New York Legislators Lower the High Evidentiary Standard in Sexual Harassment Lawsuits

New York has enacted several laws last year that were intended to help individuals who have experienced workplace sexual harassment. While those laws, which require training and other measures, may represent progress in terms of preventing future sexual harassment from occurring, critics have argued that they do little to help people who already have potential claims. In order to obtain relief in court, claimants typically must establish that the alleged harassment met a “severe or pervasive” standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court more than three decades ago. New York City discrimination attorneys are familiar with how difficult this standard can be to meet. This might no longer be the case, however, for claims under state law in New York. The state legislature passed a bill on June 19, 2019 that amends the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) to address sexual harassment specifically. Since the governor has also called for changes to sexual harassment law as part of his 2019 agenda, he has indicated that he will sign the bill.

The NYSHRL, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and other employment discrimination statutes recognize sexual harassment as a form of unlawful sex or gender discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court made this finding for the first time in a 1986 decision, Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson. The court ruled that, in order to sustain a claim for sexual harassment, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the conduct was so “severe or pervasive” that it “alter[ed] the conditions of…employment and create[d] an abusive working environment.” The New York Court of Appeals has adopted a comparable standard for harassment claims, citing Meritor and a related case from 1993, Harris v. Forklift Systems.

Critics of current New York law regarding sexual harassment—prior to the passage of the bill mentioned earlier—note that the “severe or pervasive” standard has led to court rulings dismissing many claims that seem to go far beyond any acceptable standard of conduct in the workplace. The Meritor case, according to the Supreme Court, involved “not only pervasive harassment but also criminal conduct of the most serious nature.” The ruling did not necessarily provide a useful guide for situations that were, relatively speaking, less appalling.

The Assembly passed A8421, and the Senate passed its companion bill, S6577, both on June 19. The bill amends multiple provisions of the NYSHRL, and directly addresses concerns about the standard of proof for sexual harassment. It adds a new subsection (h) to § 296(1) of the New York Executive Law, which makes it an unlawful discriminatory practice for an employer “to subject any individual to harassment because of an individual’s…sex…regardless of whether such harassment would be considered severe or pervasive under precedent applied to harassment claims.”

The experienced and knowledgeable employment lawyers at Phillips & Associates advocate for the rights of employees, former employees, and job seekers in New York City, representing them in claims for sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and other unlawful workplace practices. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your rights and options, please contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.

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