There are two sides to every story, as the saying goes. This is not usually true in the real world, but legal disputes are not like the real world. There are two sides in a lawsuit, each telling a different story. A plaintiff alleging sexual harassment will tell a story about misconduct in the workplace. The defendant’s story might include a denial that those events actually happened. At Phillips & Associates, our attorneys’ concern is making certain that our clients’ stories have evidence behind them. Asserting a claim for sexual harassment without enough evidence could result in the dismissal of one’s claims. It could also lead to liability for defamation, although this is a difficult claim to prove. A New York City federal court recently dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed by a former hedge fund manager accused of sexual harassment. The lawsuit targeted an online publication, not any of his accusers, but it illustrates how these two areas of law often intersect.
Employment statutes like the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual harassment. A sexual harassment complaint filed in court must include enough factual allegations to support a claim under the NYCHRL or another antidiscrimination law. The plaintiff will have the opportunity to tell their story as the case progresses, and the defendant will be able to present their version of events.
“Defamation” is a broad legal term that covers spoken false statements (slander) and written false statements (libel). Courts in the U.S. set a high bar for anyone alleging defamation. A defamation claim in New York requires proof, among other elements, that the statement in question was false and that it was made without any sort of legal privilege.
If a person accused of sexual harassment tries to counter with a defamation claim, statements made as part of a lawsuit are generally subject to “absolute privilege” when they are directly related to the lawsuit’s claims. A 2016 decision from the Southern District of New York addresses how far the absolute privilege extends. The court found that statements made by litigants or their attorneys before a lawsuit is filed are only subject to a “qualified privilege,” meaning that the allegedly false statement is privileged unless the speaker acted with “malice.” This is still a very difficult burden of proof to meet.
The recent federal court ruling mentioned earlier involved allegations of defamation in a news article. The defendant reported on sexual harassment allegations against a hedge fund manager, who resigned his position in connection with the allegations. The defamation plaintiff claimed that, due to injuries sustained in his youth that have left him with substantially impaired mobility, “the…actions attributed to him in 2009-2010…were physically impossible, and remain so today.”
In order to prevail in a defamation claim, the plaintiff would have had to prove that the allegations against him were false. The court found that he did not do this. It granted a motion to dismiss, largely based on the publication’s assertion that most of the plaintiff’s alleged acts, such as “subjecting young female assistants to pornography in the workplace, lewd jokes, and pervasive sexist comments,” did not involve “physical action.”
The employment attorneys at Phillips & Associates advocate for the rights of New York City employees, former employees, and job applicants in sexual harassment claims under local, state, and federal law. Please contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431 to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our knowledgeable and skilled team.