New York Sex Discrimination, Retaliation Claim Barred by “Ministerial Exception,” According to Second Circuit

New York City’s anti-discrimination laws prohibit sex discrimination in employment, including sexual harassment and numerous other forms of unlawful conduct. Occasionally, employers allege that court intervention violates civil rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year in a sex discrimination and retaliation case against a religious institution. Although the plaintiff did not directly allege sexual harassment, her complaint alleged that her supervisor made multiple unfounded accusations of sexual impropriety against her. The court ruled that her claims were barred by the “ministerial exception,” which is based on religious protections in the First Amendment. Fratello v. Archdiocese of New York, 863 F.3d 190 (2d Cir. 2017).The First Amendment states that the government may not “prohibit[] the free exercise” of religion. The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the Free Exercise Clause as creating a “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws, holding that “the church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.” Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012). The Hosanna-Tabor case involved a teacher at a religious school who was terminated while out on disability leave. She sued for disability discrimination, but the district court dismissed her claim.

The Supreme Court noted that the school made a distinction between “contract teachers” and “called teachers,” with the latter serving a more directly religious “role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission.” The plaintiff was a called teacher and therefore fell under the ministerial exception. The opinion does not offer a clear definition of “minister.” In a concurring opinion, Justice Thomas stated that courts should “defer to a religious organization’s good-faith understanding of who qualifies as its minister.” Critics of the ruling have noted that it expands the ministerial exception beyond religious leaders to employees of religious organizations.

The plaintiff in Fratello worked for the defendant as a schoolteacher, and then as principal of the school. She claimed that her job was presented as a “lay” position, and it did not “impose any loyalty tests, or require any professions of faith.” Fratello, No. 7:12-cv-07359, am. complaint at 13 (S.D.N.Y., Mar. 5, 2013). The amended complaint alleged numerous distinctions between the plaintiff and the plaintiff in Hosanna-Tabor, including that she was a “lay” teacher rather than a “called” teacher. Id. at 16-17. She worked under a priest, FJ, whom she alleged was placed at the school by the defendant.

The lawsuit’s allegations of sex discrimination centered on FJ. The plaintiff alleged that he told her to “not drink coffee in her office with the [male] facility manager,” out of concern that “this would ‘cause a scandal’ at his church. Id. at 30. He allegedly later accused her of having an affair with the facility manager. After she complained about multiple allegedly false accusations and other acts of sex discrimination, she claimed that FJ “engineered…[the] termination of her employment.” Id. at 31.

The district court granted summary judgment to the defendant on the plaintiff’s gender discrimination and retaliation claims, citing Hosanna-Tabor. 175 F.Supp.3d 152 (2016). The Second Circuit agreed, finding that, while “her formal title was not inherently religious,…she performed many significant religious functions to advance [the school’s] religious mission.” 863 F.3d at 192.

Phillips & Associates’ sexual harassment attorneys advocate for New York City employees in claims based on unlawful workplace practices like sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation. Contact us today at (212) 248-7431 or online to schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case. We can help you identify what sexual harassment looks like and bring a strong claim.

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