Court Upholds Largest-Ever Civil Penalty in New York City Sexual Harassment Case

Employees in New York City who have experienced sexual harassment have several options for asserting claims and seeking damages. A New York City sexual harassment attorney with knowledge of the city’s legal system can help you determine the best route for your case. In 2015, the New York City Commission on Human Rights (CHR) ordered an employer to pay the maximum possible civil penalty allowed by the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL)—$250,000—for the first time since the law’s enactment. A state court affirmed the order in Automatic Meter Reading Corp. v New York City (“AMRC”), 2019 NY Slip Op 50464(U) (N.Y. Sup. Ct., N.Y. Cty., Feb. 28, 2019).

Sexual harassment is considered a form of unlawful sex discrimination in two situations, known as quid pro quo sexual harassment and hostile work environment. The U.S. Supreme Court first recognized sexual harassment as a violation of federal antidiscrimination law in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986). The court held that the allegedly harassing conduct must be “severe or pervasive” enough to impact the claimant’s ability to perform their job. Id. at 67. State law in New York has adopted a similar standard.

New York City courts do not view the NYCHRL’s “standard for sexual harassment violations [as] a carbon copy of the federal and state standard.”, see also N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-130(a). A complainant asserting a claim under the NYCHRL does not have to prove harassment that meets the federal “severe or pervasive” standard. Instead, they need only prove that they were “treated less well than other employees” because of their gender, and that the allegedly harassing conduct was “more than non-actionable petty slights and minor inconveniences.”

The complainant in AMRC filed a complaint with the CHR in May 2011, alleging that her former employer had subjected her to sexual harassment and hostile work environment. She further alleged constructive termination because of her gender. An administrative law judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing in late 2013 and found in the complainant’s favor on all counts. In October 2015, the ALJ issued an order awarding her front pay, back pay with interest, and damage for emotional distress. She also ordered the employer to pay a civil penalty of $250,000, the maximum amount allowed by the NYCHRL for “an act of discriminatory harassment.” N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-126(a).

The employer raised several challenges to the order in New York County Supreme Court, including lack of due process, lack of jurisdiction, errors of law, and lack of substantial evidence. The court noted that its review was limited to determining if the ALJ’s ruling was “supported by substantial evidence on the record considered as a whole.” Id. at § 8-123(e), AMRC at 4. The court affirmed the ALJ’s ruling and rejected the employer’s arguments, going so far as to call several of their due process arguments “red herrings.” AMRC at 5.

The knowledgeable and experienced employment attorneys at Phillips & Associates advocate for the rights of employees, former employees, and job seekers in New York City, helping them assert claims for sexual harassment and other unlawful workplace practices. Please contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431 to schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you.

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