Sexual Harassment Claim Allowed to Proceed Against Financial Firm by New York Judge

A lawsuit first filed in 2018 makes a series of explosive allegations against a financial firm. New York City sexual harassment attorneys are quite familiar with how the office culture of Wall Street can enable sexual harassment. This lawsuit does not allege an office-wide pattern of inappropriate behavior, but rather multiple acts of coercion against the plaintiff under threat to her job. In the summer of 2020, a Manhattan state court dealt the plaintiff a setback by dismissing several claims and striking her demand for punitive damages. Her cause of action for sexual harassment remains, though, and may proceed to trial.

Sexual harassment constitutes unlawful sex discrimination in two general categories: quid pro quo sexual harassment and hostile work environment. The allegations in the present lawsuit could be a textbook case of quid pro quo sexual harassment, which occurs when an employee is expected to submit to the sexual demands of a supervisor or manager as a condition of employment. The demands could be for almost any activity that is unwelcome and related to sex in some way. The threat associated with rejecting the demand could be overt or implied. A supervisor could, for example, demand sexual activity from a job applicant in exchange for a job, or could give preferable work assignments to employees who provide sexual favors in some form.

The plaintiff worked for the defendant employer, a hedge fund, as a portfolio manager and director of a strategy group. She describes herself as “an esteemed leader in the financial service industry” in her complaint, and describes her specialized experience in “distressed investing.” In 2015, the defendant who would become the plaintiff’s supervisor allegedly approached her about creating a new distressed fund for the employer, and she agreed. The plaintiff and the supervisor had dated briefly in the 1990’s, but they disclosed this to the defendant. She claims that the CEO, also named as a defendant, told the supervisor to “keep [his] hands off of her.”

The plaintiff began working on the new fund in early 2016. Soon after that, she alleges, the supervisor invited her to his apartment and made clear sexual overtures. She states that she “worried that if she refused him, the fund itself would never get off the ground,” so “[s]he reluctantly acquiesced.” This allegedly continued for months, with the continued support of her job seemingly on the line. Once she began refusing his advances in early 2017, she claims that he withdrew support for the fund. The employer fired her later that year.

The lawsuit originally asserted three causes of action under the New York City Human Rights Law:
1. Retaliation, against the supervisor, the CEO, the employer, and the employer’s parent company;
2. Gender discrimination, against the supervisor, the employer, and the parent company; and
3. Aiding and abetting, against the CEO.
She also claimed breach of contract and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing against the employer. The complaint demanded compensatory and punitive damages totaling $30 million or more.

In June 2020, the court granted the defendants’ motions for summary judgment on the retaliation, aiding and abetting, and breach of covenant claims. It also struck the demand for punitive damages. This allows the gender discrimination (sexual harassment) and breach of contract claims to move forward.

The experienced and skilled employment attorneys at Phillips & Associates represent New York City workers in claims for sexual harassment. Please contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431 to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team.

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