How to Pursue a Case in New York that Establishes a Hostile Work Environment ‘in the Aggregate’

The phrase “holistic approach” is popular in many fields these days, from education to healthcare to business. The word holistic, according to the Oxford Dictionary, means “characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.” What does that have to do with employment law? More than you might think, especially if you have been the victim of a pervasively hostile work environment. A recent hostile work environment case from just to our north reinforces the rule that, in hostile work environment cases, the courts must consider the misconduct not as a series of separate events but rather as a single picture to be assessed holistically. Whether the harassment you endured was pervasive or was less frequent but more egregious, a knowledgeable New York City hostile work environment lawyer can help you get the relief you deserve.

The employee in the case, V.M., was a machine equipment operator in the highway department of a town in Rockland County. The operator’s decade-long time on the job was permeated with a wide array of acts of sex discrimination and harassment, according to her lawsuit. One supervisor allegedly barred her from using the women’s restroom in the administrative portion of the highway department office, thereby forcing her to change clothes in a closet infested with rats.

A non-supervisory male member of another crew allegedly tried to close V.M.’s fingers in doors and blocked her pathway in the parking lot. A foreman on a different road crew “bullied [V.M.] by making “disgusting noises” when she passed him and blocking doorways she tried to enter,” according to the complaint. That foreman also allegedly yelled at V.M. for refusing to drive a truck that she’d previously identified as needing maintenance work.

Then there was F.D., the man who served as highways superintendent from 2016-18. According to V.M., the superintendent “regularly and repeatedly harassed [her], including by making sexually explicit verbal offers and gestures towards [her] and pulling [her] pants aside to see her underwear.” He also allegedly gave V.M. “a gift that included a … device that purportedly enables women to urinate while standing… which plaintiff found to be highly inappropriate.”

A member of V.M.’s own crew allegedly engaged in unwanted touching, including slapping her rear end.

When V.M. sued, she alleged that she had endured a hostile work environment. In rejecting the town’s request to throw out that claim, the judge offered clear guidance about how courts will assess workers’ hostile work environment claims. Specifically, the judge began by noting that a worker who sues must “produce enough evidence to show that the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult, that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to…  create an abusive working environment.”

The Importance of the ‘Big Picture’

In making that showing, harassed workers need not rely solely on extreme instances. Even if an act or inaction was not, by itself, something that would establish a hostile work environment claim, it can still be an important piece in depicting a larger picture of overall harassment. As the court wrote, even though some actions might not (when considered individually) be actionable under hostile work environment law, “whether an environment is hostile or abusive can be determined only by looking at all the circumstances including the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.”

Title VII “often requires courts to consider the workplace conduct of multiple employees and supervisors in determining whether the plaintiff has experienced a hostile work environment.” In other words, the law requires to court to look at the big picture. A worker (like V.M.) who believes she was the target of a hostile work environment can potentially defeat an employer’s motion for summary judgment (and take her case to trial) by offering the court evidence of harassment “in the aggregate,” perpetrated by multiple coworkers and supervisors on multiple occasions.

Harassment stubbornly remains an ongoing problem in workplaces in New York City and the surrounding areas. The skilled New York gender discrimination/harassment attorneys at Phillips & Associates are here to help the targets of that illegal workplace conduct. Whether you endured something singularly horrific or you were the target of a relentless deluge of inappropriate treatment, federal, state, and city law may offer relief. Let us help you decide what next steps make the most sense for you. Contact us online or at (833) 529-3476 to set up a free and confidential consultation today.

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