a sufferer of alcohol abuse and Plaintiff Makinen was diagnosed with alcohol dependence.[iv]  Both plaintiffs accepted treatment after threats of disciplinary action,[v] however, the Court recognized that neither plaintiff was an alcoholic.[vi]  The plaintiffs argued that the defendant, the NYPD, discriminated against them by “subjecting them to adverse employment actions based on the illegitimately perceived disability of alcohol dependence and/or abuse.”[vii]  The Court rejected this argument and held that the plaintiffs did not have a disability within the meaning of the NYCHRL.[viii]

This holding was based solely on the Court of Appeals’ interpretation of sections 8-102(16)(c) and 8-107(1)(a) of the New York City Administrative Code.[ix]  In particular, the case depended upon whether a mistaken perception of alcoholism constituted a disability under the Code.[x] Section 8-102(16)(c), says the Court, is unambiguous and therefore 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) is currently is free of such abuse.’”[xi]

The case required the Court to interpret the Administrative Code, which contains the NYCHRL.  To do this, the Court needed to look to the Local Civil Rights Restoration Act of 2005 (“Restoration Act”).  The Restoration Act amended the NYCHRL because the City Council felt that the NYCHRL was being construed too narrowly and wanted to ensure that the NYCHRL is protecting those who were being discriminated against.[xii]  The Restoration Act’s purpose was to “‘clarify the scope of [NYCHRL]’” and provided two rules of construction for the NYCHRL that directed the court to liberally construe the NYCHRL.[xiii] However, as the dissenting opinion observed, the majority contravened the principles of construction as mandated by the Restoration Act and neglected to include a mistaken perception of alcoholism within the definition of a disability covered by the NYCHRL.[xiv]

It seems possible that the City Council will consider amending the definition of a disability within the Administrative Code to include a mistaken perception of alcoholism. The City Council wants, and has expressly stated, that the Human Rights Law was to be construed liberally in favor of discriminated plaintiffs.[xv] The majority of the Court of Appeals understood that it could not rewrite the narrow definition of disability provided for in the Administrative Code.[xvi]  Instead, the City Council should amend the definition to achieve its goal of protecting plaintiffs who have experienced discrimination.

[i] 2017 N.Y. Slip Op. 07208, 2017 WL 4621717 (N.Y., Oct. 17, 2017) (no pages provided).

[ii] Id.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id.

[v] Makinen v. City of New York, 2017 N.Y. Slip Op. 07208, 2017 WL 4621717 (N.Y., Oct. 17, 2017) (no pages provided).

[vi] Id.

[vii] Id.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id.

[x] Makinen v. City of New York, 2017 N.Y. Slip Op. 07208, 2017 WL 4621717 (N.Y., Oct. 17, 2017) (no pages provided).

[xi] Id.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Makinen v. City of New York, 2017 N.Y. Slip Op. 07208, 2017 WL 4621717 (N.Y., Oct. 17, 2017) (no pages provided).

[xvi] Id.

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