Anti-discrimination laws treat sexual harassment in the workplace as a form of sex or gender discrimination. In order for these laws to apply, the alleged acts must occur in a workplace in the context of an employment relationship. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements largely began in the entertainment business, in which employment relationships are rarely as certain as this. A lawsuit filed in October 2019 illustrates an area of uncertainty in sexual harassment law. The plaintiffs are former students at a now-closed acting school that had locations in Los Angeles and New York City. New York sexual harassment attorneys must demonstrate an employment relationship in most circumstances, although state law covers some situations in which no direct employer-employee relationship exists. The lawsuit takes advantage of a provision in California law that directly addresses the entertainment business.
Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when submission to some sort of sexual activity is a condition of getting or keeping a job. Some clearly inappropriate situations, however, might not quite fit this description. With the allegations against the Hollywood producer that kicked off #MeToo, for example, submitting to his alleged sexual demands was often a sort of gatekeeping, and not necessarily about getting cast in a specific film. California has enacted a law that directly addresses this kind of situation.
A person in California may be liable for sexual harassment when they are purportedly in a position of authority or power over a plaintiff, such as a “director or producer.” Cal. Civ. Code § 51.9(a)(1)(H). The plaintiff must also prove sexual advances or demands, or hostile and unwelcome sexual remarks or conduct, along with economic loss or personal injury. Id. at §§ 51.9(a)(2) – (3). The New York State Human Rights Law allows non-employees to claim sexual harassment in a workplace when they are present in a position like contractor, subcontractor, or consultant. N.Y. Exec. L. § 296-D. This may cover many of the same situations, even if it does not specifically mention roles like director or producer.
The two plaintiffs in the acting school lawsuit, a putative class action, were students at an acting school started by a prominent Academy Award-nominated and Golden Globe Award-winning actor. They allege that the actor and his business partners “dangl[ed] the opportunity to aspiring actors of employment in film and television in exchange for explicit nudity, sex and…the ‘pushing of boundaries.’” Unlike in a standard employment scenario, the plaintiffs note that they paid to attend the school. As they put it, they allege they were “duped to pay for their exploitation.” The women were part of a group that came forward with allegations against the actor in early 2018, after he appeared at the Golden Globe Awards wearing a “Time’s Up” pin.
The complaint alleges two classes. One consists of women who were allegedly sexually harassed and exploited by the defendants. The other is made up of all students, with fraud-related claims like false advertising. The first cause of action cites California’s employment discrimination statute and makes familiar allegations regarding sexual harassment. The second cites § 51.9 and specifically describes the power imbalance between a famous Hollywood actor and aspiring, unknown actresses.
The knowledgeable and experienced employment lawyers at Phillips & Associates help New York City employees, job applicants, and others assert their rights in claims of sexual harassment in the media industry. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case, contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.