NY Court of Appeals Limits Liability for Discrimination Based on Criminal History to Employers, and Non-Employers Who Aid or Abet Such Discrimination
As a follow-up to our blog post from April 24, 2017, the New York Court of Appeals has issued its decision in Griffin v. Sirva, addressing the questions certified by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit regarding the scope of liability for employment discrimination based on an individual’s criminal history under the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”). In its May 4, 2017 opinion, the Court of Appeals held that only a worker’s employer may be liable for direct discrimination under NYSHRL § 296(15), while other entities who do not qualify as employers may be liable for aiding and abetting an employer’s discriminatory acts under NYSHRL § 296(6).
In Griffin v. Sirva, defendant Allied Van Lines (“Allied”) and its corporate parent Sirva, Inc., had contracted with Astro Moving and Storage Co. (“Astro”) to have Astro’s employees provide packing and moving services on an independent contractor basis at the homes of Allied’s customers. Plaintiffs argued that defendants should be held liable for violating the NYSHRL even though they were not plaintiffs’ direct employer, because Allied had required plaintiffs to pass a background check before being assigned to its jobs. When plaintiffs’ background checks revealed prior convictions for sexual offenses against young children, Astro terminated their employment because those convictions disqualified plaintiffs from performing work for Allied, which constituted 70 to 80 percent of Astro’s business.
The Second Circuit had certified three questions regarding the scope of liability for discrimination based on a worker’s criminal history under the NYSHRL: (1) does NYSHRL § 296(15), prohibiting discrimination based on criminal convictions, limit liability to an aggrieved party’s “employer”; (2) if so, does the term “employer” include entities that are not an aggrieved party’s “direct employer,” but who exercise a significant level of control over the direct employer’s discrimination policies and practices; and (3) does NYSHRL § 296(6), providing for “aiding and abetting” liability, apply to an out-of-state entity that requires its New York State agent to discriminate based on a worker’s criminal history. In addressing these questions, the Court of Appeals reformulated the second and third queries as discussed below, to make them more broadly applicable beyond the parameters of this particular case. Five judges supported the majority opinion, while one judge dissented.
Question 1: Only an Employer May Be Liable for Direct Discrimination
The NYSHRL states that it “shall be an unlawful discriminatory practice for any person, agency, bureau, corporation or association” to deny employment based on an individual’s prior criminal conviction “when such denial is in violation of the provisions of article twenty-three-A of the correction law.” While this statutory language would appear to extend liability to “any” person or entity, not just an individual’s employer, the court found it significant that “liability under section 296(15) arises only upon a violation of [New York Correction Law Article 23-A (“Article 23-A”)].” Article 23-A prohibits a “public or private employer” from denying employment based on a criminal conviction unless, after analyzing eight specified factors, the employer can demonstrate that there is either a direct relationship between the criminal offense and the position sought or that granting employment would pose an unreasonable risk to the property or safety of others. Given this language, the court held that, “[b]ecause it incorporates Article 23-A by reference, section 296(15) of the Human Rights Law likewise limits liability to a public or private employer.”
Question 2: Common Law Principles, Especially Control, Determine Employer Status
The Court of Appeals questioned the assumption inherent in the Second Circuit’s second certified question, that “a significant level of control” over an employer’s “discrimination policies and practices” might be sufficient to confer employment status on a third party. Because “other factors are relevant to that determination,” the court reformulated the second question to read: “[i]f [liability under] Section 296(15) is limited [to an employer], how should courts determine whether an entity is the aggrieved party’s ‘employer’ for the purposes of a claim under Section 296(15)?”
Noting that neither the NYSHRL nor Article 23-A contains a substantive definition of “employer,” the court referred to both federal and New York case law holding that, in the absence of statutory guidance, common law principles should be used to determine employer status. Under applicable New York precedent, employer status is based on four relevant factors: (1) the selection and engagement of the worker; (2) the payment of salary or wages; (3) the power of dismissal; and (4) the power of control over the worker’s conduct. The Court of Appeals accordingly held that these four factors should be used to “determine who may be liable as an employer” under the NYSHRL, “with greatest emphasis placed on the alleged employer’s power ‘to order and control’ the employee in his or her performance of work.”
Question 3: Out-of-state Non-Employers May Be Liable for Aiding and Abetting Discrimination
The Court of Appeals indicated that the third certified question, regarding whether “an out-of-state principal corporation that requires its New York State agent to discriminate in employment on the basis of a criminal conviction may be held liable for the employer’s violation of § 296(15),” was too focused on “whether there was discrimination in this particular case.” Because the court interpreted the Second Circuit’s question as seeking “clarification as to who may be liable” under the NYSHRL’s “aiding and abetting” provision, it reformulated the third question to ask “whether section 296(6) extends liability to an out-of-state nonemployer who aids or abets employment discrimination against individuals with a prior criminal conviction.”
In granting summary judgment for defendants, the district court had held that a third party who was not the plaintiff’s direct employer could only be liable for “aiding and abetting” discrimination if the third party and the direct employer were “joint employers.” The Court of Appeals rejected that decision, holding that the “aiding and abetting” provision “applies to any ‘person,’” and “nothing in the statutory language or legislative history limits the reach of this provision to employers” or joint employers. Instead, the broad language of the NYSHRL’s “aiding and abetting” provision applies to any person or entity, including out-of-state defendants who are not employers of an aggrieved party, as long as “the alleged discriminatory conduct had an impact in New York.”
Impact of Court of Appeals Decision
The Court of Appeals did not address how its answers to the Second Circuit’s certified questions should apply to the underlying facts of Griffin v. Sirva. In her dissent, however, Judge Jenny Rivera indicated that, under the majority’s decision, “it is unlikely that either [Allied or Sirva] could be found to be an employer,” because “[n]either contributed to the selection and engagement of Astro employees, paid salary or wages, possessed the power of dismissal, or controlled Astro’s employees’ conduct.” Judge Rivera appeared to take the position that requiring a criminal background check, standing alone, should not be sufficient to establish “employer” status under the NYSHRL.
As we previously discussed, however, that does not end the inquiry. Under the Court of Appeals’ decision, an entity that is not a “direct employer” may face liability under the NYSHRL in one of two ways. First, depending on the facts of a particular case, a third party engaging another company’s workers on an independent contractor basis may be liable as an “employer” under New York’s four-part common law test, especially if any indicia of the third party’s control over the contract workers are present. Second, even in the absence of an employment relationship, a third party that requires an independent contractor’s employees to pass a criminal background check may be found liable under the NYSHRL’s “aiding and abetting” provision. Because the Court of Appeals held that this provision should be “construed broadly,” and applied to both non-employers and out-of-state defendants, the court’s interpretation of the “aiding and abetting” provision may sweep more third parties within the NYSHRL’s ambit going forward.
The Court of Appeals raised, but left unanswered, the question of whether a third party may be found liable for “aiding and abetting” discrimination in the absence of any finding of direct discrimination by a worker’s employer. The court previously held that “a newspaper company that had no employment relationship with the plaintiff” was liable for “aiding and abetting” discrimination by publishing its employment ads in separate categories by gender. The Griffin court found it “[n]otabl[e]” that this previous opinion imposed “aiding and abetting” liability without “consider[ing] the issue of whether, separate from the newspaper company, any employer or prospective employer was liable for primary discrimination under the Human Rights Law.” This discussion may have significance for the Griffinappeal, because Allied and Sirva now face potential “aiding and abetting” liability, even though a jury previously found that plaintiffs’ direct employer did not discriminate against them in violation of the NYSHRL. Whether a court will impose liability against a third party for “aiding and abetting” discrimination, after a fact-finder has expressly determined that the primary employer did not discriminate against plaintiffs, however, remains to be seen.
In summary, the Court of Appeals’ decision provides some good news for companies that engage independent contractors, by holding that only “employers” are subject to direct liability for employment discrimination under the NYSHRL. The court’s decision also poses some challenges, however, as it may extend liability to a third party either by finding employer status under New York’s four-part common law test, or by determining that imposition of a background check requirement constitutes “aiding and abetting” discrimination. Accordingly, companies who conduct background checks on their independent contractors should remain cognizant of both the four factors that determine employer status under New York common law, and the various statutes, including the NYSHRL, the New York City Human Rights Law, and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, that may impose liability for “aiding and abetting” acts of employment discrimination under such circumstances.