Articles Posted in Sexual Harassment

The New York Legislature enacted multiple measures last year addressing workplace sexual harassment. The governor signed them all into law as part of the budget bill in April 2018. One section requires employers to adopt a sexual harassment prevention policy and provide training to their employees. The bill gave them until October 9, 2018 to adopt a policy, which could be the model policy developed by the state, or a policy that meets the new law’s standards. The required training must be provided annually, which means that October 9, 2019 was the statewide deadline by which all employers must have conducted their first training. According to various news reports, not everyone met the deadline. This comes as little surprise to New York City sexual harassment lawyers, of course, but it is worth noting once again how antidiscrimination laws require constant attention and vigilance.

The New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex. N.Y. Exec. L. § 296(1)(a). Decades of caselaw have held that sexual harassment is a type of sex discrimination under the NYSHRL and similar statutes. A recent amendment to the NYSHRL expanded the law’s coverage in sexual harassment cases. While the law usually only applies to employers with at least four employees, it applies to all employers in the state for sexual harassment claims. Id. at § 292(5).

Part KK of the 2019 budget bill contains multiple new measures related to sexual harassment. Subpart E added a new section to the Labor Law entitled “Prevention of Sexual Harassment.” N.Y. Lab. L. § 201-G. This section directed the state to create a model sexual harassment prevention policy, and required employers to adopt this policy or a similar one by October 9, 2018.

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The restaurant industry is very familiar to New York City sexual harassment attorneys. The business model and managerial structure of many restaurants might never have been intended to foster multiple forms of sexual harassment, but that is exactly what happens far too often. Competition for shift assignments can lead unscrupulous supervisors and managers to take advantage of the power their positions give them. Reliance on tips can make servers hesitate to report or otherwise call out harassment. Behavior that creates a hostile work environment can go unchallenged as a result. Thankfully, many people are standing up for their rights. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency charged with enforcing antidiscrimination law, recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of several women alleging sexual harassment by a chef at a restaurant in Upstate New York.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sex and several other factors. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a). The EEOC recognized sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination in violation of Title VII in the early 1980s. Court decisions and administrative rulings have expanded the legal definition of sexual harassment over the years.

Federal law now recognizes two general categories of sexual harassment. 29 C.F.R. § 1604.11(a). Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when giving in to unwelcome demands for some sort of sexual activity is made a condition of someone’s employment or is the basis for employment decisions, including hiring and firing. A hostile work environment occurs when pervasive and unwelcome sexual conduct prevents a person from doing their job.

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Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits sex discrimination, including sexual harassment, in employment throughout the country, including New York City. Sexual harassment is not limited to the workplace, and Title VII is not the only federal statute that views sexual harassment as unlawful discrimination. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex discrimination in education. This includes sexual harassment of students by teachers or other employees, and harassment between students. Members of the women’s college swimming team filed a lawsuit in a New York federal court against their school in September 2019. They allege that the school failed to act on their complaints of sexual harassment by members of the men’s team. If you feel you are suffering from harassment that is sexual in nature, contact a New York City sexual harassment attorney to learn what your rights are under the law.

Title IX prohibits any educational institution that receives federal funding from discriminating on the basis of sex in terms of access to educational opportunities and benefits, and participation in educational activities. 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a). The federal regulations implementing Title IX do not provide the kind of specific guidance that is available for Title VII claims for sexual harassment. See 29 C.F.R. § 1604.11. The swimmers’ lawsuit cites several regulations, however, that demonstrate how sexual harassment can deny equal educational opportunity. This includes “equal athletic opportunity.” 34 C.F.R. § 106.41(c).

The U.S. Supreme Court first recognized a private cause of action for sexual harassment under Title IX in Gebser v. Lago Vista Indep. Sch. Dist., 524 U.S. 274 (1998). That case involved a teacher and a student. The following year the court ruled on a student’s claim of sexual harassment by another student in Davis v. Monroe County Bd. of Ed., 526 U.S. 629 (1999). The elements of a claim for student sexual harassment, outlined in Davis, are similar to the elements of a hostile work environment claim under Title VII. A plaintiff must demonstrate that the school “act[ed] with deliberate indifference to known acts of harassment,” and that the harassment was “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” as to prevent “access to an educational opportunity or benefit.” Id. at 633.

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Sexual harassment is unfortunately still a common occurrence in the entertainment industry. New York City sexual harassment attorneys have represented plaintiffs in television, film, music, and theater, to name only a few areas. In August 2019, several individuals involved with opera productions around the country came forward with allegations that a famous male opera singer had sexually harassed them. By mid-September, the number had grown to twenty women, including opera singers, dancers, and others. The Associated Press (AP) reported that the singer’s alleged harassment “was an open secret,” and that “young women were left to fend for themselves in the workplace.” In late September, the singer announced that he was withdrawing from an upcoming production of Verdi’s “Macbeth” at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera (the “Met”).

Employment laws all over the country prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, and include sexual harassment in this category of discrimination. At the federal level, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits multiple forms of sexual harassment. One form, known as hostile work environment, occurs when “unwelcome…conduct of a sexual nature…creat[es] an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.” 29 C.F.R. § 1604.11(a)(3). An employer is typically liable for hostile work environment when the perpetrator is a manager or supervisor. If the unwelcome sexual conduct comes from a co-worker, customer, client, or other individual in the workplace, an employer may be held liable if they knew about the conduct and failed to take reasonable actions to prevent it.

The allegations against the opera singer are reminiscent in some ways of the allegations against the Hollywood film producer that launched the #MeToo movement. The producer’s behavior was also described as an “open secret.” Aspiring actresses were reportedly warned about him and advised about ways to avoid his advances. At the same time, the perception was often that acceding to requests—or demands—for sexual activity were a requirement for entry into Hollywood. This is how the term “casting couch” came about.

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The #MeToo movement has given a voices to countless people who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Beginning with the entertainment industry, it has demonstrated time and again that unwelcome sexual conduct is a pervasive problem, and that it is often a very poorly kept secret. Much of what we have learned is not news for New York City sexual harassment lawyers or their clients. Now that #MeToo has been around for almost two years, researchers have acquired enough data to assess its impact. What they are finding, unfortunately, is not uniformly good news. While it seems as though most people understand what constitutes sexual harassment, few people agree on how to address it. A disquieting number of people, both men and women, seem willing to avoid sexual harassment by excluding women from the workplace altogether, and therefore replacing one form of unlawful sex discrimination with another.

Sexual harassment is considered sex discrimination under laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a), 29 C.F.R. § 1604.11. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) identifies three general categories of conduct that constitutes unlawful sexual harassment. Two of those are examples of “quid pro quo sexual harassment”: submission to sexual behavior is a condition of employment, whether that is stated or implied; or employment decisions depend on how an employee responds to sexual overtures or remarks. The third type of sexual harassment identified by the EEOC, hostile work environment, occurs when unwelcome sexual conduct “unreasonably interfer[es] with an individual’s work performance” or otherwise renders the work environment intolerable. 29 C.F.R. § 1604.11(a)(3).

Civil rights activist Tarana Burke coined the term “Me Too” in 2006. In 2017, its use as a hashtag on the social media platform Twitter gave the #MeToo movement its name. The movement is generally agreed to have begun in October 2017, when the New York Times published an actress’ allegations of sexual harassment by a prominent Hollywood producer. Many more women and men spoke out about their experiences with sexual harassment. People did not just talk about the perpetrators. They also talked about the environments that allow such conduct to continue unchecked. Many people tolerate, or even abet, such workplace behavior, perhaps because that often seems easier than standing up against it.

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Mandatory arbitration clauses have become a common feature in many employment contracts, requiring employees to submit their claims to alternative dispute resolution (ADR) instead of going to court. As New York City sexual harassment attorneys, we have found that arbitration often tends to favor defendants in employment disputes. It also deprives aggrieved employees of their “day in court,” since ADR proceedings are usually subject to non-disclosure rules. The state of New York enacted a law invalidating mandatory arbitration clauses in sexual harassment cases. This was meant to ensure that individuals alleging sexual harassment could have their day in court. Earlier this summer, however, a Manhattan federal court ruled that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) preempts the New York law.

Employment statutes at multiple levels in New York City prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex and other factors. Under all of these laws, sexual harassment is considered to be sex discrimination. Each statute defines procedures that claimants must follow in order to assert their rights. Federal law, for example, requires a claimant to file an administrative charge with a federal agency before they may file suit in a court of law. Mandatory arbitration clauses prevent claimants from initiating both administrative and judicial proceedings.

Arbitration resembles a courtroom trial in some ways. Both sides present evidence and arguments to a neutral third-party arbitrator, and the arbitrator makes a decision. If the contract calls for binding arbitration, the similarities to an official lawsuit mostly end. Under the FAA, courts of law may not vacate a binding arbitration award unless there is evidence of “corruption, fraud, or undue means,” or other “misconduct.” 9 U.S.C. § 10(a). A court may not modify a binding arbitration award without evidence of a “material miscalculation” or other error. Id. at § 11.

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The New York State Legislature passed a bill on June 19, 2019, A8421/S6577, that makes multiple changes to how the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) handles claims involving sexual harassment and other alleged unlawful employment practices. Section 2 of the bill adds a new provision to the NYSHRL that would effectively eliminate an affirmative defense available to employers, first under federal law and then under New York law, that is quite familiar to New York City sexual harassment attorneys. Employers can avoid liability for hostile work environment when they can establish that the plaintiff did not utilize opportunities provided by the employer to prevent or rectify alleged harassment. It is known as the Faragher/Ellerth defense, after two U.S. Supreme Court decisions issued on the same day: Faragher v. Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998); and Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998).

A hostile work environment generally occurs, in violation of antidiscrimination law, when pervasive and unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature substantially interferes with an employee’s ability to perform their job duties. The Faragher/Ellerth defense allows an employer to raise an affirmative defense to liability that consists of two main elements: (1) the employer acted reasonably to prevent and/or remedy sexual harassment in the workplace; and (2) the employee unreasonably failed to make use of opportunities to prevent or address harassment. A third element, sometimes included in the defense, involves a lack of materially adverse action against the employee because of their complaint. If an employer can prove these two or three elements by a preponderance of evidence, they can avoid liability.

Both Faragher and Ellerth involved sexual harassment claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Courts have also applied the defense to claims under the NYSHRL. In 2009, a federal court in the Southern District of New York declined to apply the Faragher/Ellerth defense to a case brought under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). It certified a question to the New York Court of Appeals, asking whether the Faragher/Ellerth defense was available in NYCHRL cases. New York’s highest court ruled in 2010 that the defense is not available, noting different wording in the NYCHRL compared to other statutes.
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Silvia Stanciu is an employment litigation attorney at Phillips & Associates. Recently, Super Lawyers, an attorney rating service that names top practitioners in each state in numerous practice areas, named Ms. Stanciu a Rising Star in New York. Additionally, Super Lawyers asked Ms. Stanciu to address whether a person working in New York can sue his or her employer for sexual harassment by a coworker.

What is Considered Sexual Harassment?

Ms. Stanciu advised that any unwelcome behavior or comments of a sexual nature in the workplace may constitute sexual harassment. Typically, sexual harassment is quid pro quo or creates a hostile work environment. Quid pro quo harassment is transactional. In other words, the harasser pressures his or her victim into engaging in sexual conduct in exchange for a raise or promotion. Thus, the victim’s employment status is affected by his or her willingness to submit to sexual activity with a coworker.

Conversely, Ms. Stanciu explained, sexual harassment creates a hostile work environment when unwelcome sexual conduct or comments inhibits a person’s ability to do his or her job.  There are numerous laws that allow people to pursue claims against an employer due to a hostile work environment. Under the federal statute, the victim must show that the harassing behavior is pervasive or severe in order to prove it created a hostile work environment. Common examples of conduct that constitutes sexual harassment include sexual texts, emails, and comments, viewing or sharing pornography, and remarks regarding a person’s appearance or body.

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Erica Shnayder is an employment discrimination litigation attorney at Phillips & Associates. Ms. Shnayder focuses her practice on assisting individuals in protecting their rights in the workplace. Due to her tireless advocacy, Super Lawyers, a service that names top practitioners in each state in multiple practice areas, recently named Ms. Shnayder a Rising Star in the field of employment litigation. Super Lawyers routinely asks knowledgeable attorneys to address pressing issues in their fields. Super Lawyers recently asked Ms. Shnayder responded to answer whether a New York employee can sue his or her employer for sexual harassment.

How Victims of Sexual Harassment Can Protect Their Rights

Ms. Shnayder stated that while people who work in New York have the right to pursue sexual harassment claims against their employers, there are steps they must take to preserve their rights. First, it is essential for anyone alleging he or she was the victim of sexual harassment to prove that the offensive conduct was unwelcome. In many cases, however, the harasser will attempt to argue that he or she was unaware that his or her sexual remarks or conduct was unwanted. Thus, if you are the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, confronting your harasser and advising him or her in clear terms that his or her conduct is uninvited and inappropriate can help to establish liability going forward. Ms. Shnayder advised, however, that you should not confront your harasser if you cannot do so safely.

Filing a Claim with the EEOC

Ms. Shnayder stated that if you are unable to confront your harasser or if the sexual harassment continues after you confront your harasser you should notify your supervisor or other upper-level management, or your company’s human resources department of the harassment. Additionally, if your company has defined procedures as to how sexual harassment claims should be reported and handled, you should follow the procedure. If reporting the sexual harassment within your company fails to halt the harassment, you can then file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is a federal agency that enforces civil rights laws, which includes anti-harassment laws, in places of work throughout the country.

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Brittany Stevens is an employment litigation attorney at Phillips & Associates who handles a variety of cases, including sexual harassment claims.  Ms. Stevens was recently identified as a Rising Star by Super Lawyers, a service that names the top attorneys in various practice areas in each state. Additionally, Ms. Stevens recently advised Super Lawyers as to what steps a person facing sexual harassment from his or her boss should take.

Sexual Harassment Defined

Sexual harassment is any conduct or behavior of a sexual nature that is unwelcome and that creates a hostile work environment or negatively affects a person’s employment. Sexual harassment can affect employees of every status, regardless of their age, race, gender, or sexual orientation.  Additionally, sexual harassment is considered discrimination. Thus, it is prohibited under local, state, and federal anti-discrimination laws.

Ms. Stevens stated that there are numerous types of conduct that may be considered sexual harassment, including your supervisor or boss touching you without your permission, sending you texts, images, or emails of a sexual nature, or requesting sexual favors.  Moreover, unwelcome remarks regarding your appearance or body, inquiries into your sexual history, and viewing pornographic materials at work may also constitute sexual harassment. Additionally, if you are denied a promotion or raise because you refused your boss’s sexual advances, it may also constitute sexual harassment.

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