A jury in a Manhattan federal court returned a verdict this summer in favor of a professor who formerly taught at a university in New York City, and awarded her $1.25 million in damages. The plaintiff alleged sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). Ravina v. Columbia University, No. 1:16-cv-02137, 1st am. complaint (S.D.N.Y., Jul. 8, 2016). The verdict demonstrates how different claims under Title VII may operate independently of one another. The jury actually found in favor of the defendant on the claims involving sex discrimination and sexual harassment. It rendered a verdict in the plaintiff’s favor, however, on her retaliation claims. New York City sexual harassment attorneys often present harassment and retaliation claims side by side, but the two claims involve two different statutory provisions. To borrow a phrase from the political realm, if sexual harassment is the crime, retaliation is often the cover-up.
Discrimination in employment on the basis of sex is an “unlawful employment practice” under Title VII and the NYCHRL. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1), N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-107(1)(a). Multiple court decisions have established that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination in two broad categories: when sexual activity in some form is made a condition of employment, and when pervasive and unwelcome sexual remarks or behavior create a hostile work environment. Both laws also state that an employer commits an unlawful employment practice when they discriminate against an employee because they have “opposed any [unlawful employment] practice,” made a complaint alleging an unlawful employment practice, or cooperated in an investigation of an alleged unlawful employment practice. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a), N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-107(7).
A plaintiff, generally speaking, has the burden of proof in a civil lawsuit. They must establish the defendant’s liability by a preponderance of the evidence. A plaintiff must demonstrate to the finder of fact—a judge or jury—that at least fifty-one percent of the evidence supports their allegations against the defendant. If the finder of fact concludes that the plaintiff has not met this burden of proof, they must render a verdict in the defendant’s favor. This does not necessarily mean that the plaintiff’s claims are false or have been disproven. It only means that the plaintiff did not produce sufficient evidence to convince the judge or jury.