Actors Fight Against Sexual Harassment in New York City Theater

In New York City and other cities around the country, actors, playwrights, and others are taking a stand against sexual harassment in the theater. New York City is a world-renowned theater hub, with the name “Broadway” being almost synonymous with top-quality productions. Sexual harassment, hostile work environment, and other forms of discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity are still a significant problem for the arts in New York City. Laws at the city, state, and federal levels prohibit sexual harassment and other practices, but their protections are not always available to theater workers. Some people are using union rules to fight back, while others are forming their own organizations to assert their right to a harassment-free workplace.

Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL), and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) prohibit sexual harassment and sex discrimination in the workplace. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a), N.Y. Exec. L. § 296(1)(a), N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-107(1). The NYSHRL and NYCHRL also prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. New York City law goes even further, protecting workers from gender identity and gender expression discrimination. Sexual harassment in the theater can affect people of any gender, although women and gay men seem to experience it to a significant degree.

Lawsuits alleging sexual harassment against a theater company or theater official can be difficult to prove. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals, for example, affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a former assistant stage director’s claims for insufficient evidence, as well as its decision not to exercise jurisdiction over state-law sexual harassment claims. Brennan v. Metropolitan Opera Ass’n, 192 F.3d 310 (2d Cir. 1999). A Manhattan state court dismissed a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment against a theater producer, Martian Entertainment, LLC v. Harris, No. 600384/2006, complaint (N.Y. Sup. Ct., N.Y. Co., Feb. 27, 2006), ruling that the dispute was over a contract, not any tortious behavior by the defendant.

In the absence of legal protections, some people in the theater turn to unions for relief, although it is reportedly rare for a union to take strong action in response to a complaint of workplace harassment. The most recent case of a union taking punitive action in such a situation—or at least the last instance to receive significant media attention—occurred in 2008, when the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) issued a lifetime ban to an actor after receiving complaints from every cast and crew member of a stage production.

Some people working in the theater, including actors, playwrights, and others, are banding together to create proposed codes of conduct for the theater. Similar efforts among New York City fashion models have led to improved working conditions. A group of theater professionals, joined by union representatives, drafted a proposal in January 2015 for how to respond to allegations of sexual harassment. An organization founded by a Chicago actress, called Not In Our House, has issued a “Statement of Principle” and is working on a code of conduct for the theater.

Phillips & Associates’ sexual harassment attorneys help employees, former employees, and job applicants in New York City assert claims for unlawful employment practices under city, state, and federal employment laws. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a knowledgeable and experienced employee rights advocate, contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.

More Blog Posts:

Fashion Models Take a Stand Against Sexual Harassment, Discrimination, Labor Law Violations, and Other Fashion Industry Problems, New York Employment Attorney Blog, February 13, 2014

Fashion Model’s Support of Controversial Photographer Demonstrates the Difficulty of Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Fashion Industry, New York Employment Attorney Blog, February 25, 2013

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

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