New York Legislature Passes Bill Improving Protections Against Defamation Claims in Sexual Harassment Cases

Filing a sexual harassment lawsuit requires putting highly unpleasant allegations on paper, and then filing them in the public record. People of all genders have felt able to come forward in the past few years with accounts of sexual harassment in the workplace and elsewhere. Some people bring legal claims, while others tell their stories to the media. A few alleged harassers have responded with legal claims of their own, often focusing on alleged falsehoods in their accusers’ stories. Parties on both sides of New York City sexual harassment claims sometimes bring defamation claims against their opponents. Defamation is a personal injury claim alleging that a defendant made a false statement about the plaintiff that resulted in financial harm. The New York Legislature passed a law this summer that targets defamation lawsuits intended not to recover damages for actual losses, but to silence people by threatening them with expensive litigation. These are often known as “strategic lawsuits against public participation, or “SLAPPs,” and they sometimes appear in response to sexual harassment claims.

A sexual harassment complaint must provide enough information about the alleged behavior to enable the court, the defendant, and others to understand the nature of the plaintiff’s claims. Sexual harassment is a type of sex discrimination under both New York and federal law. A plaintiff must demonstrate that one or more people in the workplace engaged in hostile or harassing behavior based on sex. This may include, for example, unwelcome sexual conduct or remarks that are either pervasive or severe enough that a reasonable person would find that it created a hostile work environment.

A plaintiff’s complaint must set forth the type of behavior that led to their claims. This often includes direct accusations of harassment against one or more individuals. As a case progresses, a plaintiff must continue to gather and present evidence for their claims.

“Defamation” is a catch-all term for the legal claims of libel and slander, which involve, respectively, false statements made in print and out loud. In order to prevail in a defamation claim under New York law, a person must establish four elements:
1. The defendant made a false statement to a third party;
2. They had no authorization or legal privilege to justify the statement;
3. They knew the statement to be false, or were negligent as to whether or not it was true; and
4. The plaintiff suffered actual, measurable damage as a result.

Certain types of statements are considered inherently defamatory, including statements that falsely accuse someone of a serious crime, and false statements that are meant to harm someone’s livelihood. Defendants may raise both of these in sexual harassment claims.

SLAPPs usually involve one party with far greater resources to pursue litigation than another. The goal is not to prove that a statement was false and caused harm, but rather to use the threat of litigation costs to induce someone to keep quiet. Many states have enacted broad “anti-SLAPP” laws, but New York’s current law is very narrow. It allows people involved in “public petition and participation” to file a motion to dismiss a defamation claim shortly after it is filed. The new law, if signed by the governor, would considerably expand protections against SLAPPs for New Yorkers alleging sexual harassment.

The skilled and experienced employment lawyers at Phillips & Associates fight for the rights of New York City employees and job seekers in claims for sexual harassment and other violations on the law. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you, please contact us today at (212) 248-7431 or online.

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