Judge’s Decision Marks the First Test in Upholding Employment Protection for Victims of Domestic Violence Under NYC Human Rights Law

Read the complete decision

New York, New York September 28, 2004 - In a major landmark victory that will surely have widespread legal implications in similar cases under the New York City Human Rights Law, State Supreme Court Justice Louis B. York has found that the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) acted in ’bad faith’ and violated Local Law 1 (which bars employers from discriminating against victims of domestic violence), when the DOC improperly terminated Probationary Correction Officer Gina Reynolds, a homeless victim of domestic violence.

“Correction Officer Reynolds suffered from the callous acts of a coward and then she suffered from the egregious actions taken by the Department of Correction,” said Norman Seabrook, president of the 9,000 member Correction Officer Benevolent Association. “This union will continue to protect our mothers, daughters, and sisters from all cowardly acts, whether they occur at home or at work,” Mr. Seabrook added.

In March 2002, Officer Reynolds was evicted from an apartment where she had been seeking refuge, along with her two children, from their abusive father, a crack and alcohol abuser with a criminal history. The Health Management Division (“HMD”) at the Department of Correction granted her permission to use sick leave to find a new home.

Subsequently, Officer Reynolds alternated nightly between her car, shelters, hotels and friends’ homes, until finally informing the DOC that she could not find a new address. The department responded that she could not work without one. Faced with the threat of losing her job, even after she had explained her homelessness to HMD, she gave them her husband’s address. Twice in the next two months Officer Reynolds attempted to return there but both nights ended with her husband assaulting her and Officer Reynolds seeking police intervention.

On May 14, 2002, Ms. Reynolds moved into Safe Horizon, a domestic violence shelter. Because it restricts the release of its address, she gave the DOC the address of the organization’s headquarters.

An HMD agent went to the headquarters unannounced on June 3 to verify that Ms. Reynolds was at her “residence or place of confinement,” a requirement under DOC’s sick leave policy. Because the HMD agent declined to sign a confidentiality agreement that would have protected Officer Reynolds, Safe Horizon refused to disclose her location. As a result the DOC fired her on June 21.

When Ms. Reynolds applied for unemployment benefits, she learned she had been fired for being away from her residence.

She then filed an Article 78 action against the city. Officer Reynolds claimed that her termination was illegally based solely “on the fact that as a victim of domestic violence, she was unreachable while on sick leave due to DOC’s failure to sign the confidentiality agreement,” according to the court’s decision.

In 2001, the New York City Council amended its Human Rights Law (Local Law 1 of 2001, Sec. 1) to protect victims of domestic violence, making it unlawful, “to discharge from employment ... because of the actual or perceived status of [an] individual as a victim of domestic violence.”

The main issue in this case, Justice York wrote, is "whether the Department’s sick leave abuse policy - or its implementation with respect to petitioner and those similarly situated - is impermissibly discriminatory.” On the question of her probationary period, Justice York noted that she could have been fired for no cause but not for an illegal cause.

The judge concluded that while the DOC may not have intentionally acted in bad faith, “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.” Accordingly, he ordered her reinstatement, with more than two years of back pay.

“This decision is very significant,” said Officer Reynolds’ attorney, Mercedes Maldonado of Koehler & Isaacs LLP. “It sends a message to victims of domestic violence that they really need to come forward at work and let their employers know that they are victims of domestic abuse so they can receive the protection that the law provides.”

The City has thirty days to appeal.