No Bias in CUNY Axing Asian Professor for Rudeness

Daily Labor Report® is the objective resource the nation’s foremost labor and employment professionals read and rely on, providing reliable, analytical coverage of top labor and employment...

By Jon Steingart

Oct. 28 — A Taiwanese professor who taught Chinese at the City University of New York can't proceed with her claims that the university discriminated and retaliated against her when it didn't renew her appointment after finding the gruff way she interacted with a student showed questionable judgment, a divided federal appeals court panel ruled Oct. 28.

Ya-Chen Chen's interaction with colleagues was already a concern before the student incident, Judge Debra Ann Livingston of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit wrote for the court in affirming summary judgment to the university. Because Chen couldn't overcome the university's proffered reason, she couldn't sustain her retaliation and national origin, race and sex bias claims under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a city discrimination law, Livingston said.

Dissenting in part, Judge Denny Chin said Chen's claims under the New York City Human Rights Law should proceed because the lower court didn't separately analyze them under that law's “more lenient standard.”

Courts used to treat the New York City law and Title VII as “coextensive,” differing only in the remedies that were available under each, Larry Peikes, a partner who represents management at Wiggin & Dana in Stamford, Conn., told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 28. The city law was amended in 2005 to be “more liberally construed,” Peikes said.

The New York City law has a “lower standard for proving a claim,” Chen's attorney, Matthew S. Porges, told Bloomberg BNA by e-mail Oct. 28.

“It's essentially a watered-down proof standard for plaintiffs, but the way in which it differs is not entirely clear,” Peikes said.

Judge Ralph K. Winter joined the court's opinion, which Chin joined as to the federal discrimination claims.

Interaction With Student

Chen taught a student who made her uncomfortable, Livingston said. He often spoke with her after classes and came to her office hours for durations that she viewed as excessive.

During a semester when the student wasn't enrolled in one of Chen's classes, she learned from a colleague that he planned to enroll in her class the next semester, Livingston said. She spoke with a university expert on dealing with difficult students, who helped Chen practice several methods for establishing boundaries. One of these methods was saying the word “stop” over and over.

Chen arranged a meeting with the student and his professor at the time. She presented him with a list of rules for enrolling in her class the next semester. Among the edicts were:

• using Chen's office hours a maximum of five to 10 minutes a week;
• no blocking the doorways of classrooms or offices; and
• keeping an appropriate distance from professors and classmates.

This left the student feeling hurt, Livingston said. Chen discussed the incident with the difficult student expert she spoke with earlier, who e-mailed another official that Chen “spent hours (literally) refusing to accept any responsibility for her own actions.” Chen “showed less than no concern for the student” and “made clear that she does not have time in her schedule for students who require more attention than she is willing to provide, even if they seek that time during her office hours,” the official said.

The university declined to renew Chen's appointment, primarily citing this incident as well as earlier complaints from professors about her “overaggressiveness and lack of tact.”

Chen filed a discrimination complaint with a state civil rights agency alleging “racial/linguistic discrimination” for being told to say the word “stop” “for 6-8 times in a racially and linguistically discriminatory tone.” She also complained of discrimination for being a “non-white, junior and foreign woman.” When the agency dismissed the complaint, she filed a lawsuit in federal court.

All Claims Fail

Chen didn't experience Title VII retaliation because she couldn't show a desire to retaliate was the “but-for” cause of the university's decision not to renew her appointment, Livingston said. He found that administrators concluded that Chen had behaved inappropriately “long before” she complained about discrimination.

The decision not to renew Chen's appointment occurred a few months later, as part of an annual process in which a committee evaluated many professors, the court said, but maintaining a consistent perspective throughout supported the university's contention that Chen wasn't brought back because of her interpersonal failings.

On Chen's Title VII discrimination claims, she provided no evidence to show administration officials were insincere in their position that her approach to the student was inappropriate, Livingston said. She would have had to present evidence that the stated reason she was fired wasn't the true reason in order to prevail, the judge said.

Under the city law, which required Chen to present evidence showing that discrimination or retaliation played a role in the university's decision, her claims failed for the same reasons as her Title VII claims, Livingston said. But Chin said in his dissent that the lower court erred when “it did not engage in a separate and independent analysis.”

Summary judgment on the city law claims was inappropriate in the absence of an analysis that referenced the relevant facts, Chin said.

The New York attorney general's office, which represented the university, declined to comment on the ruling

To contact the reporter on this story: Jon Steingart in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at