Articles Posted in Sexual Harassment

New York City is renowned for its theater scene. Broadway theaters offer some of the best and most well-regarded productions in the world. The various levels of “off-Broadway” theaters offer everything from the familiar to the avant-garde. Given what we know about other media industries, it should be no surprise that theater workers must also deal with sexual harassment. New York City’s theater scene has taken some steps to address the issue, but it remains a serious problem. Reports from earlier this year revealed allegations of sexual harassment and assault in a popular “immersive” theater production, where audience members may interact directly with performers, and a few have allegedly groped cast members. In order to address this sort of situation, New York City sexual harassment attorneys may not only have to identify the legal relationships between the various parties, but also the ways in which the nature of the production itself could put people at risk.

Under statutes like the New York City Human Rights Law, sexual harassment is an unlawful form of sex discrimination in two broad scenarios. Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when an individual with managerial or supervisory authority demands some sort of sexual activity in exchange for employment or various perks of employment. One example of this in the entertainment world is the “casting couch,” in which a producer or director will cast someone in their production in exchange for sexual activity.

The other legally-actionable form of sexual harassment occurs when a pattern of unwelcome sexual conduct creates a hostile work environment that inhibits the ability to do one’s job. The perpetrators of a hostile work environment do not have to be in a superior position to the complainant for a claim to be viable. They could be co-workers, customers, or audience members. The complainant must, however, be able to show that the employer knew about the harassment and failed to take reasonable steps to deal with it.
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Courts routinely encourage litigants to use alternative dispute resolution (ADR). These methods offer some advantages, such as avoidance of long backlogs in the court system, but some common features of ADR tend to favor employers over employees. ADR procedures, for example, are private, and often include nondisclosure agreements that prevent New York City sexual harassment attorneys or their clients from discussing or disclosing details of their cases. This can put other employees at a disadvantage, as it keeps important information about their workplace secret. Recent amendments to New York state law seek to prohibit mandatory arbitration of employment disputes involving sexual harassment claims. That law, however, could be subject to a challenge under federal law, which is far more amenable to mandatory arbitration. It is therefore welcome news that several tech companies, many of which employ thousands of people in New York, are voluntarily dropping mandatory arbitration of sexual harassment claims from their employment agreements.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is considered a form of unlawful sex discrimination under the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL), as well as federal and New York City law. Employment contracts requiring arbitration of disputes effectively bar employees from taking their claims to court. An arbitration proceeding resembles a trial in many ways, but various features—from the choice of arbitrator to the cost of the process—are often favorable to employers. The use of nondisclosure clauses also often benefits employers more than employees. If the results of an arbitration proceeding are kept confidential, it could mean that important information about an employer is not available to employees and prospective employees.

The Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) of 1925 establishes a strong preference for arbitration of disputes, and agreements among parties to submit disputes to arbitration. The statute declares that an agreement to arbitrate is “valid, irrevocable, and enforceable” as long as it comports with the general laws governing contracts. 9 U.S.C. § 2. Courts must stay proceedings brought by a party to an arbitration agreement upon the request of any other party to that agreement. The statute directs courts to confirm arbitration awards as court orders, except in very limited circumstances. Courts may only vacate an arbitration award if a party can show fraud, coercion, corruption, or other misconduct by an arbitrator. They may only modify an award upon a clear showing of error.
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“Boys will be boys” is a phrase we have heard many times over the past year, as this country reckons with systems that have allowed sexual harassment to go unremedied at best, and to flourish at worst. New York City sexual harassment lawyers and their clients are far too familiar with the sort of mindset embodied by phrases like “boys will be boys.” For example, conduct that creates a hostile working environment, and which therefore violates laws like the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL), is written off as “just a joke.” While our job is to deal with sexual harassment through the court system under local, state, and federal law, in reality it is only one part of a much larger problem. Addressing the underlying attitudes that routinely lead to sexual harassment may be possible through sex education programs in schools. Advocates in New York and around the country, both young and old, are advocating to add issues like consent to these programs.

Workplace sexual harassment constitutes sex discrimination, which violates the NYCHRL, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and other laws. The concept of “consent” is often mentioned in the context of criminal sexual misconduct, but it also plays a role in employment law. One common form of sexual harassment is the “hostile work environment,” which occurs when unwanted sexual remarks, jokes, or other conduct renders the workplace hostile and interferes with an individual’s ability to do their job. Another involves demands for sexual conduct as a condition of employment. A key element of both is that the underlying conduct or demand is “unwelcome.” See e.g. 29 C.F.R. § 1604.11.

The topic of sex education in schools is highly controversial, and different states and local jurisdictions have enacted widely varying laws regarding what children should be taught and when. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, twenty-four states and the District of Columbia require some form of sex education as part of school curricula. Twenty states have laws that specifically require that the information provided to students be medically accurate. In thirty-five states and D.C., parents may choose to withhold their children from sex education classes. New York is not currently among the states that mandate sex education. New York City has its own law, albeit a poorly-enforced one.
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The holiday season is upon us, which means office holiday parties will be happening soon. Although the start of the #MeToo movement shortly before last year’s holiday season might have led to fewer—or at least less extravagant—holiday parties, the holiday season always seems to make some people think the usual rules do not apply. As New York City sexual harassment lawyers, please let us assure you that the rules do still apply. Here is Phillips & Associates’ guide to throwing a holiday party that everybody in the office can enjoy.

First, let us speak a bit about what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace—which includes office parties. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination under statutes like the New York City Human Rights Law in two general scenarios:

  1. Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when sexual activity, from “dirty talk” to actual sexual contact, is made a condition of employment. This usually involves a supervisor, manager, or executive making demands of an employee in a subordinate position. It can be an outright demand, e.g. “do this if you want a good shift schedule.” It can also be more subtle, such as when the circumstances indicate that rejecting a supervisor’s advances will be damaging to one’s job.
  2. A hostile work environment occurs when an employee is subjected to unwanted and pervasive sexual remarks, jokes, overtures, or advances, to the extent that it interferes with their ability to do their job. This type of sexual harassment can occur between co-workers of equal rank within a company, but then the employer is only liable if they knew about the harassment and failed to act. Many hostile work environment claims involve an ongoing pattern of offensive behavior by one or more individuals. A single incident can also support a hostile work environment claim if it is severe enough.

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Over three thousand people gathered in New York City on November 1, 2018 as part of a worldwide “walkout” by Google employees. The walkout’s purpose was to protest the company’s reported handling of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations against a former executive. About twenty thousand employees worldwide participated in the walkout. The company later announced changes to its procedures in sexual harassment cases. In situations like this, where employees take direct action to demand change from employers, New York City sexual harassment attorneys should be aware of workers’ legal rights, and the extent of protection for workers who walk off the job.

Statutes like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) prohibit employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of sex. This includes sexual harassment in various scenarios. Before aggrieved employees may go to court to sue for damages, they must make use of administrative procedures within the employer, if any, and within a government agency like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Most antidiscrimination statutes do not require employers to maintain any specific policies or practices regarding the investigation of sexual harassment allegations. The NYCHRL is an exceptions thanks to recent amendments. Employers are required, however, to apply whatever policies and practices they do maintain fairly and consistently.

The walkout by Google employees was not a “strike” in the common sense of the term, since it did not arise from a collective bargaining disagreement between the employer and a union. It still arguably falls under the types of activities protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). In addition to activities that are directly related to organizing for collective bargaining, the NLRA protects workers’ rights “to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of…mutual aid or protection.” 29 U.S.C. § 157. Employers may not “interfere with [or] restrain…employees in the exercise” of these rights. Id. at § 158(a)(1).
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The fashion industry in New York City and elsewhere around the country and the world has produced numerous accounts of the sexual harassment of models. Alleged New York sexual harassment incidents have involved photographers during shoots, or a wide range of people backstage during fashion shows, where models are often expected to change clothes without much privacy. Much of the attention has focused on female models. An article published earlier this year in the New York Times details male models’ allegations of sexual harassment. Men experience sexual harassment at lower overall rates than women, with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reporting that seventeen percent of the complaints it receives are from men. The modeling business presents an unusual situation, however, since it is one of the very few jobs where women routinely—and often significantly—earn more than men. Both female and male models have alleged various types of sexual harassment, including “casting couch” situations where they are told they must acquiesce to demands for sexual activity in order to advance in their careers.

Federal, state, and municipal laws in New York City prohibit sexual harassment, classifying it as a form of sex discrimination. Unlawful sexual harassment may take two broad forms. The “casting couch” scenario described above is an example of “quid pro quo sexual harassment,” where sexual activity of some sort is made a condition of obtaining employment, or of accessing various features and benefits of employment. The modeling business also presents scenarios that could constitute “hostile work environment.” This type of sexual harassment involves unwanted sexual behavior in the workplace, ranging from jokes or remarks to nonconsensual contact, which is pervasive enough to interfere with the complainant’s ability to work.

Models often exist somewhat outside of traditional employee/employer relationships, which can affect their ability to assert a claim under the law. They are represented by agencies, who enter into agreements with fashion brands and other companies. Those companies might be the ones to hire the photographer. According to the New York Times, the agencies and the brands point fingers at each other with regard to who is responsible for protecting models from sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of photographers and others. The photographers, the Times article states, “say they do what they do to get the best picture — which is what the clients want.”
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New York employment discrimination laws (as well as those around the country) tend to focus on the actions of individual managers, supervisors, or others; or on individual discriminatory policies or practices by employers. This approach is useful and necessary for obtaining justice for individual employees who have endured sexual harassment. It is proving, however, to be insufficient for addressing broader systemic problems that enable and contribute to sexual harassment and employment discrimination in the first place. Liability for damages in a sexual harassment lawsuit might not provide incentive for widespread reforms in companies with vast resources. Earlier this year, the State of New York tried a different approach. Instead of acting in its capacity as an enforcer of employment discrimination laws, it acted in its capacity as a corporate shareholder, alleging that a former CEO accused of sexual misconduct breached his fiduciary duties. New York City’s public pension funds later joined the lawsuit alongside the state funds. DiNapoli et al v. Wynn et al, No. A-18-770013-B, verif. am. complaint (Nev. Dist. Ct., Clark Cty., Mar. 23, 2018).

Under employment statutes like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL), unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex includes sexual harassment in two broad categories. Quid pro quo sexual harassment consists of demands for sexual activity in some form as a condition of obtaining or maintaining employment. Hostile work environment involves unwelcome sexual conduct, ranging from sexual jokes or remarks to outright sexual contact or assault, that is so pervasive that it interferes with an employee’s ability to do their job. These laws allow employees to file complaints, followed by lawsuits, seeking a variety of damages.

Lawsuits for employment discrimination can lead to changes within a company, such as when a public agency like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requires new company policies, subject to monitoring and review, as part of a settlement. Unlike this type of lawsuit, which imposes change from the outside, shareholder derivative suits are brought by corporate insiders as a means of enforcing a corporation’s rights or protecting its interests. See N.Y. Bus. Corp. L. § 626. A lawsuit brought under Title VII or the NYCHRL typically casts the employer on the side of the alleged harasser, seeking to hold the company liable for the actions of its agent. A shareholder derivative suit arguably allows a company to distance itself from the alleged acts of individuals. It is no substitute for a lawsuit that allows an aggrieved employee to recover damages directly, but it could be a useful method of demonstrating that corporations will not tolerate sexual harassment among their executives.
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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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We have learned much in the last year about not only the extent of sexual harassment nationwide, but also people’s willingness to push back against workplace cultures that allow this sort of behavior to persist. The government is no exception, with people alleging numerous instances of sexual harassment in government agencies, legislative offices, and courts. Late last year, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged that sexual harassment has been a problem in the federal court system for some time. He joined other judges who have called for greater efforts to address New York sexual harassment, both in Manhattan and around the country. In June 2018, a working group formed to review the issue made recommendations for sweeping changes to the federal judiciary’s employment practices.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, which includes sexual harassment in various forms. The statute’s definition of an employer, however, excludes “the United States” and any “corporation wholly owned by the Government of the United States.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(b)(1). Title VII’s protections are only available to federal judiciary employees who “hav[e] positions in the competitive service,” which generally consists of “positions to which appointments are made by nomination for confirmation by the Senate.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(a), 5 U.S.C. § 2102(b).

This leaves many employees without recourse under Title VII. The Judicial Conference of the United States (JCUS) has adopted a Model Equal Employment Opportunity Plan. Complaints against judges might also be possible under the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act (JCDA) of 1980, which allows complaints “alleging that a judge has engaged in conduct prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts.” 28 U.S.C. § 351(a).
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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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