Articles Posted in Retaliation

metoo campaignFor 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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sexual harassmentAs 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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Legal News GavelState 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.

Legal News GavelAsserting a New York City sexual harassment claim requires not only careful planning and preparation but also courage. Standing up and speaking out can be extremely difficult for anybody. Laws like the New York City Human Rights Law and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibit employers from retaliating against individuals who report unlawful activity. People who are subjects of sexual harassment allegations may be able to respond by using counterclaims or separate litigation. A lawsuit filed recently in a New York City court offers an example of this, although this particular case targeted the defendant in a sexual harassment case instead of the plaintiff. The lawsuit alleged defamation and numerous other claims in connection with a sexual harassment case, but it was dismissed with prejudice. Cortes v. Twenty-First Century Fox America, Inc., et al., No. 1:17-cv-05634, opinion (S.D.N.Y., Jan. 9, 2018).

Defamation is a blanket legal term for false statements that cause damage to a person. Because of the First Amendment’s free speech protections, courts have established strict limits on defamation claims. A defamation claim is not likely to be an effective means of countering a sexual harassment claim, but it happens sometimes. It is useful to know how defamation claims work and how they might not apply to statements made in connection with an employment lawsuit.

The specific elements of defamation vary from one jurisdiction to another. At a minimum, it requires evidence of a false statement that caused actual harm. If the plaintiff is a public figure, they must also show “actual malice,” i.e., that the defendant intended for the plaintiff to be harmed. Church of Scientology Intl. v. Behar, 238 F.3d 168, 173 (2d Cir. 2001). Certain types of statements are considered inherently defamatory, if false. This is known as defamation per se, and it may include statements falsely accusing a person of a “serious crime.” Lan Sang v. Ming Hai, 951 F.Supp. 2d 504, 525 n. 6 (S.D.N.Y. 2013).

Legal News GavelMultiple employment laws in New York City prohibit employers from discriminating on the basis of sex, which includes sexual harassment. Employers, however, may use contractual provisions to limit employees’ ability to file suit. An arbitration clause in an employment agreement, for example, may require the submission of any disputes to a private arbitrator, which can have various advantages for employers. Another contractual provision that has received attention recently is the nondisparagement clause, which states that one or both parties may not make public comments disparaging the other party. Some nondisparagement clauses expressly prohibit making reports to government regulators, leading to concern about chilling effects on employees who might otherwise come forward with allegations of sexual harassment. Critics further allege that nondisparagement clauses provide protection for individuals who engage in sexual harassment by keeping the allegations against them secret.

Nondisparagement clauses can appear in employment agreements, severance agreements, and settlement agreements resolving litigation. They have some legitimate purposes, but keeping employees and former employees from asserting their rights under statutes like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is not among them. A series of court decisions indicates that employers sometimes use these clauses to prevent individuals from bringing lawsuits, or even from discussing their grievances with other employees. Since enforcing a nondisparagement clause involves legal action in court, it can affect free speech rights under the First Amendment.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has addressed at some length whether employees can waive protections of laws like Title VII in employment contracts. It formally adopted a policy of “preserving access to the legal system” in its interpretation of contracts with nondisparagement clauses. A body of caselaw also addresses the use of nondisparagement clauses, balancing among the various interests at issue. A New York City federal district court, for example, ruled that a nondisparagement clause in a settlement agreement “must include a carve-out for truthful statements about plaintiffs’ experience litigating their case.” Lopez v. Nights of Cabiria, LLC, 96 F.Supp.3d 170, 180 n.65 (S.D.N.Y. 2015).

New York City’s anti-discrimination laws prohibit sex discrimination in employment, including sexual harassment and numerous other forms of unlawful conduct. Occasionally, employers allege that court intervention violates civil rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year in a sex discrimination and retaliation case against a religious institution. Although the plaintiff did not directly allege sexual harassment, her complaint alleged that her supervisor made multiple unfounded accusations of sexual impropriety against her. The court ruled that her claims were barred by the “ministerial exception,” which is based on religious protections in the First Amendment. Fratello v. Archdiocese of New York, 863 F.3d 190 (2d Cir. 2017).

Legal News GavelThe First Amendment states that the government may not “prohibit[] the free exercise” of religion. The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the Free Exercise Clause as creating a “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws, holding that “the church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.” Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012). The Hosanna-Tabor case involved a teacher at a religious school who was terminated while out on disability leave. She sued for disability discrimination, but the district court dismissed her claim.

The Supreme Court noted that the school made a distinction between “contract teachers” and “called teachers,” with the latter serving a more directly religious “role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission.” The plaintiff was a called teacher and therefore fell under the ministerial exception. The opinion does not offer a clear definition of “minister.” In a concurring opinion, Justice Thomas stated that courts should “defer to a religious organization’s good-faith understanding of who qualifies as its minister.” Critics of the ruling have noted that it expands the ministerial exception beyond religious leaders to employees of religious organizations.

Legal News GavelSexual 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.

Legal News GavelEmployment 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.

Legal News GavelDespite 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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Legal News GavelNew York City is famed throughout the world for its restaurants, which offer a truly global selection of cuisine. Even the most glamorous restaurants in the city, however, are often anything but glamorous for many of the people who work there. Sexual harassment in New York City restaurants might soon gain as much notoriety as the city’s restaurants have gained fame. Renewed attention to Hollywood’s culture of sexual harassment and abuse has brought the issues of other industries in other cities to light, including the New York City food scene. A lawsuit filed this summer against a famous Manhattan hotel offers multiple examples of New York City sexual harassment in the service industry, and the ensuing months have brought further claims against restaurants and their chefs.

Federal, state, and local anti-discrimination laws identify two categories of sexual harassment, both of which are frequently present in the restaurant business. The first category, known as quid pro quo sexual harassment, involves requests or demands for sexual contact in some form in exchange for a job, or for preferable shift assignments and other features of employment. It often also involves overt or implied threats to one’s job if the requests are denied. The second category, hostile work environment, consists of unwelcome remarks, jokes, overtures, and other actions of a sexual nature that are pervasive or severe enough to interfere with the ability to perform one’s job duties. The conduct can range from offensive jokes to outright sexual assault.

Numerous features of the restaurant business seem to lend themselves to sexual harassment by supervisors, managers, coworkers, and customers. While sexual harassment is not limited to harassment of female servers and hostesses by men, that is perhaps the archetypal example, and it probably constitutes a substantial amount of the sexual harassment that occurs in New York City restaurants:

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