Articles Posted in Retaliation

Phillips & Associates has established itself as one of New York City’s top employment discrimination law firms, with an exclusive focus on employee representation. Our attorneys have obtained more than $110 million in verdicts and settlements. Many of them have received recognition from their peers as leaders in the field of employment law. The legal publication TopVerdict recently recognized three of our attorneys for a jury verdict of $2.31 million in an employment discrimination lawsuit. Marjorie Mesidor, Brittany A. Stevens, and Nicole A. Welch represented a former employee of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) in a case that alleged hostile work environment based on race and national origin. TopVerdict included the case in its “Top 100 Verdicts in New York” list for 2018.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination against employees and job applicants on the basis of race and national origin, among other factors. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a). Multiple court rulings have established that an employer commits an unlawful employment practice when they create a hostile work environment based on a protected category. While a hostile work environment is probably most familiar in the context of sexual harassment, it can also occur when an unwelcome and pervasive pattern of harassment is directed at a person’s race, color, religion, or national origin.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 offers further protection against discrimination on the basis of race. It guarantees the right of all persons in the U.S., regardless of race, “to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property.” Id. at § 1981. Unlike Title VII, this statute allows plaintiffs to recover punitive damages if they can establish that a defendant acted “with malice or with reckless indifference to the federally protected rights of an aggrieved individual.” Id. at § 1981a(b)(1).
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The plaintiffs in a New York City sexual harassment lawsuit, which gained prominence in large part because of the #MeToo movement, recently filed affidavits containing additional allegations of harassment by the defendant against themselves and others. The affidavits are a response to a motion to dismiss filed by the defendant, a television host who lost his show after multiple women accused him of sexual harassment in late 2017. The lawsuit, filed in May 2018 in state court in Manhattan, alleges violations of the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). It names the host and the television network as defendants. The plaintiffs settled with the network in late 2018. The defendant host moved to dismiss the lawsuit in September 2018, claiming that the plaintiffs failed to state “valid causes of action” for their claims of sex discrimination, retaliation, and aiding and abetting.

The NYCHRL prohibits discrimination on the basis of numerous factors, including gender. Court decisions have recognized sexual harassment as gender discrimination in violation of this and similar statutes. Unlawful sexual harassment includes scenarios in which an employer creates or allows a “hostile work environment” consisting of unwelcome and pervasive sexual conduct, ranging from jokes or remarks to overtures or contact. It also includes “quid pro quo” situations in which acceding to demands for some form of sexual activity is a condition of employment. Retaliation for opposing or reporting suspected violations is itself an unlawful employment practice under the NYCHRL.

According to their complaint, the three plaintiffs were “all in their low 20s” when they worked for the defendant host, who was “in his mid-70s.” They began working for the network during a span of time from late 2015 to early 2017, and they allegedly experienced sexual harassment by the host during 2017. They allege that the host had a history of sexual harassment complaints going back at least as far as the 1980s, and that the network knew about this but “failed to take any remedial action for decades.”

A budget bill passed by the New York State Legislature in 2018, S. 7507/A. 9507, added several protections against sexual harassment for workers throughout the state. Part KK, Subpart E of the bill required the state to produce a “a model sexual harassment prevention guidance document and sexual harassment prevention policy” and “a model sexual harassment prevention training program.” The state issued these documents in November 2018. The bill requires employers to adopt the state’s model policy and use its model training program, or to develop their own policies and programs that “equal or exceed the minimum standards” established by the state. New York City passed a law in 2018, Local Law 96, that also requires employers to provide sexual harassment training.

The New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and other factors. N.Y. Exec. L. § 296(1)(a). The New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) contains similar prohibitions, as well as express prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and gender expression. At the federal level, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, but does not specifically mention sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. Court decisions have held that sexual harassment constitutes sex discrimination under all of these statutes.

The state released a document entitled “Sexual Harassment Policy for All Employers in New York State” in November 2018. This satisfies the state’s obligation under Part KK, Subpart E of the budget bill. The model policy states that sexual harassment may violate the NYSHRL when it is based on an individual’s actual or perceived sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. It provides procedures for reporting sexual harassment. It identifies supervisors’ responsibilities when a report is made, and outlines how investigations should proceed.
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An individual may be able to bring a claim for wrongful termination against their now-former employer. New York law generally allows employers to fire employees for any reason that is not discriminatory or retaliatory. Proving wrongful termination usually requires evidence that the employer breached a contractual obligation, or that the termination violated an employment statute. When New York employment attorneys bring a claim for wrongful termination, it is often in combination with claims for discrimination or other violations of city, state, or federal law.

At-Will Employment

Employer-employee relationships in New York are considered to be “at-will employment,” unless an employment contract states otherwise. “At-will employment” allows the employer to terminate the employment arrangement at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all, provided that the termination is not otherwise unlawful. It also allows the employee to quit at any time.

Lawful reasons for firing an at-will employee include:
– Downsizing;
– Performance issues;
– Misconduct; or
– Conflict of personalities.

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Some defendants in New York City have responded to sexual harassment lawsuits not only by denying the plaintiff’s allegations, but also by counterclaiming for defamation. This is a common-law claim alleging that a false statement has caused a person financial harm. New York City sexual harassment attorneys are familiar with many ways people have tried to prevent victims of sexual harassment from telling their stories. In some situations, the purpose of a defamation lawsuit is to prevent a person from speaking out by confronting them with significant litigation costs. This is known as a “strategic lawsuit against public participation” (SLAPP). Many states have enacted “anti-SLAPP statutes” allow motions for early dismissal of frivolous suits. Some anti-SLAPP laws provide privilege against defamation claims for statements made in connection with legal claims. New York has an anti-SLAPP statute, but it is very limited in scope.

Sexual harassment is considered a type of unlawful sex or gender discrimination under New York City’s antidiscrimination laws, such as the New York City Law Against Discrimination and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In order to prevail on a claim, a plaintiff must publicly allege all of the facts that they contend constitute sexual harassment. Unless a court orders otherwise, these details become part of the public record.

A claim for defamation requires proof of four elements under New York law: (1) a false statement made to a third party; (2) a lack of authorization or privilege for the statement; (3) negligence, or worse, as to the statement’s falsity; and (4) actual damage to the plaintiff. See Technovate LLC v Fanelli, 2015 NY Slip Op 51349(U). A false statement that alleges criminal activity, or that is intended to injure a person’s occupation, is considered defamation per se under New York law. Id. If the person claiming defamation is a public figure, they must prove that the defendant acted with actual malice.
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The #MeToo movement began in 2017 with a series of allegations against men in positions of power in Hollywood and has reached numerous other workplaces. Most of the allegations have been made by women against men, but sexual harassment in New York City and around the country can happen between people of any gender. Men can sexually harass men, women can sexually harass men or women, and so on. Last year, New York University (NYU) suspended a female professor after investigating allegations of sexual harassment by a male former graduate student. The student then filed a lawsuit alleging violations of the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). Reitman v. Ronell, et al, No. 157658/2018, 1st am. complaint (N.Y. Sup. Ct., N.Y. Cty., Sep. 14, 2018).

Sexual harassment is considered a form of unlawful gender discrimination under the NYCHRL and other statutes. The NYCHRL covers both workplaces and educational institutions in New York City. Our legal system generally recognizes two categories of sexual harassment. Quid pro quo sexual harassment involves a situation where someone in a position of authority makes submitting to some form of sexual activity a condition of employment, such as a supervisor who will only assign good shifts to an employee if they agree to have sex. A hostile work environment occurs when unwelcome sexual conduct, ranging from remarks or jokes to contact or assault, directly interferes with a person’s ability to do their job.

The plaintiff was a graduate student at NYU in the Department of German from 2012 until he received his Ph.D. in 2015. He states in his complaint that he turned down offers from Yale, Brown, and Stanford Universities so that he could study under the defendant, “a world-renowned academic and author.” Reitman, complaint at 3. He alleges that the defendant “created a fictitious romantic relationship between herself and her student,” and that she “asserted complete domination and control over his life, both inside and outside of his academic endeavors.” Id. at 3-4. This allegedly included “forcibly groping, touching, and kissing him on a regular basis.” Id. at 4.
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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.
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For the past year, the #MeToo movement has sought to shine a light on workplace sexual harassment. It has shown that, despite laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sexual harassment in New York City and across the country remains a major problem. While lawmakers and legal advocates examine the laws addressing sexual harassment, leaders in various industries are exploring ways to address the issue before the courts must get involved. The Producers Guild of America (PGA), a trade association representing film and television producers, issued new guidelines on sexual harassment in January 2018. The guidelines do not have the force of law, but they represent best practices recommended for both PGA members and others. The PGA also announced that Wonder Woman 1984, the sequel to the 2017 film Wonder Woman, would be the first production to adopt the new guidelines. If you have questions about how you’ve been treated at your job, speak to a New York sexual harassment attorney.

Experience unfortunately indicates that existing antidiscrimination statutes can only provide so much protection against sexual harassment. Title VII prohibits sex discrimination and sexual harassment in employment, but the legal definition of “employment” can exclude a wide range of people and jobs. The entertainment industry, where #MeToo began, offers an example of this problem. Many of the alleged acts of sexual harassment did not involve a specific job, such as a role in a film. Instead they were often presented as a way for individuals, usually actresses but also actors, to “pay their dues” in Hollywood.

The PGA’s Anti-Sexual Harassment Guidelines, first published on January 19, 2018, are intended to help movie and television producers respond to incidents of sexual harassment, and prevent sexual harassment from occurring in the first place. They provide definitions of the two main forms of sexual harassment recognized by law as unlawful sex discrimination: quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment. The guidelines instruct producers, “first and foremost,” to comply with all relevant state and federal laws. From there, they recommend “in-person anti-sexual harassment (ASH) training” for all cast and crew members, prior to the start of production, that focuses on “a culture of respect that starts at the top.” Producers should provide clear systems for reporting alleged harassment, investigate all claims, and prevent retaliation.

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As employers contend with issues of sexual harassment and other forms of New York sex discrimination in the workplace, parts of the federal government seem to be recognizing their own shortcomings in these areas. Antidiscrimination statutes like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 apply to private employers all over the country, while New York City’s antidiscrimination statutes provide additional protections to workers within the city. Federal agencies, in their capacity as employers, are generally bound by Title VII, amd they are also subject to internal watchdogs established by the Inspector General Act (IGA) of 1978. Last year, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a report harshly criticizing how the department has handled many cases involving alleged sexual harassment.

Under federal law, sexual harassment constitutes sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. Employees of private businesses must file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an independent agency in the Executive Branch of the federal government, in order to assert a claim under Title VII. Employees of certain federal agencies can report sexual harassment and other alleged violations to their agency’s OIG, which has authority under §§ 2 and 6 of the IGA to investigate complaints and refer matters for further enforcement action.

Section 12(2) of the IGA identifies the federal agencies that must establish and maintain OIGs. The list includes the DOJ and all other Cabinet departments, as well as agencies like “the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, [and] the General Services Administration.” Employees of these agencies are authorized by § 7(a) to make “complaints [to the OIG]…concerning the possible existence of an activity constituting a violation of law, rules, or regulations.” Section 7(b) requires OIGs to maintain the confidentiality of complainants whenever possible, and § 7(c) prohibits agency supervisors from retaliating against employees who make complaints.
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State and federal anti-discrimination laws in New York prohibit a wide range of discriminatory acts and practices, as well as acts taken in retaliation for opposing or reporting alleged discrimination. Even if an employer is found not to be liable for overt discrimination, such as New York sexual harassment, it could still be liable for retaliation against those who complained of the alleged conduct. A university in upstate New York has been embroiled in controversy for months, beginning with multiple allegations of sexual harassment against a professor and criticism of the university’s handling of complaints. While an investigation purportedly cleared the professor of wrongdoing, a lawsuit now alleges retaliation by the university and several administrators. Aslin, et al. v. University of Rochester, et al., No. 6:17-cv-06847, complaint (W.D.N.Y., Dec. 8, 2017).

Most employment anti-discrimination statutes treat sexual harassment as a type of unlawful sex discrimination. With regard to retaliation, both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New York State Human Rights Law specifically identify retaliation as an unlawful practice. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a), N.Y. Exec. L. § 296(7). Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 does not specifically mention retaliation, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that retaliation for reporting alleged Title IX violations is itself an intentional act of sex discrimination. 20 U.S.C. § 1681; Jackson v. Birmingham Bd. of Ed., 544 U.S. 167 (2005).

The controversy that led to the Aslin lawsuit began in September 2017, when the magazine Mother Jones reported allegations of sexual harassment by a professor at the University of Rochester (UR). A group of eight individuals, consisting of current and former professors and a former graduate student, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on September 1, 2017, in which they outlined a series of alleged failures by the university to investigate the matter adequately. UR administrators stated that an internal investigation had been unable to substantiate the allegations. Toward the end of that month, UR initiated a new investigation, to be led by a former chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

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