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The Office of the New York State Attorney General (AG) announced in early January 2020 that it had reached a settlement with a restaurant owner accused of sexual harassment. New York City sexual harassment law protects workers from harassment on the basis of sex through statutes at the federal, state, and local levels. The AG’s complaint included alleged violations of city and state law. Under the settlement agreement, the restaurant owner will pay a six-figure sum to eleven former employees, followed by a share of the restaurant’s profits for the next decade.

Sex discrimination is considered an unlawful employment practice under the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). Court decisions have established that sexual harassment is a type of sex discrimination. Both state and city law specifically mention sexual harassment as an unlawful practice. The NYSHRL, for example, mentions sexual harassment in its definition of “employer.” N.Y. Exec. L. § 292(5). The NYCHRL identifies sexual harassment as a violation of public policy. N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-101.

Unlawful sexual harassment occurs when unwelcome sexual conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment, or when submitting to sexual conduct is a condition of one’s employment. The objectionable conduct may range from bawdy jokes to outright sexual assault.

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The television industry is constantly trying to find new ideas and stories to present to the public. The genre commonly known as “reality television” allows producers to create large amounts of content with relatively small budgets. It has proven to be a very popular and lucrative genre over the past twenty years, but it has also generated its share of controversy. In late 2019, the producers of one of the longest-running reality shows in the country addressed allegations that are familiar to New York City sexual harassment attorneys with knowledge of the entertainment business. Several female contestants on a reality competition show complained of inappropriate behavior by a male contestant. The showrunners eventually removed the male contestant from the show, and have pledged to change their policies for future seasons of the show.

The set of a television program is a workplace, just like an office, store, factory, or warehouse. Everyone working on or around a set is entitled to a workplace free of unlawful sexual harassment. Laws like the New York City Human Rights Law and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 view sexual harassment as a form of unlawful sex discrimination. Pervasive and unwelcome sexual remarks, unwanted touching, and other nonconsensual behavior on a set constitute sexual harassment in violation of the law.

The reality television controversy mentioned earlier involves one of the first such shows to find a large audience in the U.S. Its first season aired in the spring and summer of 2000, and its network has broadcast new seasons at a rate of about two per year. The controversy occurred during the filming and airing of the show’s thirty-ninth season. The show’s premise involves organizing groups of strangers into teams and placing them in a remote location, often on a tropical island in the Pacific or Indian Ocean. The contestants must fend for themselves to a large extent, and they must participate in various challenges to gain points. Each week, one or more contestants is eliminated from the show, until only one person remains.

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In the past few years, vast numbers of people have spoken out about New York sexual harassment. Before allegations of widespread harassment and abuse by a prominent Hollywood producer sparked the #MeToo movement in late 2017, a series of allegations emerged a year earlier in New York City. Sexual harassment lawsuits against a major news network and its CEO resulted in the termination of several major figures, including the CEO himself. The public is not aware of the details of the settlements, or many details of the cases themselves, because of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) signed by the plaintiffs. NDAs are fairly common as a way for employers to protect trade secrets, but they can also serve to keep the details of sexual harassment lawsuits out of the news. This might protect employers’ interests, but as the cases at the heart of #MeToo suggest, NDAs can place employees at risk by denying them important information. A former anchor for the news network has asked to be released from the NDA she signed as part of her settlement.

Antidiscrimination laws like the New York State Human Rights Law prohibit discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sex. This includes situations when submission to sexual demands is a condition of employment, known as quid pro quo sexual harassment; or when unwelcome sexual conduct creates a hostile work environment. The claims arising from #MeToo often describe people in a position of power, usually but not always men, using that power to coerce employees, often but not always women, into sexual situations. This could involve demands for sexual contact of some sort, or a work environment filled with sexual banter.

NDAs have traditionally sought to protect a company’s trade secrets by restricting current and former employees’ ability to disclose confidential or proprietary information. NDAs that prohibit disclosure of sexual harassment allegations exist on shakier legal ground. The National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2002 that employers cannot generally prohibit their employees “from discussing their sexual harassment complaints among themselves.” The NDAs that could be enforceable essentially involve a contractual exchange: the employer pays a settlement, and the employees signs an NDA. If the employee violates the NDA, they could be obligated to return the entire settlement amount. It would not be overstating it to say that this involves buying people’s silence. New York law sets limits on NDAs in sexual harassment cases, but allows them in certain situations.

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In the fall of 2017, multiple women came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against a well-known Hollywood producer. This launched a movement that became known as #MeToo, named for the hashtag used on the social media service Twitter by people sharing their own accounts of sexual harassment in the entertainment business and other industries. Eventually, more than eighty women would come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct by the producer. Numerous women filed suit against him and his studio for sexual harassment and other claims. Our New York City sexual harassment lawyers noted that the lawsuits included a suit by the New York Attorney General. In mid-December 2019, several parties announced a tentative settlement agreement, but not all of the parties seem to be happy with it.

Sexual harassment is considered a form of unlawful employment discrimination on the basis of sex under most employment statutes in the U.S., including New York City and New York State. The allegations against the producer largely take the form of one particular type of unlawful sexual harassment, known as quid pro quo sexual harassment. This occurs when submitting to demands for sexual conduct of some kind is a condition of employment. In the entertainment business, the term “casting couch” is essentially shorthand for quid pro quo sexual harassment. It refers to scenarios in which an actor or actress must give in to the sexual demands of a director or producer in order to get a part.

The New York Times published an article in October 2017 featuring accusations of sexual harassment and other misconduct by the producer. Multiple women described scenarios in which the producer allegedly made their success in Hollywood contingent on sexual activity, regardless of what the actresses wanted. The Times also reported a series of settlements with women who had made similar allegations, going back more than twenty-five years. The film studio that the producer co-founded announced shortly afterwards that it had fired him in response to these allegations.

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A New York City-based cable news network that has been no stranger to sexual harassment allegations is facing another lawsuit by a host. The complaint, filed in early December 2019, notes that the network has paid more than $100 million to settle sexual harassment claims in recent years. The network’s troubles pre-date the #MeToo movement, which largely originated in Hollywood, by more than a year. A former news anchor filed suit against the network in July 2016, and within two weeks, at least seven more women came forward with accounts of sexual harassment. The network’s longtime CEO and chairman resigned several days later. The network settled the first lawsuit in September 2016, but more allegations and lawsuits followed. The allegations include both quid pro quo sexual harassment, in which a person risks losing their job or other negative consequences if they turn down sexual advances; and hostile work environment. The new lawsuit alleges numerous acts that, if proven, would result in liability under New York City sexual harassment law.

Both city and state law in New York City prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of sex or gender. See N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-107(1)(a), N.Y. Exec. L. § 296(1)(a). Two forms of sexual harassment constitute unlawful sex discrimination under these statutes. As mentioned earlier, quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when a supervisor or manager makes acquiescence to sexual demands a condition of employment. This could involve a situation where a job applicant will only get the job if they have sex with a manager, or where a supervisor gives preferable work assignments to people who meet their sexual demands.

The other type of unlawful sexual harassment, hostile work environment, occurs when pervasive and unwelcome sexual conduct makes it essentially impossible for an individual to perform their job duties. Management must be aware of the offensive conduct, and they have a legal obligation to take reasonable steps to prevent further harassment. If they fail to do so, the employer may be liable under state or city law.

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The past few years have brought many accounts of sex discrimination, frequently including sexual harassment, in the media, entertainment, and tech industries. New York City sexual harassment attorneys often hear about sexual harassment in these workplaces. We are familiar with the way some media and tech companies can foster work environments that either allow or ignore sexual harassment. Companies in both tech and entertainment have been described as “boys’ clubs,” with work environments that significantly disadvantage and exclude women. A prominent video game company recently announced that it has settled a putative class action brought by current and former female employees alleging widespread sexual harassment, among other claims. The settlement includes $10 million in damages to be paid to class members.

Sexual harassment constitutes an unlawful form of sex discrimination under laws like the New York City Human Rights Law in two types of scenarios. Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when a supervisor or manager demands sexual activity or contact in exchange for getting a job, keeping a job, or obtaining some other sort of employment-related benefit. The “casting couch” is a well-known example, in which an individual auditioning for a role is expected to have sex, or something similar, with a director or producer in order to get the part. Another example involves a restaurant manager who only gives the best shift assignments to servers who submit to sexual demands.

The other scenario in the legal definition of sexual harassment occurs when pervasive, unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature creates a hostile work environment. A single incident can support a hostile work environment if it is severe enough. Most hostile work environment claims involve multiple acts, such as ongoing remarks or jokes of a sexual nature, which a reasonable person would expect to cause offense and interfere with a professional workplace.

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Legal protections for workers who are transgender or gender-nonconforming are, at best, a patchwork around the country. New York City gender identity discrimination attorneys can choose between city and state law when preparing a claim for gender identity or gender expression discrimination. In places where people must rely on federal law, their options may be less clear. An executive order (EO) issued during the Obama administration extended legal protections against gender identity discrimination to civilian government employees and employees of government contractors. That EO remains in effect, but the new administration has chipped away at its protections. This includes both substantive law and publicly available information. A report published in November 2019 by the Web Integrity Project (WIP) examines how the administration has removed information about LGBTQ legal protections from government websites, even when those legal protections remain in place.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled in 2012 that the prohibition on sex discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers gender identity and gender expression. The agency cited precedent recognizing “sex stereotyping” as a type of sex discrimination, and found that discrimination on the basis of a complainant’s gender identity was discrimination based on her sex. Most federal courts have not reached this conclusion. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the question in 2020.

President Obama issued EO 13672 on July 21, 2014. The order amended two earlier EOs. EO 11246, signed by President Johnson in 1965, established rules against discrimination by employers that contract with the federal government. EO 11478, signed by President Nixon in 1969, addressed discrimination in the federal civilian workforce. EO 13672 added gender identity protections to both of the earlier EOs. Various executive agencies implemented the new EO over the following months. See, e.g. 79 Fed. Reg. 72985 (Dec. 9, 2014), 41 C.F.R. § 60-1.1 et seq.

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As the holiday season swings into full gear, many employees and employers will face issues that may arise at company holiday parties. These parties are often designed to celebrate a successful year and reward employees for their dedication and hard work. However, the nature of these events often leads individuals to lower their inhibitions and potentially engage in unacceptable and offensive behavior. New York employees facing such discrimination at these office events should contact a New York employment discrimination attorney to address their claims.

Both New York and federal laws that protect against employment discrimination extend to off-hours and off-site work events. Additionally, employers should take precautionary steps by advising their employees on acceptable workplace behavior. However, despite the training, education, and risk of termination, employers and co-workers still engage in this unlawful behavior.

In addition to federal protections covering race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, age, citizenship status, and genetic information, New York City law prohibits qualified employers from discriminating against an employee based on their creed, actual or perceived age, marital or partnership status, pregnancy, military status, or caregiver status. Additional protections exist covering criminal and arrest history, sex offenders, and domestic violence victims. The federal protections apply to employers with more than 15 employees, and New York City protections apply to employers with more than four employees. Claims regarding sexual harassment do not have an employee minimum.

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Many New York employers are recognizing the importance of flexibility, camaraderie, and team building in developing a reliable and robust workforce. To meet these goals, many employers organize office retreats, family events, and annual holiday parties. However, these events, especially ones including alcohol, can lead to unwanted sexual harassment. Employees who suffer sexual harassment by their New York employer should understand their rights and remedies. Individuals who suffer sexual harassment by their employer or at their workplace should contact a New York sexual harassment attorney to discuss potential recourses.

According to a recent news report, research indicates that over half of companies throwing holiday and end-of-the-year parties will serve alcohol, a five percent increase from 2017. Moreover, studies show that serving alcohol increases the risk of workplace sexual harassment. Employers should take steps to mitigate the risk of unwanted sexual advances and harassment by educating their employees on appropriate standards of behavior and consent.

New York employees who do suffer sexual harassment at an off-site or off-work hours event may still hold their company liable for their harm. Typically, employees understand what constitutes sexual harassment in an office setting, but after-hours harassment may not be as clear. New York law defines sexual harassment as any unwanted sexual advances. These advances can be verbal, physical, or sexual. Some typical example of sexual harassment at a holiday party may include:

  • Inappropriately commenting on a co-worker’s body or attire
  • Coercing someone to drink to lower their inhibitions
  • Attempting to kiss or grope a co-worker
  • Making off-color sexual jokes

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New York City sex discrimination attorneys probably have more tools available to help their clients than lawyers in other American cities. The New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) prohibits workplace discrimination based on an extensive list of factors. State law in New York comes close to providing the extent of protection offered by city law. Both city and state law are far ahead of federal law. A 2016 amendment to the NYCHRL added “caregiver status” to the list of protected categories. See N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-107(1)(a). This applies to workers who, in addition to their job duties, must provide ongoing care for certain individuals. Federal law does not expressly protect caregiver status, but a 2004 decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York shows how the prohibition on sex discrimination could cover certain forms of caregiver status.

Caregiver Discrimination in New York City

The NYCHRL defines “caregiver” as someone “who provides direct and ongoing care for a minor child or a care recipient.” Id. at § 8-102. The statute goes on to define “care recipient” using additional terms that require definitions. We will focus here on the law’s applicability to people with caregiving responsibilities for minor children. The fact that New York City’s caregiver discrimination broadly applies to parents sometimes gets overlooked.

Sex Stereotyping under Title VII

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars employers from discriminating on the basis of sex, but aside from “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions,” it does not define the term “sex.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e(k), 2000e-2(a). The U.S. Supreme Court has offered further definitions of sex discrimination under Title VII, including various forms of sexual harassment.

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