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McLeod v. The Jewish Guild For The Blind

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

July 19, 2017

Easter S. McLeod, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
The Jewish Guild for the Blind, Defendant-Appellee, Dr. Alan R. Morse, CEO Executive Office, Goldie Dersh, VIP Behavioral Health Services, Psychiatric Clinic, Melissa Farber, VIP Human Resources, Donald Dettmer, Program Coordinator, Defendants.

          Argued: March 29, 2017

         Plaintiff-appellant, Easter S. McLeod, appeals from a judgment entered by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Pauley and Woods, JJ.). This appeal raises the question whether a pro se litigant forfeits her claims under New York state and local discrimination law where she has alleged facts supporting such claims, but fails to check a blank on a form complaint indicating that she wishes to bring them. We conclude that such a bright-line rule runs counter to our policy of liberally construing pro se submissions, and that McLeod's complaint should have been read by the district court to assert claims under New York state and local discrimination law. For the reasons set forth below and in a summary order issued simultaneously with this opinion, the judgment of the district court is VACATED and REMANDED.

          Adrienne B. Koch (Elan R. Dobbs and Joseph Weiner, on the brief), Katsky Korins LLP, New York, NY for Plaintiff-Appellant Easter S. McLeod.

          Ravindra K. Shaw (Jennifer B. Courtian, on the brief), Jackson Lewis P.C., New York, NY for Defendant-Appellee The Jewish Guild for the Blind.

          Before: Hall, Lynch, and Droney, Circuit Judges.

          PER CURIAM.

         Plaintiff-appellant, Easter S. McLeod, appeals from a judgment entered by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Pauley and Woods, JJ.). This appeal raises the question whether a pro se litigant forfeits her claims under New York state and local discrimination law where she has alleged facts supporting such claims, but fails to check a blank on a form complaint indicating that she wishes to bring them. We conclude that such a bright-line rule runs counter to our policy of liberally construing pro se submissions, and that McLeod's complaint should have been read by the district court to assert claims under New York state and local discrimination law as well as under federal law. A summary order issued simultaneously with this opinion addresses the balance of McLeod's claims on appeal. For the reasons stated below and in that summary order, we VACATE the district court's determination that McLeod asserted claims only under federal law, its dismissal of claims against the individual defendants, and its dismissal of McLeod's hostile work environment claim; and REMAND for further proceedings consistent with our rulings.

         BACKGROUND

         Proceeding pro se, McLeod filed suit in the Southern District of New York in September 2013, alleging that she was the victim of sexual harassment while employed by defendant-appellee, The Jewish Guild for the Blind ("JGB"). In bringing suit, McLeod used a form discrimination complaint provided by the district court's pro se office that asks litigants to place check marks next to the laws under which they wish to bring their claims. McLeod checked a blank indicating that she wished to bring claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., but did not check blanks corresponding to the New York State Human Rights Law ("NYSHRL"), N.Y. Exec. Law § 290 et seq., or the New York City Human Rights Law ("NYCHRL"), N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-101 et seq. McLeod also checked blanks referring to other bases of discrimination, but failed to check the blank for "gender/sex, " even though the complaint elsewhere refers to "sexual harassment." A. 34. Appended to the form complaint were McLeod's handwritten allegations detailing her direct supervisor's conduct, which included sexually suggestive remarks as well as comments insinuating that McLeod worked part-time as a prostitute or stripper. The complaint did not name JGB as a defendant, instead naming McLeod's supervisor and three other individual executives of JGB.

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B), the district court dismissed sua sponte McLeod's claims against the individual defendants on the ground that individual defendants cannot be held liable under Title VII, and directed that the caption be amended to name JGB as a defendant. Thereafter, JGB moved for partial judgment on the pleadings. In ruling on the motion, the district court noted that "[o]n her pre-printed complaint form, McLeod indicates that she is suing only under Title VII, " Dkt. No. 46 at 3, apparently referring to the fact that McLeod had only checked the blank on the form complaint corresponding to Title VII. The district court then dismissed McLeod's claims based on age, color, and disability, and stated that the case would proceed only with respect to her claims under Title VII on the basis of sex. The district court later dismissed those claims at summary judgment. This timely appeal followed.

         DISCUSSION

         As we have repeatedly stated, "[w]e liberally construe pleadings and briefs submitted by pro se litigants, reading such submissions to raise the strongest arguments they suggest." Bertin v. United States, 478 F.3d 489, 491 (2d Cir. 2007) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). "The policy of liberally construing pro se submissions is driven by the understanding that implicit in the right to self-representation is an obligation on the part of the court to make reasonable allowances to protect pro se litigants from inadvertent forfeiture of important rights because of their lack of legal training." Abbas v. Dixon, 480 F.3d 636, 639 (2d Cir. 2007) (alterations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         Here, had the district court considered McLeod's handwritten factual allegations alone, it would have been required to construe McLeod as having asserted claims under the NYSHRL and NYCHRL.[1] McLeod's allegations clearly suggest claims under the NYSHRL and NYCHRL, which afford protections unavailable under federal law to discrimination plaintiffs who can "plead and prove that the alleged discriminatory conduct had an impact" within the state and city respectively.[2] Hoffman v. Parade Publ'ns, 15 N.Y.3d 285, 289 (2010). The NYCHRL, for example, applies a more lenient standard than Title VII to discrimination and hostile work environment claims, see Mihalik v. Credit Agricole Cheuvreux N. Am., Inc., 715 F.3d 102, 109 (2d Cir. 2013), and the NYSHRL and NYCHRL both provide less stringent statutes of limitations than those applicable under federal law, see Kassner v. 2nd Ave. Delicatessen Inc., 496 F.3d 229, 238 (2d Cir. 2007). Moreover, the NYSHRL and NYCHRL permit suits against individual supervisors, which McLeod clearly sought to bring, while Title VII does not. See Feingold v. New York, 366 F.3d 138, 157-59 (2d Cir. 2004). As a pro se litigant, McLeod could not be expected to understand such fine-grained distinctions between local, state, and federal law, and would "inadvertent[ly] forfeit[] . . . important rights, " Abbas, 480 F.3d at 639, if the district court were not required to construe her complaint to state claims under the NYSHRL and NYCHRL.[3]

         That McLeod used a form complaint provided by the district court's pro se office and failed to check the appropriate blanks should not dictate a contrary result.[4] As we have noted in analogous circumstances, "[t]he failure in a complaint to cite a statute, or to cite the correct one, in no way affects the merits of a claim." Albert v. Carovano, 851 F.2d 561, 571 n.3 (2d Cir. 1988) (en banc). Rather, "[f]actual allegations alone are what matters." Id. That principle carries particular force where a pro se litigant is involved.[5] Accordingly, because McLeod's factual allegations suggested claims under the NYSHRL and ...


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