Articles Posted in Retaliation

Asserting 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).

Multiple 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).The 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.

The plaintiff in Fratello worked for the defendant as a schoolteacher, and then as principal of the school. She claimed that her job was presented as a “lay” position, and it did not “impose any loyalty tests, or require any professions of faith.” Fratello, No. 7:12-cv-07359, am. complaint at 13 (S.D.N.Y., Mar. 5, 2013). The amended complaint alleged numerous distinctions between the plaintiff and the plaintiff in Hosanna-Tabor, including that she was a “lay” teacher rather than a “called” teacher. Id. at 16-17. She worked under a priest, FJ, whom she alleged was placed at the school by the defendant.

Sexual 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.

Employment 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.

Despite 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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New 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:

Sexual harassment is a pervasive problem in nearly every type of workplace throughout the country. The media have paid particular attention to sexual harassment in the film industry in recent weeks after numerous allegations of sexual assault and abuse by a prominent Hollywood producer surfaced. Some allegations are quite recent, while others go back decades. Many of those who waited to go public with their allegations may have feared retaliation by the producer or others. New York City sexual harassment and retaliation are actionable as forms of employment discrimination under city, state, and federal laws. Each of these laws imposes a time limit for filing a claim, known as a statute of limitations. Complainants alleging sexual harassment do not have to come forward immediately, but the amount of time the law allows is measured in months, rather than years.

A wide variety of acts could support a claim for sexual harassment. A claim may allege a single incident or a lengthy pattern of incidents. The scenario presented by many of the allegations currently coming out of Hollywood—in which a producer or director demands sex from an actress in exchange for a part in a film, often with a threat to damage her career if she refuses—is almost the archetypal example of sexual harassment. Unwelcome comments or jokes of a sexual nature might constitute sexual harassment if they are severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment. Unlike the first example, which might involve a single incident, a hostile work environment claim could involve more incidents than a complainant could easily remember. The time limit for filing is usually based on the most recent incident of harassment.

The purpose behind a statute of limitations is to encourage complainants to assert legal claims as soon as possible so that witnesses’ memories are still fresh and other evidence is still available. Most statutes of limitations begin to run from the date an injury or unlawful act occurs. They may also begin to run on the date that a person could reasonably be expected to have discovered an injury, such as in the case of an injury that is not immediately apparent.

Employment anti-discrimination laws all over the country prohibit sexual harassment, treating it as a type of sex discrimination. New York City workers are protected by federal, state, and municipal laws addressing sexual harassment. For many aggrieved workers, the actual harassment is not the only problem they must face. A substantial number of people who have reported alleged sexual harassment in the workplace have faced retaliation by their employers, ranging from reduced hours to termination. Many people hesitate to come forward about harassment because they fear losing their jobs. The recent media attention to sexual harassment in the Hollywood movie business has illustrated this issue, with many people waiting years to come forward, partly out of fear for their careers. Anti-discrimination laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 address this concern by making retaliation a separate “unlawful employment practice.” In addition to legal claims for sexual harassment, people can also assert claims and recover damages for retaliation.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines workplace sexual harassment in two general ways:  requests or demands for some form of sexual activity as a condition of employment or better employment conditions, or with a threat of adverse employment consequences; and pervasive conduct of a sexual nature that renders the work environment hostile. The alleged harasser’s conduct may range from “unwelcome” sexual comments, jokes, or overtures to nonconsensual touching or sexual assault. A complainant must be able to establish that the conduct was “unwelcome” and that the alleged harasser knew or should have known as much. The EEOC has stated that “a complaint or protest” against the alleged harasser can prove the “unwelcome” nature of the conduct, but some individuals might not complain or protest for fear of repercussions. This is where Title VII’s provisions on retaliation come into play.

A guidance document issued by the EEOC in August 2016 addresses retaliation claims under Title VII. Employers may not retaliate against employees who privately oppose actions they find harassing or otherwise unlawful, for complaining of such conduct to a company human resources officer, nor for complaining to the EEOC or a comparable city or state agency. In the context of sexual harassment, the EEOC offers an example of an employee who tells a supervisor “leave me alone” and “stop it” in response to the supervisor’s “repeated sexual comments.” The EEOC defines “retaliation” as any “materially adverse action” taken against the employee, which “might well deter a reasonable employee from complaining about discrimination.”

The term “sexual harassment” is commonly associated, in the public’s imagination, with certain overt acts that fail almost any test of basic decency. These acts might include unwanted touching or groping, or an ongoing pattern of sexual remarks or overtures that are clearly unwanted. The legal definition of sexual harassment, however, applies to a much broader range of behaviors, some of which are finally receiving public scrutiny. A key requirement of a sexual harassment claim is that the alleged harasser’s behavior is “unwelcome.” If a complainant appears to consent to some form of sexual activity, does that negate the “unwelcome” element of a sexual harassment claim? As we have learned from recent allegations out of Hollywood, not necessarily. Consenting to sexual activity for the sole purpose of obtaining or keeping employment, or accessing greater employment benefits or perks, is not what the law means by “consent.” It still constitutes New York sexual harassment under federal and state law.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) identifies two main categories of sexual harassment:  quid pro quo sexual harassment and hostile work environment. A supervisor commits quid pro quo sexual harassment when they request or demand sexual activity in exchange for a job or various features of a job, or under a threat of firing. A single incident can constitute quid pro quo sexual harassment if it is severe enough. An individual who submits to demands made in this context is not necessarily acting entirely of their own free will, since the cost of refusing might be the loss of their livelihood.

The idea of exchanging sex for job opportunities is quite familiar in Hollywood. Specifically, the “casting couch” involves producers or directors giving roles to actors or actresses who have sex with them, often accompanied with threats against their career if they refuse. This idea has become ingrained in Hollywood, officially condemned while also frequently overlooked. The producer at the center of the current controversy has even attempted to use this idea as a defense against the allegations, stating that he “came of age” in an earlier time, “when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different.” He specifically mentioned the 1960s and 1970s, a time before the U.S. Supreme Court had fully recognized sexual harassment as sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. The sort of behavior described in the many allegations against this producer has always been improper and abusive. The key difference is that now, the targets of the harassers have more of a voice and are finally able to speak out.

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