Articles Posted in Sexual Harassment

Employers often use contractual provisions to prohibit employees from disclosing information about discrimination and harassment claims. Non-disclosure clauses can bar employees from revealing information about legal disputes. Non-disparagement provisions often have a much broader scope, prohibiting negative statements about the other party. These provisions may prevent employees from warning others about their experiences. A New Jersey employment law enacted in 2019, known as the “#MeToo law,” bans non-disclosure agreements in employment contracts and settlements involving harassment, discrimination, or retaliation claims. In May 2024, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that non-disparagement agreements also violate this law.

New Jersey law does not specifically define a “non-disparagement agreement.” The New Jersey Supreme Court relied on Black’s Law Dictionary, which defines it as “​​an agreement…that prohibits criticism by one party on the other.” Non-disparagement agreements might specifically prohibit “defamatory” information, which by definition means that information is untrue. They may also use more generic terms like “harmful to the parties’ business” or “harmful to their business or personal reputation.” Clauses that use this kind of language can bar people from making truthful statements that describe harmful experiences.

The New Jersey Legislature enacted the #MeToo law in the wake of the movement that seeks, in part, to raise awareness of sexual harassment and abuse in workplaces around the world. The law bans non-disclosure agreements in employment contracts and settlement agreements that would prevent people from speaking out about certain violations of antidiscrimination laws. The New Jersey Supreme Court states in its ruling that the law “was enacted in the wake of the ‘#MeToo’ movement to protect individuals who suffer sexual harassment, retaliation, and discrimination from being silenced by settlement agreements and employment contracts.”
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Workplace harassment based on a protected category, such as sex, race, or religion, violates New Jersey employment laws. Under current state law, the legal standards for asserting harassment claims are mostly based on caselaw rather than statutes. A bill pending in the New Jersey Legislature, A2443, would amend the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) to add a definition of workplace harassment and the legal standard for making a claim. The bill would codify much of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s hostile work environment standard and disavow several court rulings on harassment claims under the NJLAD. It would also set new requirements for employers, including harassment policies and staff training.

The pending bill primarily addresses hostile work environment claims. It includes legislative findings that cite three New Jersey Supreme Court decisions from 1993, 1998, and 2007. These decisions established a test for proving a hostile work environment claim:
– The conduct was based on a protected category.
– It was “severe or pervasive.”
– A reasonable person who belongs to the affected category would believe that the workplace is hostile enough to alter the conditions of employment.
The bill also cites Justice Ginsburg’s concurring opinion in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1993 decision in Harris v. Forklift Systems. She stated that a plaintiff does not need to prove that the harassment negatively impacted their work performance. They only need to show that it became “more difficult to do the job” because of the harassment.

The bill also disapprovingly cites three decisions that limit the “severe or pervasive” standard. In 2008, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that harassment claims should be “described in sterile terms, stripped of the overlay of [the plaintiff’s] subjective reactions.” It further held that the alleged conduct “was one of the socially uncomfortable situations that many women encounter in the course of their lives.” In a 2011 decision, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court decision holding that repeated unwelcome romantic calls, texts, and emails by a supervisor did not create a hostile work environment. The Third Circuit ruled in 2013 that intentional groping by a supervisor did not meet the “severe or pervasive” standard.
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Employment disputes can often become quite complicated. Multiple issues and complaints can combine to create an untenable situation, or one grievance can turn into many. Workplace discrimination, for example, can lead to retaliation for opposing or reporting that discrimination. New Jersey employment law protects workers against numerous types of adverse actions by employers. A lawsuit filed in a New Jersey state court last month presents a complicated series of allegations, including sexual harassment, hostile work environment, and retaliation. It also alleges discrimination based on association with an individual who reported alleged wrongdoing.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibits discrimination based on sex and numerous other factors. This includes sexual harassment that creates a hostile work environment. The law protects people who have experienced unlawful acts but fear for their jobs if they come forward. Employers may not retaliate against someone because they “opposed any practices or acts forbidden under this act.” Employees have similar protections in the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA). This law prohibits retaliation against employees for reporting suspected wrongdoing by an employer.

The lawsuit described above also alleges “associational discrimination.” This cause of action derives from a 1995 decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court. The plaintiffs in that case were co-workers and relatives of an employee who had previously sued their employer under the NJLAD for retaliation. They alleged that the employer had retaliated against them because of their association with that individual. The court held that this was a valid NJLAD cause of action.
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The term “quiet quitting” gained traction on social media in 2022, and debates over whether or not it is a real phenomenon have continued throughout 2023. It generally involves employees who are unwilling to do more than what their job description specifically requires. A related concept, “quiet firing,” has also emerged. It involves an employer that, rather than directly firing an employee, takes adverse actions that drive the employee to the point of resigning. While “quiet firing” might be a new term, it is not a new concept in New Jersey employment law. Constructive discharge, in which an employer makes working conditions so intolerable that an employee feels they have no choice but to quit, may violate laws against wrongful termination, discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.

What Is “Quiet Firing”?

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) defines “quiet firing” as the practice of “intentionally creat[ing] a hostile work environment that encourages people to leave voluntarily.” This arguably saves the employer money on severance and unemployment benefits.

This is hardly new to the workplace. Individual managers and supervisors have long used these kinds of tactics to drive out employees for various reasons. The HBR, however, suggests that some employers are now being more systematic about it. It notes studies from the past few years that show growing numbers of employees who leave their jobs for reasons like “feeling disrespected.”
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Sexual harassment in the workplace violates New Jersey employment laws at the federal and state levels. A common type of sexual harassment involves demands for sexual activity as a condition of employment. This could mean that a person must submit to a sexual demand in order to get preferable shift assignments or other benefits. It can also mean that the demands are a condition for getting a job in the first place. Certain jobs, such as modeling, are particularly prone to abuse by people in positions of power. Since models do not always have a clear “employment” relationship with the person making sexual demands, employment laws dealing with sexual harassment are not always available. A recent lawsuit filed by a model against a major clothing retailer accuses the company of enabling and benefitting from sexual harassment and abuse by the former CEO. Instead of employment statutes, it asserts claims under a federal law aimed at human trafficking.

Laws like the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allow employees and job applicants to file civil claims alleging sexual harassment. In the modeling industry, it is unfortunately not uncommon for people to abuse their power in order to get models to engage in sexual behavior. Using sexual demands as a condition of employment violates New Jersey employment laws. When further coercion is involved, including threats of violence or restraint, other statutes may apply, either in addition to or instead of employment statutes.

The New Jersey Human Trafficking Prevention, Protection, and Treatment Act (HTPPTA) prohibits the use of physical restraint, violence, or threats of violence to induce someone “to engage in sexual activity…or to provide labor or services.” While sex trafficking might be the most familiar form of human trafficking, it can also be a factor in industries like food service, manufacturing, and retail. The federal Trafficking Victim Protection Act (TVPA) addresses numerous forms of “forced labor.”
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Despite many advances in the past few decades, workplace sexual harassment remains a pervasive problem throughout the country. New Jersey employment law considers sexual harassment to be a form of sex discrimination in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). At the federal level, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 views sexual harassment the same way. A recent lawsuit by a New Jersey train conductor alleges extensive sexual harassment and other forms of offensive conduct. It is one of many such lawsuits and complaints brought in recent years against the state’s public transportation system.

The NJLAD and Title VII prohibit employment discrimination based on sex and various other factors. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson in 1986. New Jersey courts have generally followed federal courts’ interpretation of employment discrimination laws concerning sexual harassment.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which has the authority to investigate discrimination complaints under Title VII, identifies two general categories of unlawful sexual harassment:
– Quid pro quo sexual harassment: Agreeing to some sort of sexual demand is a condition of employment.
– Hostile work environment: Unwelcome sexual behavior at work is so “severe or pervasive” that it interferes with an individual’s ability to do their job.
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Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination under New Jersey employment law. It can range from unwelcome workplace behavior, such as sexually-charged jokes or comments, to outright sexual advances or worse. Federal and state laws in New Jersey prohibit this type of conduct, as well as retaliation against workers who report alleged unlawful activity. They also allow employees to recover damages from their employers. In November 2022, a court in Camden County awarded $7 million in damages to a group of plaintiffs who alleged widespread sexual harassment in the dental office where they worked.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sex. This includes sexual harassment. Federal and state courts have identified two main types of sexual harassment:
– Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when an employee or job applicant must submit to sexual demands in order to obtain an employment-related benefit or avoid a penalty. A hiring manager, for example, might tell a job applicant that the job is theirs, but only if they agree to sexual activity.
– A hostile work environment occurs when a workplace features recurring or severe sexual conduct. The harassment must be serious enough that it interferes with someone’s ability to do their job. It may come from anyone in the workplace, such as a supervisor, coworker, or customer.

Eight women filed suit against their employer, a dental practice with offices in several areas of New Jersey, in 2016. They alleged multiple violations of the NJLAD. The defendants include multiple business entities and individual owners, managers, and supervisors. In an amended complaint filed in 2020, the plaintiffs describe the dental offices as a “sexual harassment playground” for several managers. They allege an ongoing pattern of “unwelcome sexual advances and flirting,” “unwanted touching and groping,” and requirements that “certain female employees…submit to sexual advances and flirting as a condition of employment.”
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The holiday season often presents opportunities for people to relax with their coworkers at a holiday party hosted by their employers. Office holiday parties sometimes have a reputation for being raucous events, often featuring abundant amounts of alcohol. Unfortunately, sometimes people use holiday parties as an opportunity for misconduct. The fact that people are drinking, or that the office holiday parties only occur once a year, are not excuses for acts that would be unlawful if they occurred at work. In fact, office holiday parties are part of the work environment regardless of where they take place. Unwanted sexual advances are just as unlawful at a holiday party as in the workplace. Employees who experience sexual harassment at a holiday party may have legal rights under New Jersey employment laws.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is a type of sex discrimination under laws like the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It can take many forms, but it generally involves unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that is based, at least in part, on an employee’s sex. It can involve a wide range of behavior, from overt sexual advances to sexually-charged comments or jokes. Courts have identified two broad categories of sexual harassment, both of which can occur at holiday parties.

Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

This type of sexual harassment occurs when someone in a supervisory or managerial position expects an employee to agree to some sort of sexual activity as a condition of their employment. The term “quid pro quo” refers to an exchange. In this type of situation, an employee is expected to agree to a sexual demand in exchange for getting a job, keeping a job, or receiving better work conditions. A classic example involves a restaurant manager who gives the best shifts to servers who submit to whatever sexual activity they are demanding.
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Employers may include provisions in employment contracts or settlement agreements that limit employees’ ability to discuss issues like sexual harassment with others. When a settlement agreement contains this kind of provision, it may mean that the public cannot learn about the employee’s experience in the workplace. Other employees could be at risk of the same kind of experience if the employer took no action against the individual — or individuals — whose conduct led to the complaint and settlement. The New Jersey Legislature passed a law in 2019 that prohibits the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in connection with claims involving employment discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. A bill now pending in the New Jersey Senate would also prohibit non-disparagement clauses or agreements in those situations. If you have concerns about non-disclosure agreements involving a workplace matter, reach out to a New Jersey employment lawyer to get legal advice.

Businesses often use NDAs as a way to protect trade secrets and other proprietary information. An employment contract might include an NDA that protects information that could be of great interest or value to the employer’s competitors. Employers have also used NDAs to protect other kinds of information besides trade secrets, such as information that could be embarrassing.

News reports have identified numerous cases in which sexual harassment settlements included NDAs. Under this kind of NDA, one of the conditions for receiving a settlement payment is a promise by the complainant never to disclose the circumstances of the sexual harassment claims. The effect of this kind of NDA has been to keep important safety information away from the public. New Jersey passed a law in 2019 barring NDAs in employment contracts and settlement agreements as they might pertain to any “claim of discrimination, retaliation, or harassment.”
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Courts in New Jersey and all over the country encourage parties involved in disputes to use alternative dispute resolution (ADR) procedures in order to keep dockets from getting excessively backlogged and free up court resources. Mandatory arbitration clauses are increasingly common in employment contracts. Many employees, as well as their legal advocates, dispute whether these clauses are truly voluntary since employees are often not in a position to negotiate those terms. They also maintain that arbitration tends to favor employers for various reasons. A new law, signed by the president in March 2022, amends the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) to prohibit the enforcement of mandatory arbitration clauses when employees claim sexual harassment.

Arbitration is a form of ADR in which the parties to a lawsuit present their cases to a neutral third party. That person, known as an arbitrator, presides over a proceeding that resembles a trial in many ways. Data generally support the perception that arbitration favors employers. One possible reason for this is because, while an employee might only encounter an arbitrator once, their employer might have seen that arbitrator many times in other employment disputes. An arbitrator may feel pressure not to alienate a source of consistent business.

If all of the parties to a dispute agreed in advance that the arbitrator’s decision would be binding, the FAA protects the decision from judicial review. A party to the arbitration may petition a court to enforce the award. If the other party tries to challenge the validity of the award, however, the court may not vacate or modify it without evidence of fraud, duress, or misconduct by the arbitrator. This type of mandatory arbitration effectively shuts employees out of the court system.
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