Articles Posted in Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination under most employment discrimination statutes in the U.S. New York City sexual harassment attorneys can bring claims under laws at three levels — federal, state, and city — depending on the circumstances of a particular case. A defendant can try to dispose of a case before it goes to trial by various means, including summary judgment. This is a type of judgment where a judge finds that no “material issues of fact” are in dispute. In February, a New York City court denied a motion for summary judgment in a sexual harassment lawsuit.

The New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of gender, including sexual harassment. One type of sexual harassment claim alleges that unwanted sexual conduct was pervasive or severe enough that it created a hostile work environment and prevented the plaintiff from performing their job duties. The NYCHRL also bars employers from retaliating against an employee who reports unlawful discrimination.

When a defendant moves for summary judgment on a claim under the NYCHRL, courts apply a “burden-shifting analysis” established by the U.S. Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). If the plaintiff can show that they belong to a protected class, that they were qualified for their job, and that they suffered some adverse consequence because of their membership in the protected class, the burden of proof shifts to the defendant to show a nondiscriminatory reason for its action. The plaintiff may then have a chance to show that the employer’s reasons were a pretext for discrimination.

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While the #MeToo movement has made progress over the past several years in exposing sexual harassment in workplaces throughout the country, much work remains to be done. New York City sexual harassment attorneys know well that certain industries remain, in many ways, a “boys’ club” where female employees are expected to endure, at best, bawdy jokes and other inappropriate conduct. A lawsuit filed in a Manhattan federal courthouse in May 2020 alleges this kind of environment in a financial firm. The plaintiff alleges “relentless, egregious discrimination” on the basis of sex, followed by termination in retaliation for speaking out about it.

Sexual harassment is a type of sex discrimination in certain situations under New York City law, New York State law, and federal law. This includes a “hostile work environment” in which unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature is so severe or pervasive that a reasonable person would find it to be intolerable. Hostile work environments often involve a culture of sexual and/or sexist jokes or comments. A single incident, if severe enough, can support a hostile work environment claim, but most claims allege ongoing patterns of behavior.

The plaintiff states in her complaint that she began working for the defendant, a hedge fund located in New York City, in the summer of 2016 as an investment associate. Almost immediately, she claims, she noticed “a sexually charged and misogynistic work environment.” She describes her desk as being “part of a large table shared by seven people…located in the middle of the trading floor…within clear earshot of every person who sat on the floor.” The company allegedly employed few women during her time there. They all, she claims, had the title of “associate” and reported to male supervisors.

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New York City employment discrimination laws protect workers from adverse actions based on factors like sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression. Under federal, state, and city law, sexual harassment is viewed as a type of discrimination on the basis of sex or gender. Laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allow individuals to file suit against employers who have discriminated against them, or who have failed to take reasonable action to prevent a co-worker from discriminating against or harassing them. In April, a former officer with the New York City Police Department filed a federal lawsuit alleging sexual harassment under Title VII and several other statutes. The lawsuit names the city and five NYPD officers as defendants.

Hostile work environment” is one type of sexual harassment recognized as unlawful sex discrimination. In order to prevail on a claim, a plaintiff must show that one or more people in the workplace engaged in unwelcome conduct that was either severe or pervasive enough to interfere with their ability to perform their job duties. Typically, they must show that a reasonable person would consider the conduct to be abusive, intimidating, or hostile beyond mere annoyance. Most hostile work environment claims involve ongoing behavior, but a single incident can support a hostile work environment claim, if it is especially severe.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit mentioned above alleges that a lieutenant, who is named as a defendant, “handpicked her” in February 2017 to work as his “Operator.” This job primarily involved driving him on patrol. She states that she felt he gave her “too much attention,” but did not complain out of fear of retaliation. While in the police vehicle, she claims that the lieutenant routinely made sexually suggestive remarks to her and asked her intrusive personal questions. This also allegedly occurred in the presence of other officers, but no one intervened.

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May has been designated as “Mental Health Month” since 1949 by Mental Health America (MHA) and other organizations. The term “mental health” applies not only to diagnosed mental illnesses but also in a much broader sense to one’s emotional and psychological well-being. Twenty percent of the population will deal with mental illness at some point in their lives, according to MHA, but everyone must take care of their mental health. As New York City employment discrimination attorneys, we see the impact that acts like sexual harassment and discrimination can have on our clients. We see supervisors, managers, and others who abuse their authority, and employers who do little to stop it. Asserting one’s right to a workplace free of sexual harassment is often an important step in reclaiming control over one’s life. New York law provides remedies that can help restore a sense of justice.

Sexual Harassment as an Abuse of Power

Employment discrimination laws in New York City recognize sexual harassment as a type of unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex. Quid pro quo sexual harassment involves situations where an employee must submit to some sort of sexual demand as a condition of employment. This could be as overt as a manager demanding sexual activity in exchange for giving someone a job, but the demand could be anything of a sexual nature which the employee feels they cannot turn down.

Hostile work environment involves pervasive and unwelcome conduct that impedes a person’s ability to do their job. As with quid pro quo sexual harassment, it could be overt behavior like unwanted sexual contact or assault. It could also involve sexual jokes or banter. A hostile work environment claim usually involves a pattern of behavior that occurs over time, but a single incident could support a claim if it is egregious enough. An employee claiming a hostile work environment usually must show that the employer was aware of the conduct, but failed to take reasonable steps to prevent it.

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Employees who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace can bring claims for relief under New York City employment discrimination laws. These laws may, at times, seem to conflict with non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), which are becoming an increasingly common feature of employment contracts and severance agreements around the country. Several months ago, the news cycle included reports on the use of NDAs to prevent former employees of a former New York City mayor, who was running for president at the time, from talking about discrimination and sexual harassment claims they had brought against his company. Recent changes to state law in New York limit employers’ ability to use NDAs with regard to discrimination claims, including sexual harassment.

Elements of a Sexual Harassment Claim

In order to prevail in a claim for sexual harassment, a plaintiff must prove that the conduct they experienced was “on the basis of sex.” The remaining elements of a sexual harassment claim depend on the type of conduct alleged:
– A claim for hostile work environment requires evidence that the conduct was unwelcome, and that it was either severe or pervasive.
– If a plaintiff is alleging quid pro quo sexual harassment, they must demonstrate that acquiescence to sexual demands were a condition of employment.
If the alleged perpetrator was not in a supervisory or managerial position over the plaintiff, they must also show that the employer knew or should have known about the harassment, but failed to act.

Use of Non-Disclosure Agreements in Employment

Employers often use NDAs in employment contracts and severance agreements to protect trade secrets and other confidential information. NDAs in severance agreements might also bar employees from disparaging the employer after the termination of the employment relationship. These can be legitimate purposes, particularly regarding the protection of proprietary information. When they prevent a former employee from speaking out about sexual harassment, they can be seen as an impediment to justice.

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As the coronavirus and COVID-19 has ravaged New York City and many other parts of the world, many workplaces have quickly adapted by allowing employees to work from home. The use of videoconferencing software is growing at astonishing rates. According to some sources, downloads of one popular videoconferencing app increased from 56,000 per day to over 2.1 million per day between January and March. Widespread use of remote-working technologies brings other problems, though. Workplace sexual harassment has always had an online, virtual component, as harassers make use of email and text messaging. With vastly more people working remotely, and fewer people physically occupying workplaces, New York sexual harassment attorneys could see more claims arising from virtual spaces.

From a legal standpoint, sexual harassment in two general scenarios constitutes sex discrimination under laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when an employee must accede to some sort of sexual demand as a condition of employment. A hostile work environment occurs when pervasive and unwelcome sexual conduct in the workplace renders an employee unable to perform their job duties. This usually involves multiple acts occurring over a span of time, ranging from inappropriate jokes to more overt sexual acts. A single incident could support a hostile work environment claim, however, if it is particularly heinous or severe.

Neither type of sexual harassment has to occur in-person for it to violate antidiscrimination statutes. Online harassment is as old as the internet itself. A supervisor or manager could, for example, commit quid pro quo sexual harassment by refusing to provide favorable work assignments to an employee unless that employee engages in explicit online interactions or sends explicit photos. A workplace that tolerates lewd jokes or other sexual banter does not become any less hostile if it moves entirely to online spaces. An employee who is threatened or discomfited by this behavior in an in-person staff meeting could be just as distressed by the same behavior in a video conference call.

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Laws at the city, state, and federal levels in New York City prohibit discrimination by employers on the basis of sex, and they all include sexual harassment in their definitions of sex discrimination. This can involve harassment by a member of any sex against a member of the same or any other sex. That said, most New York City sexual harassment attorneys would probably tell you that the type of case they still most commonly encounter involves a male supervisor or manager harassing a female employee. A lawsuit that is currently pending in a New York City federal court presents this sort of scenario. The plaintiff is alleging causes of action under laws at all of the three levels we mentioned above. The defendants include the City of New York, the police department, and multiple public officials. As a result, the lawsuit also asserts a cause of action for civil rights violations.

Sexual harassment constitutes sex discrimination in two general circumstances:
1. Quid pro quo sexual harassment: Agreeing or submitting to sexual advances or demands is a condition of getting a job, keeping a job, or other terms or conditions of employment. For example, a movie producer refuses to cast someone unless they agree to sexual activity in some form, or a restaurant manager gives the best shift assignments to servers who meet the manager’s sexual demands.
2. Hostile work environment: Pervasive and unwelcome sexual behavior renders the workplace unreasonably hostile and impedes a person’s ability to do their job. For example, an employee is repeatedly subjected to unwanted sexual comments or touching, or management refuses to address a work environment laden with inappropriate and offensive jokes.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit described earlier states in her complaint that she began working for the NYPD as an officer in 2012. She alleges that in 2015, her direct supervisor began subjecting her to a hostile work environment in the form of “unwanted physical contact” and “highly inappropriate sexual comments.” She further alleges that, after she informed the supervisor that his conduct was not welcome, her superiors reassigned her to a position she did not request, and which she states was generally “considered undesirable.” This, she claims, was retaliation for her “unwillingness to engage in sexual and promiscuous activities with male officers.”

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The coronavirus has had a massive impact on people’s lives, and their jobs, in a very short span of time. In order to slow the spread of the virus, and to give the healthcare system more time to adapt and prepare, local and state governments are urging people to practice “social distancing.” Governors and mayors have ordered businesses to cut their hours, or to close down substantial parts of their operations. As many forms of economic activity have slowed, companies have begun laying off employees. This is not, in itself, unlawful, but as New York employment discrimination attorneys are aware, it is not always the layoffs themselves that are legally problematic — it is the way in which employers carry out the layoffs.

Employment at Will

New York is an “at will” employment state, meaning that an employer may fire an employee for any reason, or no reason at all, as long as it does not violate contractual obligations, internal policies, or the law. An employer cannot fire someone because of their race, religion, sex, or another protected category, nor can they fire them in a way that creates a hostile work environment on the basis of a protected category.

Harassment and Hostile Work Environment

Antidiscrimination laws at all levels in New York City treat harassment on the basis of sex, race, national origin, and other factors as a form of unlawful discrimination.

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Domestic workers make up a significant portion of the workforce in the U.S., but few employment statutes provide protection for them against sexual harassment and other unlawful acts. New York City employment discrimination attorneys can draw on state law, which include provisions specifically covering domestic workers, but there are no nationwide protections. Last summer, members of Congress introduced the National Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights (NDWBOR). This comprehensive bill would amend the employment discrimination, harassment, and retaliation provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It has yet to receive a hearing in either chamber of Congress.

What Is a Domestic Worker?

New York defines a “domestic worker” as an individual “employed in a home or residence” for certain purposes, including:
– Housekeeping;
– Child care; and
– Companionship for “a sick, convalescing or elderly person.”
N.Y. Lab. L. § 2(16).

The definition does not apply to a person who is related to the employer, or who provides services “on a casual basis.” Id. State law also omits people who provide babysitting or elder care services “on a casual basis,” as described in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(15).
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Employment statutes that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex and other factors require employers to take reasonable actions to prevent discrimination and harassment in the workplace, and to remedy the situation when they know (or should know) that discrimination or harassment has allegedly occurred. New York sexual harassment attorneys can allege an employer’s failure to remedy a known situation as a distinct unlawful employment practice in violation of city, state, or federal law. A lawsuit filed in early 2020 by a New York City resident claims that her employer failed to act after its own investigation substantiated her allegation of assault by a co-worker. She is asserting causes of action for sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and retaliation.

Sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as New York City and State law. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which investigates alleged violations of Title VII, states that “petty slights” and “annoyances” typically do not “rise to the level of illegality.” It also maintains that “isolated incidents” do not constitute unlawful harassment “unless extremely serious.”

Employers are vicariously liable for many unlawful acts perpetrated by supervisors and managers against employees. If the alleged harassment is carried out by someone who is not in a supervisory position over a plaintiff, such as a co-worker or customer, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the employer knew or should have known about the harassment, and that they failed to make prompt and reasonable efforts to remedy the situation.

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