Articles Posted in Hostile Work Environment

ModelsCatwalkOver the past year, countless people have come forward with accounts of sexual harassment in the workplace. Known as the #MeToo movement, it began in the entertainment industry, and has expanded to include many other industries and professions. Fashion models have described their experiences with harassment at photo shoots, fashion shows, and other events in New York City. Sexual harassment is covered by laws prohibiting sex discrimination in employment, but the fashion industry presents challenges under laws like the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL). These laws generally apply to “employees.” Many who work in fashion are considered to be independent contractors. In October 2017, an Assemblywoman from Queens introduced A08572, the “Models’ Harassment Protection Act” (MHPA). This bill would amend the NYSHRL to include provisions specifically applying to the types of sexual harassment that models often experience, and to account for the employment relationship between model and designers, photographers, and others.

The U.S. Supreme Court established that the prohibition on sex discrimination in employment under federal law includes sexual harassment. Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986). New York courts have made the same determination with regard to the NYSHRL. See, e.g. Belle Ctr. v. Human Rights Div., 221 A.D.2d 44, 49-50 (N.Y. App. Div., 4th Dept. 1996).

Plaintiffs can allege two types of sexual harassment under these laws. Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when a “supervisor…expressly or tacitly link[s] tangible job benefits to the acceptance or rejection of sexual advances,” regardless of how the plaintiff responds to said advances. Id. at 50. Hostile work environment occurs when pervasive and unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature “alter[s] the conditions of the [plaintiff’s] employment.” Id. Neither theory of sexual harassment requires proof of economic loss, but a quid pro quo claim requires “proof of linkage between the offensive conduct and decisions affecting employment.” Id. at 50-51.
Continue reading

Penguins on icebergSexual harassment is an unlawful form of sex discrimination under employment statutes in New York City and around the country. It is often a result of an individual taking advantage of their power or authority in the workplace over a subordinate. It could take the form of demands for sexual activity of some sort as a condition of employment, or a pattern of unwanted sexual remarks or advances. In either case, the alleged harasser relies to a large extent on the alleged victim’s inability to speak out directly against the behavior. Statutes like the New York City Human Rights Law and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allow individuals who have experienced unlawful New York sexual harassment to file an administrative complaint, followed by a civil lawsuit. Some scenarios in which sexual harassment may occur, however, are not “workplaces” under the meaning of laws like Title VII. Sexual harassment can occur in academic settings, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 provides recourse in those situations. In late 2016, several former graduate students complained of sexual harassment by a professor. An internal investigation by the university resulted in the professor’s dismissal a year later. The story made headlines largely because the alleged harassment did not occur in a classroom or laboratory, but instead during research trips to Antarctica.

When sexual harassment occurs in an educational setting, employment anti-discrimination statutes might not apply. Title IX prohibits discrimination by certain educational institutions on the basis of sex. 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a). Federal funding is the main factor determining whether Title IX applies to a particular educational institution. A series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions have established that Title IX allows civil claims for sexual harassment by teachers, professors, or other employees against students, provided that the school administration knew about the alleged harassment and failed to take appropriate action. Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, 503 U.S. 60 (1992); Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School Dist., 524 U.S. 274 (1998).

The cases involving research trips to Antarctica mentioned above involved three former graduate students and the geology department chair at Boston University (BU). The complaints allege numerous acts of sexual harassment during trips to Antarctica between 1999 and 2001, when the department chair was an assistant professor. Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent in the world—larger than Europe or Australia—but because of its location at the South Pole, it is almost entirely covered with ice. It has no permanent population. The only residents temporarily inhabit scientific research stations. The continent is not under the jurisdiction of any particular nation, but any nation’s presence there is governed by international treaties. U.S. laws generally apply to Americans in Antarctica.

beer pongRecent media and public attention has helped shed light on sexual harassment in workplaces all over the country, including New York City. Employees have several means to fight back against such unlawful employment practices, but the attention to the issue since last fall has helped many employers identify and deal with individuals, policies, and practices that contribute to workplace sexual harassment. Laws like the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) allow employees to recover damages once New York City sexual harassment has occurred. The hope, of course, is that this attention will make workplace sexual harassment less common in general. Allegations of sexual harassment at a finance and technology startup company last year led to the CEO’s resignation, between the filing of two lawsuits against the company. Charles v. Social Finance, Inc., No. CGC-17-560682, complaint (Cal. Super. Ct., San Francisco Cty., Aug. 11, 2017); Zamora vs Social Finance, Inc., No. SCV-261312, complaint (Cal. Super. Ct., Sonoma Cty., Sep. 21, 2017).

In New York City, laws at the city, state, and federal levels prohibit sex discrimination in employment. Each of these statutes, while not expressly mentioning sexual harassment, has been construed to prohibit sexual harassment as part of its provisions on sex discrimination. One particular form of prohibited sexual harassment under the NYCHRL and other laws is known as “hostile work environment.” This involves a pattern of unwanted sexual behavior, ranging from remarks, comments, or jokes to overtures or actual physical contact, that is pervasive enough to interfere with a person’s ability to do their job. The behavior does not necessarily have to come from individuals in a superior workplace position to the complainant, provided that the employer knows about it but has failed to act.

The defendant in the lawsuits mentioned above is a Silicon Valley startup that provides online lending services. The company received positive coverage in the media for “stretching the definition of what a lender should do” by providing services beyond those directly related to a lender/borrower relationship. Beginning in early to mid-2017, however, stories began to emerge that showed a very different side of the company. Not at all unlike many New York City finance companies, current and former employees described an alleged “frat house culture” that included frequent sexual banter and actual sexual activity on company property.

Virtual RealityVirtual reality (VR) technology has been a feature of science fiction for some time. The technology is quickly advancing, although it has not reached the level portrayed in books and movies. Devices are now available to consumers that allow them to play VR games, both alone and with other players online. VR technology may prove to be useful in educating people about preventing sexual harassment in the workplace, and also in the recovery process for survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment. New York City is home to numerous technology companies exploring the benefits of VR technology. Unfortunately, VR has also presented further opportunities for some people to engage in New York sexual harassment. Participants in online VR games have reported numerous instances of conduct that would meet any standard definition of sexual harassment, and even assault, if it occurred in the real world. These alleged incidents might not directly involve employment statutes dealing with sexual harassment, but they demonstrate how deeply ingrained the attitudes that often lead to sexual harassment are in our society.

Employment statutes like the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. This includes sexual harassment in certain situations:  when a manager or supervisor makes sexual conduct of some sort a condition of employment, and when unwanted sexual remarks and other conduct are pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment. Employers have a legal responsibility to make reasonable efforts to investigate and remedy reported sexual harassment, and they could be liable for failing to do so. These statutes could apply to sexual harassment in “virtual” settings if an individual’s job requires them to participate in VR activities. For consumers using a company’s VR services, the service provider’s legal duty is not quite as clear, but they still have responsibility for their customers’ safety.

Current VR technology involves the use of a headset that allows a user to view the virtual setting in three dimensions. The headset responds to the user’s head movements, and additional controllers might reflect the real-world movement of the user’s arms, hands, and legs. The result can be a remarkably immersive environment, which has demonstrated benefits for various types of training and education. Some employers conduct sexual harassment trainings using VR technology, based on research suggesting that people retain more information from interactive VR programs than from live speakers or videos. VR applications might also help people who have experienced sexual assault and sexual harassment deal with trauma and related issues.

cheerleadersIn every type of workplace in New York City, sexual harassment is an unlawful employment practice. Employers have a duty to protect employees from harassment not only by supervisors and co-workers but also by customers. The type of work performed has no bearing on this, which one might hope is something that would not need to be said. Members of cheerleading squads for professional sports teams around the country have spoken out recently about sexual harassment experienced as part of their jobs. The job of a professional sports cheerleader is to entertain, with the entertainment coming from a combination of athletic prowess and physical attractiveness. To use football as an example, certain aspects of the game still cater to certain stereotypical male preferences, even though women now make up nearly half of the NFL’s fan base. While professional cheerleaders must have extensive dance training and experience, policies and practices at both the team and league levels sometimes place them in a more decorative role—one that can leave them exposed to the risk of sexual harassment and assault by fans and others. A recent discrimination complaint further outlines the workplace challenges cheerleaders face.

Cheerleading as a profession falls into an unusual legal category, in which sex and—for lack of a better term—sex appeal may be viewed as key qualifications for a job. Employment statutes prohibit discrimination based on sex, but not necessarily based on attractiveness. Court decisions and other laws directly addressing this are relatively rare, and they can vary widely from one industry or workplace to another. Over 30 years ago, a federal court ruled that an airline could not use “sex appeal” as a “bona fide occupational qualification” for its flight attendants. Wilson v. Southwest Airlines Co., 517 F.Supp. 292, 293 (N.D. Tex. 1981). The court noted an exception, however, for jobs involving “vicarious sexual recreation.” Id. at 301. It cited two 1971 decisions by the New York Human Rights Appeals Board, allowing Playboy Clubs to discriminate based on sex and physical appearance.

The job of professional sports cheerleaders includes much more than performing during games. Cheerleaders are also expected to act as ambassadors for their team by attending team-sponsored events and other promotional events. According to a report in the New York Times, this often includes events at which alcohol consumption occurs, such as tailgate parties, sometimes leading to “offensive sexual comments and unwanted touches by fans.” Many women reported “go[ing] in pairs or small groups to feel safer.”

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.
Continue reading

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.

Contact Information