In order to assert a claim under New York City sexual harassment laws, a plaintiff must usually demonstrate that an employment relationship existed between the plaintiff and the defendant. When the plaintiff and the alleged harasser received paychecks from the same entity, establishing this relationship is straightforward. Many workplaces present a much more complicated picture, though. Businesses often use a complex system of outsourcing through contractors in an effort to cut costs. This can cause confusion with regard to liability. New York courts, fortunately, have ruled that the definition of “employer” is not very strict in claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which governs many New York City sexual harassment claims.
Employers may be liable for third-party sexual harassment, meaning harassment against an employee by someone other than a fellow employee, such as a contractor, customer, or client. If the employer was aware that harassment was occurring, and they failed to take reasonable actions to prevent it or remedy the situation, they may be held liable under Title VII. This is similar to the standard for a hostile work environment created by a co-worker or another employee who is not in a position of authority over a plaintiff. The alleged harasser might not have direct control over the plaintiff’s employment, but they still have the power to make the workplace unbearable.
A 1981 decision by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) addressed this type of situation. The plaintiff was employed by a company that had a contract to provide property management services at a Manhattan office building, although there was some confusion as to the exact employment relationship. She worked as a lobby attendant, which partly involved “offer[ing] assistance and information to people entering the building and k[eeping] those who did not belong in the building from loitering.”