Articles Posted in Sexual Harassment

Sunset Blvd.Employment laws across the country prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. The legal definition of sex discrimination has grown over the years to encompass a wide range of conduct and disparate treatment that affects workers because of their sex. This includes both sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination. The entertainment industry comprises a major part of New York City’s culture and economy, but it also remains the setting for a significant amount of sex discrimination. This is true on both sides of the country. A lawsuit filed late last year against a major media company in California, Taylor v. OWN, alleges both sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination. The case is additionally notable because both the plaintiff and the alleged perpetrator are women. This type of alleged harassment tends to receive less media attention.

All 50 states, the District of Columbia and other U.S. territories, and the federal government have laws prohibiting sex discrimination in the workplace. The New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) expressly mentions sex and “familial status” as protected categories. N.Y. Exec. L. § 296(1)(a). The statute prohibits employers from requiring pregnant employees to take leave against their will in most circumstances, and it goes further than many anti-discrimination statutes by requiring employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” for “known…pregnancy-related conditions.” Id. at §§ 296(1)(g), (3)(a).

California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) covers the same legal ground as the NYSHRL. Its list of protected categories includes sex, and it defines “harassment because of sex” to include both sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination in many situations. Cal. Gov’t Code §§ 12940(a), (j)(4)(C). It requires employers to offer up to four months of leave to “female employee[s] disabled by pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition.” Id. at § 12945(a)(1).

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MTA New York City Bus Nova Bus LFSA (2010)The New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) applies to most public and private employers in the city. In some circumstances, another statute might preclude a sexual harassment claim against a public employer, such as a government agency. A currently-pending sexual harassment lawsuit involves claims against a public transportation authority, which was established by state law, and its subsidiaries. Jenkins, et al v. N.Y.C. Tr. Auth., et al, No. 153761/2013, complaint (N.Y. Sup. Ct., N.Y. Cty., Apr. 25, 2013). The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that state law precluded lawsuits under the NYCHRL. The court found that, while another public transportation authority in New York is exempted from suit, this exemption does not apply to all similar authorities.

The principle of sovereign immunity holds that government agencies are immune from suit when not expressly allowed by statute or agreement. The NYCHRL expressly permits lawsuits against public employers in the city. N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-401. The statute defines “employer” as any individual, business, or organization with “four [or more] persons in his or her employ,” id. at § 8-102(5), and it does not make a distinction between public and private employees. Sex discrimination, including sexual harassment, constitutes an “unlawful discriminatory practice” under the NYCHRL, id. at § 8-107(1)(a).

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is a public benefit corporation created by state law to administer a district that includes the five counties comprising New York City, the other two counties of Long Island, and Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, and Westchester Counties. N.Y. Pub. Auth. L. §§ 1262, 1263. Its subsidiary, the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA), oversees public transportation for the city. The NYCTA is further subdivided to manage subway, bus, and rail systems.
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Financial DistrictEmployment discrimination based on sex is unlawful in New York City under employment statutes at the city, state, and federal levels. It is considered to include sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination in most circumstances. A lawsuit filed late last year in a Manhattan state court alleges a pattern of discrimination that includes both of these. Castellanos v. Berkman Capital, et al., No. 159768/2016, complaint (Nov. 18, 2016). The plaintiff describes ongoing acts of sexual harassment, which allegedly culminated in termination when she asked for additional maternity leave.

Courts in the U.S. have recognized two broad categories of sexual harassment. Quid pro quo sexual harassment involves direct requests or demands for sexual activity of some sort as a condition of getting a job, keeping a job, or receiving other benefits of employment. Since this is far from the only kind of sexual harassment people can experience, courts have also recognized claims of sexual harassment when it creates a hostile work environment. The U.S. Supreme Court first recognized sexual harassment as a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the mid-1980s. It held that the harassment must be so “severe or pervasive” that it “alter[s] the conditions of [the victim’s] employment and create[s] an abusive working environment.” Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 67 (1986).

Pregnancy discrimination involves disparate treatment based on multiple factors surrounding pregnancy. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 amended the definition of “sex discrimination” to include discrimination “on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k). This can include refusing to hire someone or terminating them because they are pregnant, or unreasonably reducing someone’s job duties or hours because of pregnancy or recent childbirth. The extent to which these laws require employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant or nursing employees, however, remains a matter of dispute in courts and legislatures.

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bullyingSexual harassment violates employment non-discrimination laws throughout the country. While New York City has one of the most expansive non-discrimination statutes in the country, offering numerous protections not available in other places, the laws regarding sexual harassment have become fairly uniform nationwide. Interesting developments in sexual harassment law can occur almost anywhere in the U.S. A recent sexual harassment trial in a Texas state court resulted in a jury verdict of over $1 million. Aside from the large award of damages, the case is notable for several other reasons. More than one-third of the verdict was assessed directly against the plaintiff’s supervisor in an individual capacity. Additionally, much of the coverage of the case described it as a fight over “workplace bullying.” While bullying has received a great deal of attention in the context of schools, bullying in the workplace has no specific legal remedy apart from existing anti-discrimination law.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sex and other factors. Court decisions have established that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination under certain circumstances, such as when a supervisor or manager makes unwanted sexual advances toward an employee, or attempts to condition some benefit of employment on participation in sexual activity. It can also include remarks and actions of a sexual nature, as well as any pattern of sex-based harassment that creates a hostile work environment.

Workplace bullying does not have a precise legal definition, but it is broader in scope than sexual harassment in common usage. At least three states—California, Tennessee, and Utah—have laws that directly address workplace bullying in some form, although none of them allow private causes of action. California’s law, for example, requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide supervisory employees with training regarding issues like sexual harassment. Cal. Gov. Code § 12950.1.

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CUNYSexual harassment remains a pervasive problem in workplaces in New York City and throughout the country. Employment statutes prohibit sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination, but this only applies when a complainant’s relationship to their alleged harasser is based on employment. Other laws apply in non-employment situations in which a power imbalance makes it difficult to push back against sexual harassment. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq., addresses discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual harassment, in educational institutions. Late last year, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) announced that it had reached a resolution in a sexual harassment policy dispute with an institution belonging to the City University of New York (CUNY) system. In re CUNY, Hunter Coll., No. 02-13-2052, resolution agmt. (DOE, Oct. 31, 2016).

Title IX prohibits sex discrimination by “educational institutions,” which it defines to include both public and private schools, from preschools through colleges and universities. 20 U.S.C. § 1681(c). The statute only applies to educational institutions that receive federal assistance, although this covers a substantial number of schools around the country. Much like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX does not expressly mention sexual harassment as a type of sex discrimination. The Supreme Court has held that the statute authorizes lawsuits for sexual harassment and the recovery of monetary damages. See, e.g., Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, 503 U.S. 60 (1992).

Employers who are subject to Title VII are required to investigate claims of sexual harassment and to make reasonable efforts to remedy situations in which it has occurred. Failing to do so exposes them to liability to the aggrieved employee. Title IX is more specific, setting guidelines for educational institutions to establish “grievance procedures” and to designate a “responsible employee” to address complaints. 34 C.F.R. § 106.8. They must also follow specific procedures to notify current students, applicants for admission, parents of minor students, employees, and others of these policies and procedures. Id. at § 106.9.

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Central ParkSexual harassment in the workplace violates city, state, and federal employment laws in New York City. Under all of these laws, sexual harassment is viewed as a type of sex discrimination. An underlying assumption in many, but certainly not all, cases is that the perpetrator is attracted to the complainant. Employment laws in New York City protect a worker in this sort of scenario, but what about when an adverse employment action is based on a lack of attraction, or other purported concerns about an employee’s appearance? To put that in blunter terms, can an employer fire an employee for being “ugly”?

No employment statute in New York expressly mentions appearance, but other categories might apply in some situations. The New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity or gender expression, age, disability, and other factors. The New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) provides many of the same protections. Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 lists fewer protected categories, but the U.S. Supreme Court has established fairly broad protections under the umbrella of sex discrimination. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 also address employment discrimination.

Addressing this issue from a legal standpoint is difficult, since it is largely subjective. Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder, and some employers have successfully argued that appearance standards are a bona fide occupational qualification exempting them from discrimination laws. This has occurred in cases of men applying at restaurants that only hire female servers and women fired for gaining too much weight. All of these cases arguably involve standards of attractiveness or lack thereof. Several courts have also held that firing a female employee for being too attractive—which borders on an argument that termination was necessary to avoid sexual harassment—is not unlawful sex discrimination. Still, termination for being “ugly” might violate existing laws in certain situations.

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RCMP Musical Ride (2016)A class action alleging sexual harassment against a national law enforcement agency has led to a likely $100 million settlement, as well as a tearful public apology from the head of that agency. This is refreshing and welcome news, but people in the United States have less cause to celebrate than our neighbors to the north, since this all occurred in Canada. The class action accuses the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) of allowing widespread sexual harassment of female employees and officers to persist from at least 1974 to 2011. Canadian law is similar to the laws of the United States and New York in many ways, as they all have roots in English common law. The proposed settlement and the apology are good news in the fight against sexual harassment and sex discrimination in the workplace.

Workers in New York City have recourse against unlawful acts like sexual harassment under federal, state, and city law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex, and the U.S. Supreme Court has expressly extended this protection to include sexual harassment. The New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) provides similar protections, as does the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). Title VII applies nationwide, but not every state or city in this country has the same legal protections offered by the NYSHRL and NYCHRL.

The Ontario Human Rights Code (OHRC) is similar to the NYSHRL. It provides similar protections against workplace discrimination and harassment, and it applies to employers and employees throughout the province. Much like various court decisions from New York and around the U.S., the OHRC defines “harassment” as “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought to be known to be unwelcome.” It therefore includes both an objective definition of harassment, based on what a reasonable person would consider to be “unwelcome,” and a subjective one that addresses what the person engaging in the conduct should be expected to know.
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Staten Island FerryEmployment statutes like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) allow employees to sue their employers for sexual harassment and other unlawful acts. A plaintiff must establish standing to sue, usually by demonstrating an employee-employer relationship. They must also establish that the employer can be held liable for the alleged harassment. New York City law provides several means of holding an employer liable for acts of individual employees, but these provisions still do not take all of the features of the modern workplace into account. A New York City federal court considered whether the NYCHRL authorized an employee to sue a company that was subcontracted to her employer, based on actions by its employee. In other words, the defendant was not the plaintiff’s employer. The court identified circumstances in which the NYCHRL allows this sort of claim. Suarez v. City of New York, et al., No. 1:11-cv-05812, mem. order (E.D.N.Y., Mar. 31, 2015).

Under the common-law concept of agency, a principal is liable for actions by an agent when the agent acts on behalf of the principal. Courts apply the doctrine of respondeat superior in tort cases. This doctrine holds that an employer is only liable for actions undertaken by an employee in the course of that employee’s job duties. The employer of a delivery driver, for example, might be legally liable for damages caused by the driver while making a delivery. A similar principle applies in sexual harassment claims.

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Staten Island FerrySexual harassment in the workplace can have a devastating impact, causing financial, emotional, and even physical harm. While that impact is usually—and justifiably—the focus, it is worth noting that sexual harassment is also bad for business, not only because it can result in civil liability but also because of the damage it does to a company’s productivity. Sexual harassment can even pose a danger to the public, as a lawsuit currently pending in a Brooklyn federal court alleges. The plaintiff claims that an environment of sexual harassment led to her supervisors ignoring her communications while she was working in her capacity as an assistant captain on the Staten Island Ferry. KA v. City of New York, No. 1:17-cv-00378, complaint (E.D.N.Y., Jan. 23, 2017). A lack of contact between a ferry and ferry employees on land, the plaintiff alleges, puts ferry passengers at risk.

Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, as well as retaliation against an employee who speaks out against such unlawful conduct. The legal definition of sex discrimination includes various forms of sexual harassment, such as demands for sexual activity of some sort as a condition of employment. It also includes unwanted remarks or overtures of a sexual nature, as well as sexualized conduct that creates a hostile work environment. The New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) includes similar provisions that apply statewide, and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) provides these protections at the city level.

According to her complaint, the plaintiff has worked for the Staten Island Ferry for about 10 years, from 2007 to 2008 and from April 2009 to the present. She states that she became licensed to captain a ferry in 2010, and she has held the position of assistant captain since about 2011. She has sought promotion to captain but alleges that her requests have been met with either “vague, evasive, and ultimately empty comments” or “definitive, discriminatory remarks…such as…’you can’t stand up to the men.’” KA, complaint at 5-6.

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New York CityA former employee of a New York City medical marijuana company is suing the company for multiple causes of action under state and city laws. JP v. TO, et al., No. 158407/2016, complaint (N.Y. Sup. Ct., N.Y. Cty., Oct. 6, 2016). The plaintiff alleges that she was subjected to sexual harassment, that she faced discrimination based on her religion and her health status, and that the company terminated her in retaliation for complaining about these acts. In addition to the business entity, the defendants include several individual owners, directors, and officers of the company.

Laws at the city and state levels in New York City prohibit employment discrimination on a wide range of bases, including sex, religion, and disability. Under both the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL), sexual harassment is considered to be unlawful sex discrimination. Both statutes define “disability” in this context to include “a physical, mental or medical impairment,” and the NYCHRL also adds psychological impairments to the list. N.Y. Exec. L. § 292(21), N.Y.C. Admin. Code. § 8-102(16). They both generally define an “impairment” as arising from a physiological or neurological condition, as well as a psychological or mental condition in the case of the NYCHRL.

The plaintiff worked for the defendant as an “in-house consultant and project manager.” JP, complaint at 3. She describes herself as a Roman Catholic and a “female survivor of cancerous PASH,” a type of breast cancer. Her condition “cause[s] her a large degree of pain and discomfort” and “requir[es] her to take prescribed painkillers and muscle relaxers periodically.” Id. at 4. Her job responsibilities, according to her complaint, included licensing and compliance with state medical cannabis laws, project management, and various business planning and development activities. She alleges a variety of actions that violated state and federal laws.

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