Articles Posted in Hostile Work Environment

Solar systemSexual harassment pervades almost every type of workplace throughout the country. While New York sexual harassment statutes offer employees tools to fight back against harassment, hostile work environment, and retaliation, new stories of harassment appear nearly every day alongside success stories. It is worth examining how the law protects people from harassment in the workplace, and how the law falls short. Laws like the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) provide protection against these practices, but many industries and professions continue to maintain cultures that often seem to support the harassers over the harassed. A story published last year in the Washington Post describes a survey of space scientists, which indicated that both racial and sexual harassment are significant concerns, particularly for women of color working in that field.

The NYCHRL, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and many other statutes prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of sex, race, and other factors. Sexual harassment is generally considered to be a form of sex discrimination under all of these statutes. Unlawful sexual harassment includes a range of acts, including unwelcome sexual remarks, jokes, or overtures that, in the aggregate, create a hostile work environment. Acts that, examined in isolation, might seem relatively minor could become part of a hostile work environment if they occur in vast numbers. A small number of acts could constitute a hostile work environment if they are particularly severe.

Many workers do not speak out about harassment for fear of losing their jobs or suffering other punitive actions. In addition to prohibiting sexual harassment, these laws also prohibit retaliation against employees who report concerns to a supervisor or manager, who take other actions to oppose the alleged harassment internally, or who make a report to a government agency like the New York City Human Rights Commission or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

HarassmentEmployment laws in New York City and around the country prohibit sexual harassment, which is considered a form of sex discrimination. These laws also prohibit retaliation by an employer against an employee who reports alleged sexual harassment or otherwise asserts their rights, known as “protected activity.” This means that employers cannot fire or demote an employee, or otherwise subject them to adverse employment actions, based on their reporting unlawful employment practices to a supervisor or manager, or to a government agency like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A lawsuit filed last year claimed sexual harassment by a coworker, with allegations that included brandishing a firearm at the plaintiff, as well as retaliation by the employer. Dodaro v. JNKO Mgt., Inc., No. 1:17-cv-00348, complaint (W.D. Mich., Apr. 17, 2017). The case demonstrates how retaliation might occur in the course of an employer’s response to a New York sexual harassment allegation.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of several factors, including sex. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Various U.S. Supreme Court decisions have established sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination. Title VII also prohibits retaliation against employees who have “opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice,” or who have participated in any way in an investigation of an alleged unlawful practice. Id. at § 2000e-3(a).

Courts have differed over which sorts of actions may constitute retaliation under Title VII. The Supreme Court ruled on retaliation in sexual harassment claims in Burlington N. & S.F. R. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006). It held that Title VII’s anti-retaliation provisions have a broader scope than its anti-discrimination provisions, and they are not limited to actions that have an objectively negative impact—e.g., firing or demotion. The actions must be “materially adverse to a reasonable employee or job applicant,” to the point that they might “dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” Id. at 57.

Tropical paradise beachNew York City is home to numerous television studios and production companies, which employ thousands of actors and actresses, along with directors, producers, crew members, and others. These studios and production companies have a duty to provide a reasonably safe work environment, and to address concerns about sexual harassment and other misconduct in a prompt manner. Laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) provide legal remedies for people who experience discrimination on the basis of sex, which includes sexual harassment, and other factors. The first step in asserting a sexual harassment claim is often reporting the matter to a supervisor or manager. A television production based in California recently offered an example of an internal investigation of alleged misconduct, which affected the production but did not lead to any lawsuits.

Sexual harassment is considered a form of unlawful sex discrimination under federal, state, and New York City sexual harassment laws. Quid pro quo sexual harassment involves demands for sexual activity of some sort as a condition of hiring, or in exchange for various benefits of employment. The “casting couch” archetype, in which actresses trade sexual favors for a part in a television or film production, is a classic example of this form of sexual harassment. The other form involves a hostile work environment created by pervasive and unwelcome sexual conduct in the workplace, ranging from inappropriate comments, jokes, or overtures to outright sexual assault.

In some cases, claims under Title VII or the NYCHRL are not the only claims an individual could make. In cases of unwanted touching, for example, they may also be able to assert intentional tort claims like assault, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, as well as negligence-based claims like negligent hiring or supervision.

booksDespite major advances in New York sexual harassment laws, harassment continues to pervade nearly every type of workplace, affecting the lives and careers of countless people of all genders. Statutes like the New York City Human Rights Law prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sex, which includes certain forms of sexual harassment. An essay published in early 2017 describes the author’s experience with sexual harassment in the literary world, starting with her experiences with a professor in her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program. In educational settings, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 addresses sex discrimination, including sexual harassment. The literary community presents a complicated mix of relationships between writers, editors, publishers, and others, in which sexual harassment is reportedly a frequent occurrence, but sources of legal relief are not always obvious.

Numerous statutes address sexual harassment in workplaces and schools. Disparities in power between complainants and alleged harassers are a major factor in classifying sexual harassment as sex discrimination. Courts have found that two forms of sexual harassment constitute sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the primary federal employment anti-discrimination law, as well as Title IX and other statutes. Pervasive and unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that, in the aggregate, creates a hostile work environment is one form. The other form, known as quid pro quo sexual harassment, involves a supervisor or other person in a position of authority demanding some sort of sexual activity as a condition of hiring, continued employment, or other features or benefits of employment. Both forms of sexual harassment can have a significant impact on people who work, or are seeking to start a career, in the literary field.

In an essay published in February 2017 in the literary magazine Tin House, an author recounts numerous instances of alleged sexual harassment in her literary career. She begins with a description of “a predatory, exploitative teacher” she met in her MFA program when she was 22 years old. Her account of abusive and exploitative behavior clashes with her description of his public persona as “a much beloved and celebrated storyteller.” After she “broke free” from him and went on to a Ph.D program, she began to have similar experiences with a teacher at her new school. She states that, this time, she “[u]nmistakeably recogniz[ed]…a road I’d already been down” and reported the teacher to the administration. Their investigation reportedly concluded that his behavior was “just his way of complimenting and supporting [her],” rather than sexual harassment.
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vintage filmThe film industry might call Los Angeles home, but New York City is home to countless television and film productions, actors and actresses, producers, directors, and production workers. In late 2017, allegations of sexual harassment against a prominent Hollywood producer helped launch the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, which aim to highlight the problem of sexual harassment in entertainment. Both actresses and actors, as well as others employed in film and television, have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment by famous actors, directors, and producers. Some of these allegations may fall under New York City sexual harassment law, provided that they involve an employer-employee relationship. Not all incidents of alleged sexual harassment in entertainment meet this requirement, however, and the same could be said for many workplace settings. Lawsuits and other claims involving alleged sexual harassment in entertainment demonstrate alternative ways of pursuing justice through the courts.

Laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New York City Human Rights Law prohibit sex discrimination in hiring, firing, and the terms and conditions of employment. Courts have held that sexual harassment is a form of unlawful sex discrimination when employment is conditional on sexual activity of some sort, or when inappropriate sexual conduct is pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment.

The “casting couch,” which signifies some directors’ and producers’ demands for sexual activity with actresses and actors in exchange for roles, is a Hollywood cliché that remains a pervasive problem. Beyond alleged demands for sexual favors behind closed doors, a recent Washington Post article discusses how young actresses trying to start their careers are pressured into doing nude scenes. It cites research showing that, in the 100 top-grossing films released in 2016, just over one quarter of “speaking or named female characters” appeared either nude or “heavily exposed,” compared to less than 10 percent of male characters.

Appetizer at Applebee'sServers in restaurants are in a particular position of vulnerability to unlawful employment practices like sexual harassment. New York City, with its abundance of restaurants, offers countless examples, but it is a nationwide problem. Job positions for servers can be very competitive, and supervisors have considerable discretion regarding shift assignments. Furthermore, most servers are dependent on tips for their income. This places many servers in a position in which they could face harassment not only from supervisors and managers, but also from customers. A server may hesitate to speak out about harassment by a customer for fear of losing tips, and they may fear speaking out against their employer for fear of losing shift assignments or their job. A lawsuit filed last year by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) offers an example of the sort of environment that servers face throughout the country. EEOC v. New Apple, Inc., No. 4:17-cv-01150, 2nd am. complaint (D.S.C., Dec. 14, 2017).

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of multiple factors, including sex. Through amendments to the statute and Supreme Court decisions, the definition of sex discrimination has expanded since 1964 to include pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment. The courts have identified two broad categories of sexual harassment. Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when a supervisor or manager demands sexual activity in some form as a condition of employment, such as when a restaurant manager demands sexual favors from a server in exchange for the most lucrative shift assignments. A hostile work environment occurs when a general environment of unwelcome and inappropriate conduct of a sexual nature interferes with the server’s ability to do their job.

The EEOC is charged with investigating alleged Title VII violations. Claims of sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination under Title VII usually begin with a complaint filed with the EEOC. If, once the EEOC completes its investigation, it finds a reasonable basis to conclude that unlawful employment practices occurred, it may try to resolve the matter with the employer without litigation. It files suit directly against employers in some cases, or else it provides the complainant with a “right to sue” letter that authorizes them to file suit themselves in federal court.
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cityscapeThe New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) is among the most comprehensive anti-discrimination statutes in the country, protecting employees and job applicants against discrimination, harassment, and retaliation on the basis of a wide range of factors. Much like state and federal employment statutes, New York City’s employment law treats sexual harassment as a form of unlawful sex discrimination. City law differs, however, in its requirements for establishing a hostile work environment. Some lawmakers worry that the statutes in their jurisdictions impose too great a burden on employees alleging sexual harassment in the form of a hostile work environment, and they are looking to the NYCHRL for new ideas. In January 2018, a California state senator held a public hearing on the “severe or pervasive” standard in hostile work environment claims. The hearing included testimony by the New York City Human Rights Commissioner.

Under California law, a plaintiff alleging a hostile work environment must establish that the alleged harassment was “pervasive or severe.” Cal. Civ. Code § 51.9(a)(2). The U.S. Supreme Court has held that a hostile work environment constitutes unlawful sex discrimination under federal law when the harassing behavior is “severe or pervasive enough to create…an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive.” Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993). California courts have adopted this standard for sexual harassment claims under state law. Lyle v. Warner Bros. Television Productions, 42 Cal.Rptr.3d 2, 12 (2006). The California Supreme Court has identified “[c]ommon sense, and an appropriate sensibility to social context” as a guide in determining whether conduct is sufficiently “severe.” Id. at 16. To meet the “pervasive” requirement, a plaintiff “must show a concerted pattern of harassment of a repeated, routine, or a generalized nature.” Id.

The “severe or pervasive” standard has been criticized for overlooking all but the worst instances of workplace harassment. According to one New York appellate court, it has “routinely barred the courthouse door to women who have, in fact, been treated less well than men because of gender.” Williams v New York City Hous. Auth., 61 A.D.3d 62, 73 (N.Y. App., 1st Div. 2009). Judicial interpretations of the NYCHRL therefore do not “simply mimic[] its federal and state counterparts.” Id. at 74. Based on findings that the “severe or pervasive” standard “unduly narrows the reach of the law,” the NYCHRL requires a plaintiff claiming a hostile work environment to prove “that she has been treated less well than other employees because of her gender.” Id. at 78.

Earlier this month, a federal appellate judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit retired amid allegations that he engaged in sexual harassment and unwelcome touching over the course of his 32 years on the bench. According to a recent report by the New York Times, at least 15 women have come forward to report that the judge sexually harassed them through unwanted sexual comments or physical contact, including kissing, hugging, and groping. These allegations are not unlike those in many New York sexual harassment cases.

Judge's GavelThe judge apologized to those whom his conduct affected. However, his comments following his sudden retirement fell short of acknowledging any inappropriate conduct, citing the fact that he has a “broad sense of humor and candid way of speaking.”

One woman who had served as a clerk for another judge on the Ninth Circuit came forward, telling reporters that the judge suggested she exercise naked. She explained that the power dynamics in the legal profession made it difficult for her to come forward with allegations against a sitting judge. Now a professor at a California law school, the former clerk told reporters that she owes it to the next generation of lawyers to create a better version of the legal profession.

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people-coffee-meeting-team-7096The past few months have seen proverbial dams burst with regard to sexual harassment allegations in places like Washington, D.C. and Hollywood. People—perhaps mostly, but not exclusively, women—who have long felt that coming forward would endanger their careers, or even their safety, finally feel that they can tell their stories. Months before the first allegations against Hollywood producers and Washington politicians began to dominate the news cycle, female entrepreneurs and tech workers in Silicon Valley, New York City, and elsewhere around the country were exposing cultures of sexual harassment in the startup world. The nature of the startup scene, however, presents certain legal challenges. Employment statutes prohibiting New York City sex discrimination and sexual harassment allow employees to file suit against their employers, but the relationship between startup founders and investors is not always that of employee and employer. In the absence of direct legal relief through anti-discrimination laws, entrepreneurs and investors are trying other methods to combat sexual harassment.

Laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) prohibit employment discrimination based on a person’s sex. Sexual harassment, which includes a range of unwelcome, sexually oriented behaviors, from bad jokes to outright assault, constitutes unlawful sex discrimination when it is severe enough to create a hostile work environment impeding an individual’s ability to do their job, or when an employer makes sexual activity a condition of employment.

In order to successfully assert a claim for sexual harassment under Title VII, the NYSHRL, or another statute, a plaintiff must demonstrate an employment relationship. This is not present in many encounters between entrepreneurs and investors. A common, and often defining, feature of a “startup” company is an inability to meet operating costs through business revenue. Many startups spend years developing a product or service before even expecting such revenue. Instead, they rely on funding from investors. Venture capitalists (VCs) provide funding to startup businesses in exchange for stock in the company, and they often place one or more people on the company’s board of directors. If a VC sexually harasses an entrepreneur prior to this part of the funding process, the entrepreneur may have no recourse under existing anti-discrimination laws.
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Workplace bullying is a pervasive problem, with one study finding that nearly three-fourths of surveyed employees had experienced bullying in their jobs. Legal protections are often only available to the extent that workplace bullying also constitutes discrimination or harassment on the basis of a protected category, which includes sexual harassment. New York City sexual harassment laws might then allow a cause of action. A story that appeared in news media earlier this year offers an example of alleged bullying—specifically, efforts to shame a coworker after she reported alleged sexual harassment by a supervisor—that might have supported a claim for sexual harassment. This particular case, however, appears to have been resolved without litigation.

person-homeless-bullied-hiding-1821412The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines the term to include verbal abuse, interference with a person’s work, and other acts aimed at “threatening, humiliating, or intimidating” someone. “Bullying” is not a legal term, but it might meet the legal definition of sexual harassment if it is primarily based on a person’s sex, and it creates a hostile work environment that interferes with that person’s ability to perform their work responsibilities.

While not using the actual word “bullying,” several landmark decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court demonstrate the close connection between bullying and sexual harassment. The court first recognized sexual harassment as an actionable form of sex discrimination in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986). The court held that unlawful sexual harassment occurs when the harassing behavior is “severe or pervasive” enough “to alter the conditions of…employment and create an abusive working environment.” Id. at 67. Several years later, the court clarified that a plaintiff does not have to show that the hostile work environment was severe enough “to cause a tangible psychological injury.” Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993). A plaintiff must show both that they “subjectively perceive the environment to be abusive” and that “a reasonable person would find [it] hostile or abusive.” Id.

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