The New York State Legislature passed a bill on June 19, 2019, A8421/S6577, that makes multiple changes to how the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) handles claims involving sexual harassment and other alleged unlawful employment practices. Section 2 of the bill adds a new provision to the NYSHRL that would effectively eliminate an affirmative defense available to employers, first under federal law and then under New York law, that is quite familiar to New York City sexual harassment attorneys. Employers can avoid liability for hostile work environment when they can establish that the plaintiff did not utilize opportunities provided by the employer to prevent or rectify alleged harassment. It is known as the Faragher/Ellerth defense, after two U.S. Supreme Court decisions issued on the same day: Faragher v. Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998); and Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998).
A hostile work environment generally occurs, in violation of antidiscrimination law, when pervasive and unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature substantially interferes with an employee’s ability to perform their job duties. The Faragher/Ellerth defense allows an employer to raise an affirmative defense to liability that consists of two main elements: (1) the employer acted reasonably to prevent and/or remedy sexual harassment in the workplace; and (2) the employee unreasonably failed to make use of opportunities to prevent or address harassment. A third element, sometimes included in the defense, involves a lack of materially adverse action against the employee because of their complaint. If an employer can prove these two or three elements by a preponderance of evidence, they can avoid liability.
Both Faragher and Ellerth involved sexual harassment claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Courts have also applied the defense to claims under the NYSHRL. In 2009, a federal court in the Southern District of New York declined to apply the Faragher/Ellerth defense to a case brought under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). It certified a question to the New York Court of Appeals, asking whether the Faragher/Ellerth defense was available in NYCHRL cases. New York’s highest court ruled in 2010 that the defense is not available, noting different wording in the NYCHRL compared to other statutes.