Laws Regarding Sexual Harassment Still Apply at New York Holiday Office Parties

Under the MistletoeThe holiday season is a happy, festive time under ideal conditions. American popular culture places distinct importance on the “office holiday party” as a time of celebration, often to excess. Movies and television programs frequently show people drinking too much and getting out of control. This is not limited to our entertainment, since some people seem to believe that holiday parties present an opportunity when the usual rules of the workplace do not apply. This is not the case. Sexual harassment is just as unacceptable and unlawful at an office holiday party as it is at any other time. We encourage people to have fun and enjoy the holidays, but also they need to be careful and to know their rights—and their obligations and limitations—under the law.

The law in New York City considers sexual harassment to be a type of unlawful sex discrimination. Three different statutes take this view of sexual harassment:  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL), and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). Each statute differs somewhat in its coverage, and not every employer covered by the NYCHRL will also be covered by Title VII, but the overall effect is that almost every employee in New York City enjoys legal protection from sexual harassment.

Holiday parties, which often include alcohol and a general atmosphere of “blowing off steam,” present multiple risks related to sexual harassment. It could involve a manager, employee, or client engaging in unacceptable behavior, such as by getting too close while dancing with someone. It could also involve planned activities that give someone an opportunity to go too far, such as a party game or even a sprig of mistletoe that someone takes as an invitation to kiss someone without their consent. Employers should be aware of the potential for such behavior, and employees should know that their legal rights still exist during the party.

New York case law offers a few examples of how a holiday party can result in claims of sexual harassment and more:

– In Bermudez v. City of New York, 783 F. Supp. 2d 560 (S.D.N.Y. 2011), a female police officer claimed sexual harassment under the NYSHRL and NYCHRL, among other claims, for multiple alleged incidents. One of the incidents involved a male officer who allegedly attempted to assault her after a holiday office party.

– A male employee claimed unlawful retaliation under Title VII after he reported alleged sexual harassment by his supervisor against a customer at a holiday party, in Kunzler v. Canon, USA, Inc., 257 F. Supp. 2d 574 (E.D.N.Y. 2003).

– A male employee alleged sexual harassment by a female coworker under Title VII and the NYSHRL in Dall v. St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center, 966 F.Supp.2d 167 (E.D.N.Y. 2013). The female coworker had previously filed an internal sexual harassment complaint against the plaintiff in connection with the same holiday party.

Phillips & Associates’ sexual harassment attorneys represent job applicants, employees, and former employees in New York City who wish to assert claims for unlawful employment practices like sexual harassment and sex discrimination. Contact us online or at (212) 248-7431 today to schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you.

More Blog Posts:

Workplace Sexual Harassment and the Holidays – 4 Tips to Remember, New York Employment Attorney Blog, December 6, 2012

New York Fashion Models Form Rights Group to Fight Sexual Harassment, New York Employment Attorney Blog, February 7, 2012

Sexual Harassment at Office Holiday Parties, New York Employment Attorney Blog, December 20, 2011

Photo credit: Karl Witkowski [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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