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Articles Posted in Harassment

Sexual harassment is a serious problem in workplaces throughout New Jersey and the country. New Jersey law views it as a form of sex discrimination. While perhaps the most common image of New Jersey workplace sexual harassment involves a male supervisor or manager acting offensively towards a female employee, it can occur between people of any gender. A pair of lawsuits filed in a New Jersey Superior Court earlier this summer allege same-sex sexual harassment. The plaintiffs are male police officers. They both claim that their supervisor, a male police lieutenant, subjected them to ongoing sexual harassment.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, race, and multiple other factors. Numerous court decisions have held that sexual harassment constitutes sex discrimination under the NJLAD and other statutes in several situations. One of these, known as “hostile work environment,” occurs when an employee faces unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in the workplace, which is so severe or pervasive that it interferes with their ability to do their job.

The first court cases to recognize sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination involved male supervisors harassing female employees. In a 1998 decision, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that male-on-male sexual harassment can also violate employment discrimination laws. The case involved a worker on an offshore oil drilling rig who faced repeated acts of humiliation by his coworkers, ranging from mockery about his perceived sexual orientation to outright assault. A unanimous court held that “harassing conduct” based on sex could violate the law even if it was not “motivated by sexual desire.”
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Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of sex and other factors. Compared to New Jersey employment discrimination law (the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination), Title VII’s list of protected categories seems short. Federal court decisions have expanded the scope of the statute beyond the narrowest literal meaning of its words, to include categories or actions mentioned more specifically in other laws. Most recently, a 2020 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court held that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In June 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released guidance clarifying its interpretation of Title VII in light of the court’s ruling.

Federal law does not provide a specific definition of “sex” in the context of employment discrimination. The Supreme Court has built on the statute’s rather sparse language in several important rulings. In 1986, for example, the court ruled in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that sexual harassment constitutes sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. That case involved sexual harassment of a female employee by a male supervisor. The court ruled in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services in 1998 that sexual harassment of a man by male employees may also violate Title VII.

The Supreme Court’s 1989 decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins expanded the understanding of sex discrimination by holding that Title VII bars discrimination on the basis of “sex stereotyping.” The plaintiff in that case claimed that the defendant discriminated against her because she did not conform to expectations of how she should dress and behave as a woman. This decision did not lead directly to last summer’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, but it set an important precedent.
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New Jersey employment discrimination law prohibits sexual harassment in almost every workplace in the state, but it still remains a serious problem. Lawmakers in Trenton introduced a bill at the beginning of 2021 that sought to address sexual harassment in political campaigns. After several revisions and amendments, the New Jersey Senate passed the bill in June 2021. A companion bill, introduced in the Assembly in February 2021, is still awaiting a committee hearing.

Sexual harassment is viewed under state and federal law as a form of unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex. Court decisions interpreting statutes like the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have identified two broad categories of actionable sexual harassment:
– “Quid pro quo sexual harassment” occurs when a person must submit to some sort of sexual demand as a condition of employment, such as a manager who hands out favorable shift assignments or other perks to employees who agree to sexual activity.
– “Hostile work environment” involves unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in the workplace, which is pervasive or severe enough that a reasonable person would find it to be hostile and incompatible with a safe workplace.

Both statutes also prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who oppose or report unlawful practices. While these laws protect a wide range of workers, sexual harassment in the political realm can be complicated. Title VII excludes the federal government itself from liability for discrimination and harassment, but other statutes allow claims against government employees, and even elected officials. See, e.g. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(b)(1), 2 U.S.C. § 1311. The NJLAD, on the other hand, includes “the State…and all public officers” in its definition of “employer.” N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10-5:5(e).
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Employment discrimination or harassment claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination usually involve actions by specific employees, supervisors, managers, or executives. In order to make a successful New Jersey employment discrimination claim, a plaintiff must establish that the employer is legally responsible for the actions of that person or those people. This is known as “vicarious liability.” The New Jersey Appellate Division recently ruled in favor of a plaintiff in her hostile work environment lawsuit, reversing the trial court’s summary judgment for the defendant. The appellate court held that the plaintiff had raised a question as to whether her alleged harasser had acted within his authority as a supervisor when he told the plaintiff to “leave and don’t come back.”

Hostile work environment is a type of sexual harassment that occurs when one or more people engage in unwelcome sexual conduct to the point that a reasonable person would consider it to render the workplace hostile. An employer can be held vicariously liable for a hostile work environment perpetrated by any employee, even if they do not have authority over the plaintiff, as long as the employer knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to act.

The New Jersey Supreme Court issued a ruling in 2015 that defined a rule for determining whether vicarious liability should apply to an employer in sexual harassment and similar claims, when the alleged harasser was in a position of authority over the plaintiff. It based this rule on the Ellerth/Faragher analysis, named after two Supreme Court rulings from 1998, Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth and Faragher v. Boca Raton. The Ellerth/Faragher analysis states that a defendant can avoid vicarious liability if it can establish three elements:
1. It “exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior”;
2. The plaintiff “unreasonably failed to take advantage of” the remedies offered by the employer; and
3. The plaintiff was not subject to any “tangible employment action” by the alleged harasser.
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As the COVID-19 pandemic shows signs of winding down, and New Jersey lifts many of the restrictions that have been in place for over a year, employers across the state report that they cannot find enough workers for their businesses. Some employers, rather predictably, blame expanded unemployment benefits. That might be one possible explanation, but it alone does not explain the reported worker shortage. Many of the industries reporting problems finding enough employees, to be blunt, do not have the best track records when it comes to fair wages, workplace safety, and other things that workers should be able to expect from their employers. Federal and New Jersey employment laws guarantee various protections for workers, and the fact that people are not hurrying to return to certain workplaces might serve as a reminder that maintaining these legal protections is an ongoing struggle.

Workers’ Rights Under Federal and New Jersey Law

Statutes at the state and federal level guarantee many New Jersey workers a minimum wage. They also protect workers’ right to a workplace free of discrimination, harassment, and unreasonable danger.

Minimum Wage

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) has set the federal minimum wage at $7.25 per hour since 2010. 29 U.S.C. § 206(a)(1)(C). For tipped employees, which include many restaurant workers, employers must pay a base wage of $2.13 per hour. Id. at § 203(m)(2), 29 C.F.R. § 531.59.
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Workplace harassment on the basis of a protected category is considered unlawful employment discrimination under New Jersey law and throughout the country. Most people are familiar with how sexual harassment violates New Jersey employment discrimination laws, but it also applies to harassment based on race, religion, and other factors. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-1 et seq., prohibits discrimination and harassment on numerous bases, as well as retaliation for opposing or reporting alleged unlawful practices. The Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), id. at § 34:19-1 et seq., protects the rights of whistleblowers who report suspected unlawful activity by their employers. A state employee filed suit in 2013 for race harassment and retaliation under the NJLAD and CEPA. In April 2019, a jury in Mercer County, New Jersey awarded him over $987,000 in damages.

The NJLAD prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race and multiple other factors. See id. at § 10:5-12(a). This includes a wide range of adverse employment actions. Firing or refusing to hire a person because of their race is perhaps the most obvious sort of discriminatory act in violation of the NJLAD, but workplace discrimination takes far more forms than that. Pervasive and unwelcome actions that create a hostile work environment based on race also support an NJLAD claim.

Employers who “take reprisals against any person” who either opposes or reports alleged violations of the NJLAD commit a separate violation of the NJLAD, commonly known as retaliation. Id. at § 10:5-12(d). CEPA provides similar protections for employees who “[d]isclose[], or threaten[] to disclose” alleged legal violations by an employer, either to a supervisor or a government body. Id. at § 34:19-3(a). This may include reporting NJLAD violations.

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Litigation is perhaps the most well-known method of dealing with legal disputes, but it is not the only method. Our legal system increasingly encourages would-be litigants to use alternative dispute resolution (ADR) before, or instead of, going to court. Many contracts now include clauses requiring the parties to submit disputes to arbitration. While arbitration may offer some benefits over the court system, it is subject to numerous criticisms in disputes involving a significant imbalance of power and resources. If you have questions of this nature, contact a New Jersey employment attorney without delay.

Court decisions interpreting New Jersey’s employment antidiscrimination statute have invalidated provisions of arbitration agreements that infringe on statutory rights. Federal law, on the other hand, favors arbitration over litigation in most cases. Several major technology companies, employing thousands of people, recently dropped mandatory arbitration of sexual harassment claims, which may allow more claims to see the light of day.

Statutes like Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, and include sexual harassment as a form of unlawful sex discrimination. In order to assert a claim under these statutes, an individual must first file a complaint with a state or federal agency like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The agency will investigate the claim, and if it determines the claim to have merit, it will issue a “right to sue” letter. This allows the complainant to file suit in state or federal court. Arbitration clauses in employment contracts prevent employees from accessing this process.

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A federal jury recently found in favor of a former employee claiming national origin and age discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and state law. Middlebrooks v. Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc., et al, No. 2:17-cv-00412, 2nd am. complaint (E.D. Pa., Apr. 25, 2017). The case is notable in part because the plaintiff alleged that the defendants, an Israeli pharmaceutical company and its American subsidiary, discriminated against him because of his “American origin.” Id. at 1. If you have questions of this nature, contact a New Jersey employment discrimination attorney.

In early 2018, the court allowed the plaintiff’s claims against the Israeli parent company to proceed under a theory of joint-employer liability. The case went to trial against both defendants in November 2018. The jury awarded the plaintiff over $6 million in damages.

Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin, among other factors, and retaliation for reporting alleged unlawful acts. 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2(a)(1), 2000e-3(a). The ADEA prohibits discrimination on the basis of age against individuals who are at least forty years old. 29 U.S.C. §§ 623(a)(1), 631(a). Unlawful discrimination may include harassment on the basis of a protected category, particularly when it creates a hostile work environment that prevents an individual from performing their job duties effectively.

Anti-discrimination laws in New Jersey, at the federal level, and in other states around the country prohibit discrimination in employment based on numerous factors, including sex. These prohibitions on sex discrimination include sexual harassment. The past few months have seen a possibly unprecedented series of allegations and revelations about sexual harassment in the entertainment industry and in Washington, D.C. Even before that, however, people involved in technology startups in California and elsewhere were coming forward with allegations of sex discrimination and sexual harassment. Many of these involved female entrepreneurs and male investors. These cases often present a legal quandary for people claiming sexual harassment, since the types of employer-employee relationships covered by anti-discrimination statutes are not always present in the entrepreneurship model. New Jersey is also home to many startup businesses, making this an important issue for New Jersey sexual harassment claimants as well.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibit sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination. Sexual harassment consists of a range of unwelcome behaviors of a sexual nature, including remarks, jokes, overtures or advances, direct requests for sexual contact, and unwanted touching or assault. This type of conduct constitutes unlawful sex discrimination when an employer makes sexual activity a condition of employment, or when the offensive conduct creates a hostile working environment for an employee. Employers are often held vicariously liable for sexual harassment by a supervisor, manager, executive, or director against someone who works in a subordinate position. If the alleged harasser is a co-worker, the employer may be liable if they are aware of the harassment but fail to take reasonable measures to address it.

Startup companies are, broadly speaking, businesses in the very early stages of development that offer some sort of novel product or service. No distinct definition of “startup” exists, but perhaps a key feature of a startup is that its operating expenses exceed its income—if any income exists—and its business model is at least partly unproven. Many startups therefore rely on investors to fund initial development and growth. Venture capitalists (VCs) are in the business of investing in startups, providing money for the company and, often, mentoring for the entrepreneurs. Many of the recent allegations of sex discrimination and sexual harassment originate in interactions between entrepreneurs and VCs.

Federal law prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of numerous factors. Common examples of unlawful discrimination include refusal to hire, termination, or harassment in the workplace because of a claimant’s race, sex, religion, etc. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes New Jersey employment discrimination claims under federal law, recently ruled on the question of how much harassment a plaintiff must allege to maintain a claim for workplace harassment based on race. The defendant argued that a plaintiff must allege an ongoing pattern or multiple instances of harassment. The court, citing the plain language of precedent decisions, held that a single incident of race-based harassment can be sufficient to sustain a claim. Castleberry v. STI Group, No. 16-3131, slip op. (3rd Cir., Jul. 14, 2017).

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is probably the most well-known federal statute dealing with race discrimination in employment, but it is not the only one. The plaintiffs in Castleberry brought their claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 rather than Title VII. This statute addresses equal rights “to make and enforce contracts” and engage in certain other activities. It was originally enacted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and Congress amended it in the Civil Rights Act of 1991. This law added subsection (b), which clarifies that the contractual rights it protects include employment claims like wrongful termination.

The Castleberry lawsuit alleges workplace harassment on the basis of race in the form of a hostile work environment. The Third Circuit has defined a five-part test for establishing a hostile work environment based on race:  the plaintiff experienced (1) intentional discrimination based on race (2) that was “severe or pervasive,” (3) that “detrimentally affected the plaintiff,” (4) that would have a comparable effect on “a reasonable person” in a similar situation, and (5) that occurred in a situation in which respondeat superior liability would apply. Castleberry, slip op. at 5, quoting Mandel v. M & Q Packaging Corp., 706 F.3d 157, 167 (3d Cir. 2013). The Third Circuit’s analysis in Castleberry focused on the “severe or pervasive” element.

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