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Knight v. State University of New York at Stony Brook

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

January 29, 2018

Anthony Knight, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
State University of New York at Stony Brook, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued: December 15, 2017

          Michael G. O'Neill, Law Office of Michael G. O'Neill, New York, NY, for Plaintiff-Appellant Anthony Knight.

          Caroline A. Olsen, Assistant Solicitor General (Barbara D. Underwood, Solicitor General & Steven C. Wu, Deputy Solicitor General, on the brief), for Eric T. Schneiderman, Attorney General of the State of New York, New York, NY, for Defendant-Appellee State University of New York at Stony Brook.

          Winter, Lynch, and Droney, Circuit Judges

         Plaintiff Anthony Knight, an African-American electrician, sued Defendant State University of New York at Stony Brook, alleging that Defendant violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it terminated his employment after he reported racist graffiti in a bathroom located at his worksite. At trial, the parties disputed whether Knight qualified as an employee for purposes of Title VII. At the close of evidence, Knight moved for judgment as a matter of law that he was Defendant's employee. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Joanna Seybert, Judge) denied Knight's motion and submitted the issue to the jury, which found that Knight was not an employee. On appeal, Knight argues that: (1) the district court erred in submitting the question of whether he was an employee to the jury; (2) the district court erroneously instructed the jury on how to determine whether he was an employee; (3) the evidence was insufficient to support the jury's conclusion that he was not an employee; and (4) the district court made several other errors unrelated to the question of whether Knight was an employee.

         We reject these arguments and AFFIRM the judgment.

          Per Curiam:

         Plaintiff Anthony Knight, an African-American electrician, sued Defendant State University of New York at Stony Brook ("Stony Brook") for discrimination and retaliation, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., when it terminated Knight's employment after he reported racist graffiti in a bathroom located at his worksite. At trial, the parties disputed (among other issues) whether Knight qualified as an employee for purposes of Title VII, and the jury was presented with conflicting evidence on that issue. At the close of evidence, Knight moved for judgment as a matter of law that he was Stony Brook's employee. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Joanna Seybert, Judge) denied Knight's motion and submitted the issue to the jury, which found that Knight was not an employee. On appeal, Knight argues that: (1) the district court should not have submitted the question of whether he was an employee to the jury; (2) the district court misinstructed the jury on how to determine whether he was an employee; (3) the evidence was insufficient to support the jury's conclusion that he was not an employee; and (4) the district court made several other errors unrelated to the question of whether Knight was an employee. For the following reasons, we AFFIRM.

         BACKGROUND

         At all relevant times, Knight, who is African American, was an electrician and a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 25 ("the Union"). The Union had an arrangement with Stony Brook under which it referred union electricians to Stony Brook when additional workers were needed to supplement its workforce during large construction projects.

         Pursuant to this arrangement, the Union referred Knight to Stony Brook, and in April 2011, he began working on a construction project for a psychiatric emergency facility. Sometime that summer or fall, [1] Knight discovered racist graffiti in the bathroom he used at work every morning. He reported the graffiti to the project's foreman, Thomas Murphy, who was also a member of the Union, and to the shop steward, James Malley.[2] His work was terminated sometime thereafter.[3] Knight had worked on the project for approximately six months. Knight then initiated this action against Stony Brook, claiming that he had been discriminated against on the basis of his race and retaliated against for reporting the graffiti in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.

         Stony Brook moved to dismiss both claims for failure to state a claim. The district court granted the motion without prejudice, and Knight submitted a first amended complaint. Stony Brook again moved to dismiss, and the district court dismissed the discrimination claim with prejudice, but declined to dismiss the retaliation claim.

         The retaliation claim proceeded to a jury trial. At trial, Stony Brook argued that Knight was not its employee, and that it therefore could not be held liable under Title VII. As the district court recognized, whether a plaintiff is an employee of a defendant for purposes of Title VII is determined by what are known as the Reid factors. See Cmty. for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid, 490 U.S. 730, 751-52 (1989). Borrowing from the common law of agency, the Reid Court established a non-exhaustive list of thirteen factors which guide the determination of employee status. Id. Those factors are:

the hiring party's right to control the manner and means by which the product is accomplished[;] . . . the skill required; the source of the instrumentalities and tools; the location of the work; the duration of the relationship between the parties; whether the hiring party has the right to assign additional projects to the hired party; the extent of the hired party's discretion over when and how long to work; the method of payment; the hired party's role in hiring and paying assistants; whether the work is part of the regular business ...

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