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Sheng v. M&TBank Corp.

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

February 2, 2017

Jia Sheng, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
M&TBank Corporation, Manufacturers & Traders Trust Company, d/b/a M&TBank, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued: October 21, 2015

         Appeal from a judgment entered in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York (Hugh B. Scott, Magistrate Judge) after a jury verdict. The jury rejected appellant's federal claims of disability discrimination, retaliation, and failure to accommodate. Appellant argues that the district court erred by (i) admitting evidence of an offer of settlement in violation of Fed.R.Evid. 408, (ii) disqualifying her attorney and opposing counsel, (iii) not instructing jurors on the requirement of an interactive process under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and (iv) ruling as a matter of law on her New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) claim. We vacate the judgment in part, insofar as it adopted the jury's verdict and the district court's disqualification order; dismiss the appeal in part, insofar as it pertains to claims under the NYSHRL; and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

          GEORGE D. VALLAS, The Ottinger Firm, P.C., New York, NY, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          JUSTIN C. ELLER, Miles & Stockbridge, P.C., Baltimore, MD, for Defendants-Appellees.

          Before: KEARSE, WINTER, and CABRANES, Circuit Judges.

          WINTER, Circuit Judge.

         Jia Sheng brought this action against appellees (collectively MTBank[1]), claiming violations of various state and federal statutes by not allowing her to work remotely when she became pregnant. After the close of evidence, Magistrate Judge Scott ruled as a matter of law against appellant on a number of claims, while the jury found for MTBank on the remaining claims.

         On appeal, appellant contends that the district court erred by: (i) admitting evidence in violation of Fed.R.Evid. 408 that MTBank made an offer of reinstatement allowing her to work remotely, (ii) disqualifying the attorneys for both parties under the advocate-witness rule, (iii) not instructing jurors on her claim that MTBank violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) by failing to engage in an interactive process, and (iv) dismissing as a matter of law appellant's New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) claim, which appellant argues had the same legal and factual underpinnings as her ADA claim that was presented to the jury.

         We hold that (i) the district court abused its discretion in admitting evidence of the reinstatement offer because the offer was, as a matter of law, not unconditional;(ii) the district court erred in sua sponte disqualifying the attorneys, because the disqualification depended on the erroneous admission of evidence relating to the reinstatement offer; (iii) the jury instructions were not erroneous; and (iv) we lack jurisdiction over appellant's challenge to the district court's NYSHRL ruling.

         We vacate the judgment in part, insofar as it adopted the jury's verdict and the district court's disqualification order; dismiss the appeal in part, insofar as it pertains to claims under the NYSHRL; and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         BACKGROUND

         "In reviewing this record we construe all evidence, draw all inferences, and make all credibility determinations in favor of the party that prevailed before the jury." DiBella v. Hopkins, 403 F.3d 102, 110 (2d Cir. 2005).

         In January 2010, appellant began her employment with MTBank in Buffalo, New York as a Lead on its Quality Assurance Test (QAT) team in the bank's Central Technology (CT) Department. The QAT team executes system testing of computer programs for bank applications. In March 2011, appellant decided to resign her position and relocate to Los Angeles, where her husband had taken a job. However, her supervisor, Monica Holcomb, suggested that she continue to work at MTBank remotely through the bank's Alternative Work Arrangement (AWA) policy. Under the AWA policy, "[a]n employee's failure to resume [a] traditional work schedule or location upon revocation of an AWA will be considered a voluntary resignation of employment." J. App'x at 77. Appellant accepted Holcomb's offer and began working remotely from California.

         In the spring of 2012, MTBank's management began exploring a reorganization of the CT Department, including the QAT team. This reorganization was intended to facilitate the Voyager Project, a planned overhaul of MTBank's existing online banking system. On May 30, 2012, MTBank announced the reorganization to CT Department employees. In a meeting attended remotely by appellant, management explained that, in light of the reorganization, all AWAs would be reviewed. Later that day, Holcomb called appellant, who confirmed that she understood that her AWA status could be affected by the reorganization.

         The next day, appellant notified Lonnie Basciani -- who had replaced Holcomb as appellant's supervisor and in turn reported to Holcomb -- that she was pregnant. Shortly thereafter, she expressed concern about her AWA policy. Management determined, however, that team leads would need to be physically present in Buffalo at least two days per week in order to communicate and work directly with the individuals implementing the Voyager Project. At the time, appellant was the only employee on AWA status and not based in Buffalo. On June 27, 2012, Holcomb notified appellant that her AWA status would be altered, and that she would need to begin traveling to Buffalo.

         The following day, on June 28, 2012, appellant emailed Holcomb and MTBank's Human Resources Department, requesting a meeting to discuss the possibility of delaying the start of her commute to Buffalo until after she gave birth. At a July 3, 2012 meeting with Holcomb, however, appellant was informed that her request to be exempted from traveling to Buffalo during the duration of her pregnancy was denied. Appellant was given a deadline of July 27 to confirm that she would begin reporting to Buffalo in early August.

         On July 19, appellant submitted a letter from her obstetrician to Holcomb and MTBank's Human Resources Department, stating that, for health reasons, she should not engage in air travel for the duration of her pregnancy. After receiving this letter, Human Resources and MTBank management examined whether appellant could work on non-Voyager Project matters until she ...


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