Defendant in New York City Sexual Harassment Lawsuit Countersues for Defamation

Asserting a claim for sexual harassment usually requires alleging and then describing objectionable behavior by one or more people. New York City sexual harassment attorneys must always take care that the allegations made in court filings are backed up by evidence. Individuals accused of sexual harassment may decide to strike back in court through counterclaims for defamation. State law protects plaintiffs and their attorneys, however, from liability for defamation for statements made as part of official court proceedings. A lawsuit filed in 2020 alleges sexual harassment against a co-worker and retaliation by their employer. The defendant co-worker filed a counterclaim for defamation, and included statements made in the plaintiff’s complaint as part of the allegedly defamatory speech. The plaintiff has moved to dismiss the counterclaim.

Under both the New York State Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law, unlawful sex discrimination includes certain forms of sexual harassment. One unlawful form of sexual harassment, known as hostile work environment, occurs when one or more people make unwelcome sexual comments or engage in unwelcome behavior related to sex, and the conduct is so pervasive or severe that it interferes with a person’s ability to perform their job duties. In order to make a hostile work environment claim, it is necessary to describe the harassing conduct in court pleadings.

Defamation is a type of personal injury claim for harm caused by false statements. It requires a difficult burden of proof, since it asks a court to penalize someone for the content of their speech despite First Amendment protections. The elements of a defamation claim under New York law are complicated, and depend in part on the type of allegedly defamatory statement, and in part on the extent to which the person claiming defamation is known to the public. The first two elements in any defamation claim under New York law are (1) a false statement (2) made to another person “without privilege or authorization.” Court proceedings offer a form of privilege.

New York law does not allow defamation claims “for the publication of a fair and true report of any judicial proceeding.” N.Y. Civ. Rights L. § 74. Courts have interpreted this provision to provide “absolute immunity” from liability for defamation, “regardless of proof of malice or negligence.” The statute only mentions statements made about judicial proceedings, but courts have applied privilege found in § 74 to litigants and their attorneys as well. A person who makes a false statement in a court filing might be subject to sanctions by the court and other penalties, but they may not, generally speaking, be held liable for defamation for those statements.

The privilege does not extend to false statements made outside of official court proceedings. Lawyers and their clients might not be liable for defamation for statements made in court, but they could still be liable for false statements made directly to the media or others. At all times, of course, the person alleging defamation has the burden of proving that the allegedly defamatory statements are false.

The employment attorneys at Phillips & Associates represent New York City workers in claims for sexual harassment and other violations of city, state, and federal law. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you, please contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.

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