$1.6 Million Damage Award Upheld in New York City Human Rights Religion/Sexual Orientation Case

The N.Y. Appellate Division, 1st Department, in Manhattan upheld an award of $1.6 million damages on a jury verdict rendered under the New York City Human Rights Law to Mirella Salemi, on her discrimination claim against Gloria’s Tribeca, Inc. and its owner, Edward Globokar. Salemi v. Gloria’s Tribeca Inc., 2014 WL 1057328, 2015 N.Y. Slip Op. 01838 (March 20, 2014).

Salemi, identified in various media sources but not in the court’s opinion as a lesbian, worked as a chef in the defendant’s restaurant. She charged the employer with discrimination based on religion and sexual orientation. She presented evidence at trial that the employer held weekly prayer meetings at the restaurant that were viewed as mandatory for staff, and that the employer repeatedly stated that homosexuality is “a sin” and that “gay people” were “going to hell.” She alleged that she was generally subjected to “an incessant barrage of offensive anti-homosexual invective,” according to the court’s per curiam opinion.

Wrote the court, “Additional evidence demonstrated that as a result of Globokar’s improper conduct, plaintiff was retaliated against for objecting to his offensive comments, choosing not to attend workplace prayer meetings, and refusing to fire another employee because of his sexual orientation, and was constructively discharged.”

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial judge, Justice Carol E. Huff, should have instructed the jury to use the “severe and pervasive” standard that is used for hostile environment cases under Title VII, and also rejected an argument that the trial judge should have charged the jury on a portion of the Human Rights Law forbidding religious discrimination, finding that the purpose of this section was to protect “victims of employment discrimination, not perpetrators of discrimination.” The trial court had instructed the jury that Globokar had “a right to express his religious beliefs and practice his religion, provided that he does not discriminate against his employees based on religion or sexual orientation.”

The court found the amount of damages to be within the range of what has been awarded in similar cases and that the punitive damage portion of the award — $1.2 million – was not excessive. The balance of the award, $400,000, was compensatory damages for the constructive discharge and accompanying emotional distress.

Salemi is represented by Derek T. Smith Law Group, William G. Kaupp of counsel. The Appellate Division justices on the panel included Justices Acosta, Renwick, Moskowitz, Freedman and Feinman.

This case brings to light the employment practices of a New York City restaurant that would probably shock many of its patrons, who might want to take this information into account in deciding where they want to take their business.

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